CHARLES TOWN – What were abolitionist John Brown’s thoughts and experiences while awaiting trial and execution for treason in his Charles Town jail cell?
Doris Starks, a local author, literally takes readers into Brown’s mind during those days following his fateful raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry this month in 1859.
“Last Days of John Brown, The Abolitionist, A Short Story,” a work of historical fiction, takes a sympathetic as well as an African-American view of Brown. Though her novel is only 33 pages long, author Doris Starks’ descriptions of how Brown may have felt and his interactions with those around are moving and beautifully detailed.
At one point in her story, as he’s contemplating his life, Brown watches a large cockroach crawl across the ceiling of his cell. It’s a small detail but a telling one of his environment during his last days. Brown was held in jail for a month. Being a tall man, the cot in his cell is anything but comfortable.
“There just was not enough room for him to stretch his long legs adequately,” Starks writes.
Brown is befriended by John Blessing, a man who cooked for him during his incarceration.
“Brown was awakened by the clanging, banging and slamming of cell doors,” Starks writes. “The noise made his head ache, and he wondered if someone was coming to take him away. But no, it was just the opposite.”
His friendship with Blessing began.
Starks said she became interested in Brown when she moved to Charles Town 15 years ago from Columbia, Maryland.
“There is so much history here,” she said.
During her research for the book, Starks found that Brown was considered a domestic terrorist at the time he was tried for treason, murder and insurrection. His jail cell was located across the street from the current Jefferson County Courthouse where he was put on trial from Oct. 25 to Nov. 2, when he was sentenced to be hanged.
“He was an extremely religious man who at one point wanted to be a minister, but his life moved in another direction,” Starks said. “His life was shaped by being brought up in the teachings of the Congregational Church. He believed it was inappropriate and people weren’t Christians if they held others in bondage.”
In her novel, Brown thinks about his life, his wife and his family. Starks incorporates historical facts about Brown, Harpers Ferry and Charles Town. For example, Brown had hoped the Harpers Ferry area would become a state for enslaved people. He and other abolitionists had even written a constitution to govern the state.
“It would have had a black president, which came out during the trial. This helped to turn attendants at the trial against him,” Starks said.
The notorious trial was not truly a fair one to begin with, which Starks makes plain in her book. The 12 jurors were all slaveholders. Even the judge was prejudiced against Brown and the other raiders.
“Judge Richard Parker had a different idea on good and evil,” Starks wrote. “In his Charge to the Jury, Judge Parker said that the accused raiders were ‘being moved by the devil.’”
“There were 18 men in Brown’s raiding party. Five were Black and 13 were Caucasian,” her story continues. “The Black men were trying to secure freedom for themselves and their families, and both Black and White believed that enslaving human beings was a sin.”
Brown’s jury took 45 minutes to hand down its guilty verdict.
Sympathy for Brown comes from a different kind of character in Starks’ book. Daisy is one of the two horses that pulled the wagon, leading him to his date with the hangman. She feels sorry for him, noticing how the men around him treated him with disgust. She makes sure he has a smooth, comfortable ride, avoiding bumps in the road.
“Brown said nothing, but listened to the rhythmic beat of the horses’ hooves,” Starks writes. “When the driver finally said, ‘Whoa,’ Daisy knew she had reached her destination. She had done her best for the pitiful man. Daisy’s was the last act of mercy shown to John Brown on Samuel Street.”
Starks’ book is in its second edition. Its first edition was published in 2015 while the second edition was released this past March. It took about six months to write, then another six months for the second edition to be completed. The manuscript is in the process of being turned into a screenplay by award-winning writer and producer Anthony Guilianti.
Originally from Brooklyn, Alabama, Starks has written other short stories and professional materials during a long and successful nursing career. Her last position was dean and professor of nursing, as well as founding director of the Community Health Center at Coppin State University in Baltimore.
Retired now, Starks said she has always had an interest in history and social justice.
So what does Starks say about Brown’s place in history?
“It’s up to each reader to decide if John Brown was a prophet or a terrorist,” she offered. “There are so many lessons to be learned.”