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Refutation of several Romances about the execution of John Brown. [from the Christian Intelligencer of October 15th, 1884.]

Letter from Rev. William Elliott Griffis.

To the Editor of the Christian Intelligencer:
Having been for years desirous of testing the truth of the traditions concerning the death of John Brown, of Harpers Ferry fame, as expressed in poetry, painting, song, and so-called ‘history,’ I spent a portion of my summer vacation of this year in a trip through the Shenandoah valley. There I met, conversed with, and cross questioned living witnesses of Brown's trial and execution, both white and colored. Among these were the now venerable lawyer who conducted the prosecution, members of the sheriff's family, the present owner of the gallows on which the hanging was done, and the owner of Brown's Bible. Besides their testimony, I found in talking with old residents of Charlestown and Harpers Ferry, that both among eye-witnesses and those whose knowledge came by hearing, as well as studying every spot made memorable by the ‘raid,’ that the local traditions were not only singularly in harmony, but diverged at certain points very widely from those received as undoubted truth north of the Potomac, and especially in New England.

Believing that historic truth should be as sacred as religious truth, I ask you to give space to the publication of two documents, which I herewith enclose, each of which explains itself. Furthermore, I have more than once been shocked to find, in print and on platform, comparisons drawn between the scenes of Calvary and Charlestown, and the central figure in each scene. Believing that violence to veracity and religion is done thereby—since fiction has no place beside fact, much less falsehood near truth—I believe that you will do good to publish this letter of the Rev. Abner Hopkins, and the sworn testimony of Captain Avis. Since the Hon. Thomas Hughes, to whom the letter was addressed, took no notice of it, I requested a copy for publication in the interest of common honesty and simple truth. What is said about Brown's Bible I can corroborate from careful scrutiny of its pages. I examined the original of the jailor's affidavit, as well as the true copy of Brown's will. Furthermore, the details of the report of Captain Avis accord with what was told by the prosecuting lawyer, who was with Brown almost continuously [337] from the second day of the Harpers Ferry events until the body of the executed man was delivered to his friends.

Without expressing any political or theological opinion as to the merits or demerits of Brown's action, I submit the evidence.


William Elliot Griffis, Pastor of First Reformed Church, Schenectady, N. Y

Copy of letter addressed to Hon. Thomas Hughes, by Rev. A. C. Hopkins, D. D.

Dear sir,—I am pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Charlestown, Jefferson county, West Virginia (formerly Virginia). I read, years ago, with much pleasure your ‘Tom Brown's School Days,’ and recently your ‘Manliness of Christ.’ My attention was arrested by what you said in the eighth chapter of the last-named book respecting Captain John Brown and his treatment while in jail in this place, in the autumn of 1859. Not having been personally familiar with the scenes you represent there, I took the book to parties who were, and conversed with others still, and their testimony is concurrent to the effect that nearly every particular statement you make respecting Brown is incorrect, and that the necessary inference printed, viz: that Brown was maltreated while in legal custody, is unjust and injurious. I thought it right, and also sufficient, to ask Captain John Avis, the jailer and executioner of John Brown, to give me his affidavit touching the points made by you, which he has done voluntarily and without any sort of consideration but love of the truth. I send you herewith his sworn testimony on these points, which I hope will emancipate your mind from some of the errors into which you have been led by our Northern press, especially by Redpath's ‘Life of Captain John Brown,’ (which lies before me). Captain Avis holds the honorable and responsible office of Justice of the Peace in this county.

I ask now that you will avail yourself of the facilities offered by the public press of this country (especially the Northern press), and [338] in England, to remove from an injured Christian and humane community the unjust aspersions you have cast upon it in this matter. It is useless for us to seek through the Northern press to overtake and correct the errors, owing to the prejudice in that section against us. I ask it of you, however, in assurance that the high character and love of truth which have marked ‘Tom Brown's School Days’ and the ‘Manliness of Christ’ will not withhold the truth, and willingly offend the innocent.

It seems strange that one accustomed to weighing evidence should be misled by Redpath's book, whose extravagance classes it among works of romance and fiction, and awakens the suspicion of pure sensationalism. Lying before me is another volume, ‘Reminiscences of Old John Brown,’ by G. W. Brown, M. D., Rockford, Illinois, 1880. The author of this book was a co-worker with John Brown in Kansas, in full sympathy in politics and with him, but not in his wicked policy of violence, murder and massacre. He asserts and proves that John Brown was the responsible and guilty author of the ‘Pottawattomie massacre’ of five families in Kansas, with torments and cruelties worthy of savagery. The Hon. Eli Thayer, of Massachusetts, an abolitionist, in review of Dr. Brown's book, says: ‘The writer's confidence has been many times abused, but never in any other instance so grossly and wickedly abused as by John Brown. * * * But whether sane or insane, he acted well the part of heavy villain in the Kansas drama.’ (Italics his). We know, and records prove, that John Brown, after full and fair trial before the proper civil tribunal was duly convicted of murders, including a negro slave's.

You will hardly feel surprised, therefore, if people of the South gaze in amazement at finding that you introduce such a man's character and behaviour into your book on the ‘Manliness of Christ,’ or that Christian readers, familiar with the facts of his imprisonment and death, feel offended in seeing him brought into comparison with Christ! The very copy of the Bible, owned and used by him in jail here, lies before me. Its passages touching ‘oppression,’ etc., etc., are heavily and frequently pencilled, but no pencil mark distinguishes or emphasizes a single passage that is distinctively Christian. He was religious, but not Christian: religion was the crutch on which his fanaticism walked. It was the ‘higher law’ religion, under whose baleful influence many tears have been wrung from the innocent, and the buttresses of governments have fairly crumbled, and the order and stability of society have been made to tremble on your continent [339] and ours. It has found further development in assassinations, of the Czar in Russia, of the Emperor in Germany, of your own Lord Lieutenant and Secretary in Ireland, and of our own President. There are many points of resemblance between the behavior of John Brown and Guiteau; both claimed to be ‘God's Man,’ to be doing God's work, to be receiving strength from God; and Guiteau exceeded Brown in the resolution with which he met death. I cannot imagine that any man will use Guiteau's death as the analogue of Christ's; no more should John Brown's be so used.

But truth and brotherly kindness have required me to write this letter to you privately, to give you the opportunity of making the proper correction and amende.

Yours very truly,

P. S. I take the liberty of referring you to Rev. Frank Aglionby, of the Church of England, whose charge is near Oxford. This I do, however, without his knowledge or consent.

A. C. H. [Note.—We feel constrained to say that, while it was very proper for Dr. Hopkins to give Mr. Hughes a reference in England, those of us who knew his record as the chaplain of the Second Virginia regiment, and after the capture of most of those gallant men at Spotsylvania Courthouse, an efficient member of the staff of General John B. Gordon, and as conspicuous for gallantry as for the irreproachable character of a minister of the Gospel which he has ever maintained, need no confirmation of any statement which Dr. A. C. Hopkins may make.

J. Wm. Jones, Sec'y S. H. S.]

Exact copy of affidavit made by Captain John Avis, the Jailer and executioner of Captain John Brown. Affidavit.

I, John Avis, a Justice of the Peace of the County of Jefferson, State of West Virginia, under oath do solemnly declare that I was Deputy Sheriff and Jailer of Jefferson county, Virginia, in 1859, during the whole time that Captain John Brown was in prison and [340] on trial for his conduct in what is familiarly known as the Harper's Ferry Raid; that I was with him daily during this whole period; that the personal relations between him and me were of the most pleasant character; that Sheriff James W. Campbell and I escorted him from his cell the morning of his execution, one on either side of him; that Sheriff Campbell and I rode with Captain Brown in a wagon from the jail door to the scaffold, one on either side; that I heard every word that Captain Brown spoke from the time he left the jail till his death; that Sheriff Campbell (now deceased) and I were the only persons with him on the scaffold.

I have this day read, in the early part of Chapter VIII, of a book styled the ‘Manliness of Christ,’ by Thomas Hughes, Q. C.—New York: American Book Exchange. Tribune Building. 1880—the following paragraph, to-wit:

‘Now, I freely admit that there is no recorded end of a life that I know of more entirely brave and manly than this one of Captain John Brown, of which we know every minutest detail, as it happened in the full glare of our modern life not twenty years ago. About that, I think, there would scarcely be disagreement anywhere. The very men who allowed him to lie in his bloody clothes till the day of his execution, and then hanged him, recognized this. “You are a game man, Captain Brown,” the Southern sheriff said in the wagon. “Yes,” he answered, “I was so brought up. It was one of my mother's lessons. From infancy I have not suffered from physical fear. I have suffered a thousand times more from bashfulness;” and then he kissed a negro child in its mother's arms and walked cheerfully on to the scaffold, thankful that he was “allowed to die for a cause, and not merely to pay the debt of nature as all must.” ’

Respecting the statements contained in the above paragraph, quoted from the book above mentioned, I solemnly declare:

1. That Captain John Brown was not ‘allowed to lie in his bloody clothes till the day of his execution,’ but that he was furnished with a change of clothing as promptly as prisoners in such condition usually are; that he was allowed all the clothing he desired; and that his washing was done at his will, without cost to himself. As an officer, charged with his custody, I saw that he was at all times and by all persons treated kindly, properly and respectfully. I have no recollection that there ever was any attempt made to humiliate or maltreat him. Captain Brown took many occasions to thank me for my kindness to him, and spoke of it to many persons, including his wife. In further proof of the kindness he received at my hands, I will state that [341] Captain Brown, in his last written will and testament, bequeathed to me his Sharpe's rifle and a pistol. Furthermore, on the night before his execution, Captain Brown and his wife, upon my invitation, took supper with me and my family at our table in our residence, which was a part of the jail building.

2. I have no recollection that the Sheriff said to Captain Brown ‘you are a game man,’ and received the reply quoted in the above paragraph, or that any similar remarks were made by either of the parties. I am sure that neither these remarks nor any like them were made at the time. The only remarks made by Captain Brown between his cell and the scaffold were commonplace remarks about the beauty of the country and the weather.

3. The statement that ‘he kissed a negro child in its mother's arms,’ is wholly incorrect. Nothing of this sort occurred. Nothing of the sort could have occurred, for his hands, as usual in such cases, were confined behind him before he left the jail. He was between Sheriff Campbell and me, and a guard of soldiers surrounded him and allowed no person to come between them and the prisoner, from the jail to the scaffold, except his escorts.

4. Respecting the statement that he ‘walked cheerfully to the scaffold,’ I will say that I did not think his bearing on the scaffold was conspicuous for its heroism—yet not cowardly.

5. Whether he was ‘thankful that he was allowed to die for a cause, and not merely to pay the debt of nature as all must’ or not, I cannot say what was in his heart; but if this clause means, as the quotation marks would seem to indicate, that Captain Brown used any such language or said anything on this subject, it is entirely incorrect. Captain Brown said nothing like it. The only thing that he did say, at or on the scaffold was to take leave of us, and then, just about the time the noose was adjusted, he said, ‘Be quick.’


John Avis. Charlestown, W. Va., April 25th, 1882.

I, Cleon Moore, a Notary Public in and for the county of Jefferson, State aforesaid, hereby certify that John Avis, whose name is signed to the foregoing affidavit, this day personally appeared before me, in my county aforesaid, and made oath that the statements contained in said affidavit are true, to the best of his knowledge and belief. [342]

Given under my hand and notarial seal, at Charlestown, West Virginia, this 25th day of April, 1882.


Cleon Moore, Notary Public.
Note.—Mr. Cleon Moore's certificate above is stamped with his public official seal.

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