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Chapter 3: State evidence.

On Thursday morning, October 27, the trial began in earnest. John Brown was brought from jail, supported on either side — for he was too feeble to walk alone,--and laid down on his cot within the bar.1 The author of the Fugitive Slave Law was present. Did he know that he was witnessing the beginning of the end of the rule of the wicked Power that he represents? Did he think that the wounded old man on the pallet was undermining, with his every groan and breath, the foundations of Human Slavery in America? As John Brown embodied the Northern religious anti-slavery idea, so Senator Mason, who now gazed at him, incarnated the Southern idolatrous principle of infidelity to man. Yet, seemingly, how reversed did their positions appear! The Slave Liberator with no earthly prospect but a speedy death on the gallows; and the Slave Extraditionist buoyed up with the hope of soon filling the Presidential Chair!

A plea of insanity.

The plea of insanity-first advanced by political [309] monomaniacs in the Northern States, who could not understand a heroic action when they saw one, and yet, admiring his spirit, were unwilling to denounce John Brown — was brought forward, before the jury were sworn, by the production of a telegraphic despatch from Ohio. It asserted that insanity was hereditary in John Brown's family; that his mother's sister died with it, and her daughter was now in an insane asylum; and that three of the children of his maternal uncle were also mentally deranged.

Mr. Botts said, that on receiving the above despatch, he went to the jail with his associate, Mr. Green, and read it to Brown, and was desired by him to say that in his father's family there has never been any insanity at all. On his mother's side there have been repeated instances of it. He adds that his first wife showed symptoms of it, which were also evident in his first and second sons by that wife. Some portions of the statements in the despatch he knows to be correct, and of other portions he is ignorant. He does not know whether his mother's sister died in the lunatic asylum; but he does believe that a daughter of that sister has been two years in the asylum. He also believes that a son and daughter of his mother's brother have been confined in an asylum; but he is not apprised of the fact that another son of that brother is now insane, and in close confinement. Brown also desires his counsel to say that he does not put in the plea of insanity.

Report of Associated Press.

John Brown then rose, and spurned the plea thus sought to be introduced. He said:

I will add, if the Court will allow me, that I look upon it as a miserable artifice and pretext of those who ought to take a different course in regard to me, if they took any at all, and I view it with contempt more than otherwise. Insane persons, so far as my experience goes, have but little ability to judge of their own sanity; and if I am insane, of course I should think I knew more than all the rest of the world. But I do not think so. I am perfectly unconscious of insanity, and I reject, so far as I am capable, any attempts to interfere in my behalf on that score.


A day's delay refused.

“The course taken by Brown this morning,” writes a pro-slavery correspondent, “makes it evident that he sought no postponement for the mere purpose of delay.” And yet, although the prisoner again asked for a suspension of the proceedings for one day only, until a lawyer in Ohio, to whom he had written, and who had telegraphed a reply, should arrive in Charlestown, the Court again refused to grant the request, and ordered the examination to proceed! Mr. Hunter, in opposing the request, involuntarily showed that he regarded the trial as a form only,--a mockery of justice, -and expressed his belief that the old man was less solicitous for a fair trial than to give to his friends the time and opportunity to organize a rescue. Mr. Harding, with greater brutality, asserted that the prisoner was merely slamming sickness — although he could not stand unsupported for any length of time, and was covered with wounds, not one of which had healed!

The Jury were sworn, and the indictment read. The Court permitted the prisoner, while arraigned, to remain prostrate on his pallet. He did so. The indictment charged Insurrection, Treason, and Murder. John Brown pleaded Not Guilty.

Arguments of the counsel.

Mr, Hunter then stated the facts that he designed to prove by the evidence for the prosecution, and reviewed the laws relating to the offences charged on the prisoner, and concluded by hypocritically

Urging the jury to cast aside all prejudices, and give the prisoners a fair and impartial trial, and not to allow their hatred of Abolitionists to influence them against those who have raised the black flag on the soil of this Commonwealth.


Mr. Green responded, stating what should be proved, and how, to convict of the offences charged:

1. To establish the charge of treason it must be proven that the prisoner attempted to establish a separate and distinct government with the limits of Virginia, and the purpose also of any treasonable acts; and this, not by any confessions of his own, elsewhere made, but by two different witnesses for each and every act.

2. To establish the charge of a conspiracy with slaves,

“The jury must be satisfied that such conspiracy was done within the State of Virginia, and within the jurisdiction of this Court. If it was done in Maryland, this Court could not punish the act. If it was done within the limits of the Armory at Harper's Ferry, it was not done within the limits of this State, the Government of the United States holding exclusive jurisdiction within the said grounds. Attorney General Cushing had. decided this point with regard to the Armory grounds at Harper's Furry, which opinion was read to the jury, showing that persons residing within the limits of the Armory cannot even be taxed by Virginia, and that crimes committed within the said limits are punishable by Federal Courts.”

3. Over murder, (he argued,) if committed within the limits of the Armory, the Court had no jurisdiction ; and, in the case of Mr. Beckham, if he was killed on the railroad bridge, it was committed within the State of Maryland, which claims jurisdiction up to the Armory grounds.

Mr. Botts followed him, and supported these views. The only noteworthy thing he said was, that--

It is due to the prisoner to state that he believed himself to be actuated by the highest and noblest feelings that ever coursed through a human breast. They could prove by those gentlemen who were prisoners that they were treated with respect, and that they were kept in positions of safety, and that no violence was offered to them. These facts must be taken into consideration, and have their due weight with the jury.


Mr. Hunter replied. The State law of treason, he argued, was more full than that of the Federal Constitution.

It includes within its definition of treason the establishing, without the authority of the Legislature, any Government within its limits separate from the existing Government, or the holding or executing, under such Government, of any office, professing allegiance or fidelity to it, or resisting the execution of law under the color of its authority; and it goes on to declare that such treason, if proved by the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or by confession in Court, shall be punished with death. Any one of these acts constitutes treason against this Commonwealth; and he believed that the prisoner had been guilty of each and all these acts, which would be proven in the clearest manner, not by two, but by a dozen witnesses, unless limited by the lack of time. The prisoner had attempted to break down the existing Government of the Commonwealth, and establish on its ruins a new Government; he had usurped the office of Commander-in-chief of this new Government, and, together with his whole band, professed allegiance and fidelity to it; he represented not only the civil authorities of State, but our own military; he is doubly, trebly, and quadruply guilty of treason. Mr. Hunter proceeded again to the question of jurisdiction over the Armory grounds, and examined the authority, cited on the other side, of Attorney General Cushing. The latter was an able man; but he came from a region of country where opinions are very different from ours in relation to the power of the Federal Government as affecting State rights. Our Courts are decidedly adverse to Mr. Cushing's views. In all time past, the jurisdiction of this County of Jefferson in criminal offences committed at Harper's Ferry, has been uninterrupted and unchallenged, whether they were committed on the Government property or not. He cited an instance, twenty-nine years ago, where an atrocious murder was committed between the very shops in front of which these men fought their battles, and the criminal was tried here, convicted, and executed under our laws. There was a broad difference between the cession of jurisdiction by Virginia to the Federal Government and mere assent of the State that the Federal Government should become a landholder within its limits. The law of Virginia, by virtue of which the grounds at Harper's Ferry were purchased by the Federal Government, ceded no jurisdiction. Brown was also guilty, on his own notorious confession, in advising conspiracy. In regard to the charge of murder, the proof will be, that this man was not only actually engaged in murdering our citizens, but that he was the chief directer [313] of the whole movement. No matter whether he was present on the spot, or a mile off, he is equally guilty.

Examination of witnesses.

The examination of witnesses was commenced at the afternoon session. The conductor of the train was first called, narrated the circumstances of its stoppage on the morning of Monday, October 17, and thus described his interview with Captain Brown:

I met a man whom I now recognize as Coppic, and asked what they meant. He replied, “ We don't want to injure you or detain your train. You could have gone at three o'clock: all we want is to free the negroes.” I then asked if my train could now start, and went to the guard at the gate, who said, “There is Captain Smith; he can tell you what you want to know.” I went to the engine house, and the guard called Captain Smith. The prisoner at the bar came out, and I asked him if he was captain of these men. He replied he was. I asked him if I could cross the bridge, and he peremptorily responded, “ No, sir.” I then asked him what he meant by stopping my train. He replied, “ Are you the conductor on that train?” I told him I was, and he said, “ Why, I sent you word at three o'clock that you could pass.” I told him that, after being stopped by armed men on the bridge, I would not pass with my train. He replied, “ My head for it, you will not be hurt; ” and said he was very sorry. It was not his intention that any blood should be spilled; it was bad management on the part of the men in charge of the bridge. I then asked him what security I would have that my train would pass safely, and asked him if he would walk over the bridge ahead of my train with me. He called a large, stout man to accompany him, and one of my passengers, Mr. McByrne, asked to accompany me; but Brown ordered him to get into the train, or he would take them all prisoners in five minutes; but it was advice more than in the form of a threat. Brown accompanied me; both had rifles. As we crossed the bridge, the three armed men were still in their places. When we got across, Brown said to me, “ You, doubtless, wonder that a man of my age should be here with a band of armed men; but if you knew my past history, you would not wonder at it so much.” My train was then through the bridge, and I bade him good morning, jumped on my train, and left him.

He narrated the conversation between Captain Brown and Governor Wise, when the Liberator was confined [314] in the guard house at Harper's Ferry, in which he said that the prisoner stated, in reply to a question, that he thought he had been betrayed to the Secretary of War, but had practised a ruse to prevent suspicion; yet refused to inform them whom he believed to be the traitor, or how he had acted to avert the consequences of the betrayal.

John Brown thus alluded to Colonel Forbes and his own third visit to Kansas.

During the examination of this witness, a despatch arrived from Cleveland, announcing that Northern counsel would arrive in Charlestown that evening; whereupon the Virginia counsel for John Brown, in his name, asked that the cross-examination might be postponed till the following morning. It was already late in the evening, but the prosecuting attorney resisted the request, because:

If the cases were not pushed on, the whole balance of the term --would not be sufficient to try these men. He thought there was no reason for delay, especially as it was uncertain whether the counsel could get here before--to-morrow!

The Court, as usual, ordered the case to proceed.

Colonel Washington described his arrest, and testified that Captain Brown permitted his prisoners to keep in a safe position; that he never spoke rudely or insultingly to them; that he allowed them to go out, to quiet their families, by assuring them of their personal safety; that he heard him direct his men, on several occasions, never to fire on an unarmed citizen; that he assured the captives that they should be treated well, and none of their property destroyed; and that he overheard a conversation between Stevens and another [315] person, on Southern Institutions, in the course of which that Liberator asked, “if he was in favor of slavery?” and, on receiving the reply, that, although a non-slaveholder, yet, “as a citizen of the South, he would sustain the cause,” immediately answered, “Then you are the first man I would hang; you deserve it more than a man who is a slaveholder and sustains his interests.” He could not swear whether the marines fired after they broke into the engine house; the noise, he said, was great, and several shouted from the inside that some one had surrendered among the prisoners,

This evidence ended the proceedings of the Court on Thursday. The official report closed with this extraordinary announcement: “Orders have been given to the jailers to shoot all the prisoners if an attempt is made for their rescue.”

When it is borne in mind that the only offence of these prisoners was an effort to fulfil two commands of Jesus, “Do unto others as ye would that others should do unto you,” and “Remember those in bonds, as bound with them;” and that, by the laws of every free Commonwealth, the accused man, until convicted of a crime, is held to be guiltless,--what a fearful picture of the civilization and Christianity of Virginia does this barbarous and bloody order hold up to our view!

1 See the engraving.

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