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Chapter 1: the preliminary examination.

The prisoners were formally committed to jail on the 20th of October, by a Justice of the Peace of Charlestown, on the oaths of Henry A. Wise and two others, “for feloniously conspiring with each other-, and other persons unknown, to make an abolition insurrection and open war against the Commonwealth of Virginia,” and for the additional crimes of murder and “conspiring with slaves to rebel and to make insurrection.” On the same day a warrant was issued to the Sheriff, commanding him to summon eight Justices of the Peace to hold a Preliminary Court of Examination on the 25th of October.

On the day thus appointed the Preliminary Court assembled; a person named Colonel Davenport presiding. At half past 10 o'clock in the forenoon, the prisoners were conducted from the jail under a guard of eighty armed men. Another military force was stationed around “the Court House, which was bristling with bayonets on all sides.”

John Brown and Coppie were manacled together. “The prisoners, as brought into Court,” writes a proslavery [292] eye witness, “presented a pitiable sight, Brown and Stevens being unable to stand without assistance. Brown had three sword cuts in his body, and one sabre cut over the head. Stevens had three balls in his head and two in his breast, and one in his arm. He was also cut on the forehead with a rifle bullet, which glanced off, leaving a bad wound. Brown seemed weak and haggard, with eyes swollen from the effects of wounds on the head. Stevens seemed less injured than Brown, but looked haggard and depressed.”

Never before, in our Christian country, or in any other civilized land, were men, thus suffering and disabled, dragged from their beds of sickness to a Court of Justice, to be tried for a capital offence. Judge Jeffreys, of England, never fully equalled this atrocity; it needed, for its. perpetration, men brutalized by the influence of American slavery.

Charles B. Harding, attorney for the County of Jefferson, and Andrew Hunter, counsel for the State, appeared for the prosecution. The Sheriff read the commitment of the prisoners, and the Prosecuting Attorney asked the Court that counsel might be assigned them. The Presiding Magistrate then inquired if the prisoners had counsel.

John Brown replied:

First speech in court.

Virginians: I did not ask for any quarter at the time I was taken. I did not ask to have my life spared. The Governor of the State of Virginia tendered me his assurance that I should have a fair trial; but under no circumstances whatever, will I be able to attend to my trial. If you seek my blood, you can have it at any moment without this mockery of a trial.

I have had no counsel. I have not been able to advise with any [293] one. I know nothing about the feelings of my fellow-prisoners, and am utterly unable to attend in any way to my own defence. My memory don't serve me. My health is insufficient, although improving.

If a fair trial is to be allowed us, there are mitigating circumstances. that I would urge in our favor. But, if we are to be forced with a mere form — a trial for execution — you might spare yourselves that trouble. I am ready for my fate. I do not ask a trial. I beg for no mockery of a trial — no insult — nothing but that which conscience gives or cowardice would drive you to practise.

I ask again to be excused from the mockery of a trial. I do not know what the special design of this examination is. I do not know what is to be the benefit of it to the Commonwealth. I have now little further to ask, other than that I may be not foolishly insulted, only as cowardly barbarians insult those who fall into their power.

Without paying the slightest attention to this brave speech, calmly delivered in the midst of infuriated enemies, the Court assigned Charles J. Faulkner and Lawson Botts, both Virginians and pro-slavery men, as counsel for the defendants. Mr. Faulkner, after consultation with the prisoners, desired to decline the appointment,--because he doubted the authority of the Court to order him to defend them; because John Brown had declared that such a defence would be a mockery; and because, having been at the place of action, and having heard all the admissions of the defendants, it would be improper and inexpedient for him to be their counsel. But if the Court peremptorily ordered him, and the prisoners consented, he would see that full justice was done them. Mr. Botts accepted.

Mr. Harding then asked John Brown if he was willing to accept these gentlemen as counsel.

John Brown replied: “I wish to say that I have sent for counsel. I did apply, through the advice of some persons here, to some persons whose names I do not now recollect, to act as counsel for me; and I have sent for other counsel, who have not had time to reach here, and have had no possible opportunity to see me. I wish for counsel, if I am to have a trial; but if I am to have nothing but the mockery of a [294] trial, as I said, I do not care any thing about counsel. It is unnecessary to trouble any gentleman with that duty.”

Mr. Harding. “You are to have a fair trial.”

John Brown. “There were certain men-I think Mr. Botts was one of them — who declined acting as counsel, but I am not positive about it; I cannot remember whether he was one, because I have heard so many names. I am a stranger here, and do not know the disposition or character of the gentlemen named. I have applied for counsel of my own, and doubtless could have them, if I am not, as I have said before, to be hurried to execution before they can reach here. But if that is the disposition that is to be made of me, all this trouble and expense can be saved.”

Mr. Harding. “The question is, do you desire the aid of Messrs. Faulkner and Botts as your counsel? Please to answer yes or no.”

John Brown. “I cannot regard this as an examination under any circumstances. I would prefer that they should exercise their own pleasure. I feel it as a matter of little account to me. If they had designed to assist me as counsel, I should have wanted an opportunity to consult with them at my leisure.”

Mr. Harding. “Stevens, are you willing those gentlemen should act as your counsel?”

Stevens. “I am willing that gentleman shall,” (pointing to Mr. Botts.)

Mr. Harding. “Do you object to Faulkner?” Stevens. “No; I am willing to take both.”

Mr. Harding then addressed each of the other prisoners separately, and each stated his willingness to be defended by the counsel named.

The Court then issued peremptory orders that the press should not publish detailed testimony, as it would render the getting of a jury before the Circuit Court impossible. 1

Eight witnesses were then examined, who testified to the arrest of citizens, the occupation of the armory, the fight, the casualties of the conflict, and the self-avowed object of the liberators. Kitzmillar admitted that Stevens was fired at and shot while under a flag of truce, with which, accompanied by the witness, and at his request, he had left the armory, to permit him to try to “accommodate matters” for the safety of the citizens [295] detained there; that Brown, while the Virginia prisoners were in his power, treated them with great courtesy and respect; and repeatedly stated that his only object was to liberate the negroes, and that, to accomplish it, he was willing to fight the pro-slavery men. The witnesses who were prisoners in the Armory also testified that during the conflict they were requested by the Liberators to keep themselves out of the fire of the marines. One thought that Coppic shot Beckman, and Brown the marine.

At one stage of the proceedings, Stevens, weak from his wounds, appeared to be fainting, and a mattress was procured for him, on which he reposed during the remainder of the examination. What a scene for an American Court!

The prisoners were of course remanded to the Circuit Court for trial.

The telegraph, although entirely managed by the partisans of Slavery at this time, involuntarily told truths disgraceful to Virginia, and illustrative of the effect of her iniquitous institution on the character of her citizens of every rank, as well as of the danger that this criminal tenacity to Human Slavery creates to the stability of Southern society. Two paragraphs will suffice to sustain me.

“There is an evident intention to hurry the trial through, and execute the prisoners as soon as possible — fearing attempts to rescue them. It is rumored that Brown is desirous of making a full statement of his motives and intentions through the press, but the Court has refused all access to reporters — fearing that he may put forth something calculated to influence the public mind, and to have a bad effect on the slaves.”

“The reason given for hurrying the trial is, that the people of the whole country are kept in a state of excitement, and a large armed force is required to prevent attempts at rescue.”

1 Telegraphic report of the Associated Press.

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