“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
That prophetic note, as far as we know, is the last thing of substance John Brown had to say before he was executed by hanging in Charles Town on December 2, 1859.
His crime was the raid he led against the Federal Armory in Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859; he intended to start a slave rebellion in the process. On the night of the 16th, he and his men cut the telegraph wires and captured the Armory killing four people and wounding nine in the process. The slaves didn’t rise up in response, but the townspeople did. Brown was injured in a gunfight with the citizenry and later captured.
While locally Brown’s exploits are well known, other parts of the world may find the details of his exploits a bit hazy or unfamiliar depending on one’s enthusiasm for history. However, there was nothing ambiguous about the man in his time. Even in Europe, his raid on the Armory at Harpers Ferry was well known.
So much so that Victor Hugo penned an open letter to the London News pleading for a stay of execution. He concluded his letter with these words:
“I implore the illustrious American Republic, sister of the French Republic, to see to the safety of the universal moral law, to save John Brown…
…For -- yes, let America know it, and ponder on it well -- there is something more terrible than Cain slaying Abel: It is Washington slaying Spartacus!”
If those words don’t properly illustrate the passion Hugo felt for the virtue of Brown’s actions, the sketch he drew of Brown hanging from the noose with an inscription of the Latin phrase “Christus et sicut Christus” (‘for Christ and like Christ’) surely will.
Hugo wasn’t Brown’s only admirer, Frederick Douglass during his address at Harpers Ferry’s Storer College in 1888 said of Brown:
“His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine - it was as the burning sun to my taper light - mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.”
Today in Harpers Ferry, Brown’s legacy is no worse for the wear. Alyssa LeVasseur, manager at the John Brown Wax Museum in Harpers Ferry, didn’t equivocate at all when discussing his legacy: “he sparked the Civil War.”
Though she grew up in Northern Virginia, she spent some of her childhood in New Jersey and confirmed that her lessons about the Civil War closer to Harpers Ferry contained much more about John Brown than those conducted well North of the historic town.
She went on to say that she felt he was a man with morals, great intentions, and great ideas, but perhaps could have gone about realizing them in a different way.
Brown’s ominous prophecy came true just a year and a half later when Confederate Artillery fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
You can relive the events surrounding John Brown’s raid at the John Brown Wax Museum in Harpers Ferry.