Absalom Hazlett by Spencer Sadler

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Absalom Hazlett
A Loyal Soldier in John Brown’s Army
by Spencer Sadler
Arcadia, 144 pp., paperback $21.99

Most readers will undoubtedly associate Harpers Ferry (the locale) with John Brown (the man). Brown’s charismatic personality and single-minded focus tend to overpower any narrative. Many of the 22 men who joined this well-intentioned yet ill-fated 1859 arsenal raid are usually collectively referred to as “raiders” or “followers.” For author and native of Indiana, Pennsylvania, Spencer Sadler, however, those labels do not do justice to Absalom Hazlett, a lieutenant in John Brown’s provisional army.

Part of the America Through Time (“Adding Color to American History”) series, the book reflects Sadler’s desire to re-envision the narratives of Harpers Ferry, and to an extent Bleeding Kansas, through the experience of Hazlett, an Indiana County farm boy. Curiously structuring the book as a frequently dramatized backwards narrative, Sadler encourages readers to visit an oft-told event from a different perspective. Hazlett is portrayed in some ways as complicated as Brown himself. The first real picture of Hazlett is as he stands on the gallows, willing to accept his fate for a noble cause. But at the book’s end (chapter nine and drawn out more in the appendix “Timeline of Events”) we learn that Hazlett is a bit of a larrikin (perhaps borderline rogue), from a not-so-well-regarded family, who fled to his brother’s Kansas homestead to escape prosecution for theft, public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. It is this Hazlett who makes for interesting reading, though sadly it is never fully developed as to whether he was a true convert to the cause — the evidence is not clear.

The side stories and even more minor players in this narrative pique one’s curiosity. The vignettes involving Underground Railroad conductor Hiram Wertz (pp. 60–62) and Carlisle attorney W.J. Shearer (chapter five) bring a little spark to the story of Hazlett’s apprehension at just the right time. Consequently, readers may find themselves combing the endnotes and bibliography and then taking deep dives into the HathiTrust, Digital Public Library of America, and local historical societies for further exploration.

Jeanine Mazak-Kahne
Indiana University of Pennsylvania