Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The door to the jail cell creaked open, and the condemned old man stared at his visitor, not recognizing the face. The one who entered spoke first, identifying himself as Morrow B. Lowry of Erie. The prisoner suddenly remembered, and “cordially and gratefully” greeted his friend of many years ago.

Their reunion must have seemed strange and sad. Low­ry, learning that his former neighbor was imprisoned and sentenced to hang in Virginia, had journeyed there by rail to bring him “salutations” from northwestern Pennsylvania. Lowry had been warned against the trip. Indeed, he received “unpleasant glances” from crowds gathered in the city where the execution would take place, the city to which troops from Richmond escorted him after his train crossed into their state.

But his chief concern was the fellow awaiting the gal­lows. Telegraphs had dis­patched the news about him to the nation. On October 16, 1859, a radical abolitionist directing a band of some twenty recruits, five of them black, seized the federal arse­nal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), attempt­ing to seize arms for a rebel­lion that would free slaves. After a two day battle with local militia and a detach­ment of U.S. Marines under Robert E. Lee, the guer­rilla leader, along with his surviving followers, was captured, hurriedly convicted of treason against Virginia and appointed to die December 2 on the scaffold.

The incident had divided public opinion. In the North, men of learning, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, declared the raider a saint, a martyr to the cause of liberating an op­pressed race. Thousands of anti-slavery supporters, if they could not condone the meth­ods, at least sympathized with the motives behind the assault. In the South, an even greater number of people, whose views conservative North­erners shared, damned it as the work of a madman, a fanatic intent on terrorizing slaveowners, running off their property and overthrowing the traditional social order.

To Morrow B. Lowry, the Harpers Ferry instigator proba­bly resembled neither hero nor villain so much as the promi­nent young citizen he remem­bered as a neighbor three decades before in Pennsylva­nia. Pennsylvanians then knew him simply as John Brown. Who among them could have imagined that this John Brown would spend his last days behind bars in Charles Town, eight miles from where his abortive at­tempt to incite a slave revolt created paranoia of gun-toting abolitionists throughout Dixie? No wonder Virginians were suspicious of strangers like Lowry, who, giving an account of his visit with Brown in the November 26, 1859, issue of the Erie True American, wrote: “The whole population was fully persuaded that the North [was] advancing in large arm­ies to rescue the prisoners and lay waste to the land.”

Brown, his wife, Dianthe, and their three boys had moved from Hudson, Ohio, to Pennsylvania in May 1825. Lured by affordable land and the call of the frontier, he bought a two hundred acre tract about twelve miles east of Meadville in Randolph Township, Crawford County, where he and his family lived until returning to Ohio a decade later. The sparsely settled area’s abundant oak and hemlock particularly attracted him to Pennsylvania because the bark was useful in his occupa­tion as a tanner.

By October, Brown already had cleared twenty-five acres of boulders and virgin forest, erected an imposing two-story tannery and begun making leather. The tannery employed up to fifteen workers and was the first industry to locate amid Randolph’s scattered farms. Completing his home­stead with a log house and a barn, Brown distinguished himself as a farmer by upgrad­ing local livestock with fine imported breeds. One of his blooded bulls sold for an un­precedented one hundred dollars in Waterford, Erie County.

Beyond diversifying the pioneer economy, John Brown improved the community in many ways. He surveyed roads for the isolated country­side. He organized a school and hired a teacher for the education of his and his neigh­bors’ children. In 1828, he established a post office at the village of Randolph, known today as New Richmond, and served as its postmaster and mail carrier. In 1832, having previously attended a church six miles away in Guys Mills , he drew up the articles of faith for an Independent Congrega­tional Society that worshiped on the upper floor of his tan­nery, where he taught Sunday School and preached Calvin­ism whenever ministers were not available.

The accomplishments of this previously anonymous tanner, only twenty-five years old when he arrived in the Keystone State, were impres­sive. It became almost prover­bial in Randolph to compliment the ambitious “as enterprising and as honest as John Brown,” according to James Foreman, who worked for Brown and memorialized him in a manuscript shortly after his death. Brown was scrupulous to the point of causing inconvenience, for he sooner would refuse a cus­tomer than sell him leather that was not perfectly tanned.

Brown also displayed a peculiar determination to see justice done, yet tempered that trait with charity. Once, when a man apprehended for steal­ing a cow pleaded poverty and was released after the owner declined to press charges, Brown badgered the constable until he finally jailed the thief. While the prisoner remained confined, however, his family’s wants were supplied by Brown, who, on other occa­sions had his workers deliver provisions to the poor and the sick.

John Brown’s personality was complex. Acquaintances characterized him as excitable but calm, stern but courteous. He reminded many of a Puritan. He worked hard, dressed plainly and shunned smoking, swearing and drinking, having adopted temperance after axing his home whiskey barrel in alarm that liquor was “get­ting hold of him.” Above all he was independent, with fierce eyes matching his iron will and a lean frame that was as strong as were his convic­tions. He could be domineer­ing and intolerant in certain matters, but courageous in translating his beliefs into deeds.

Foreman remembered that Brown used to interrogate newcomers to Randolph about whether they observed the Sabbath, opposed slavery, upheld the Gospel and advo­cated public schools. Brown’s eldest son, John Jr., recounted that a pro-Masonic mob in Meadville nearly lynched his father for denouncing the secret fraternity’s alleged mur­der of a dissenting member in upstate New York. And an Erie land agent grumbled that Brown had urged settlers to resist eviction by a Philadel­phia company that claimed title to their property.

Despite his serious nature, Brown was jovial during his early years in Pennsylvania. After all, business was pros­pering, and his family was growing – Dianthe had given birth to another son, Fred­erick, in 1827 and a daughter, Ruth, in 1829. Brown enjoyed domestic life. He nurtured his household’s spiritual, mental and physical development and received its unreserved affection.

Frequently in Brown’s home was George Delamater, whose family lived four miles away. Delamater’s father and Brown conducted the neigh­borhood school held alter­nately at each other’s houses, the Delamater children resid­ing at Brown’s house during winter terms, the Brown chil­dren lodging at Delamater’s during summer sessions. Delamater, who had been one of the pupils, vividly recalled the period, including the daily devotions Brown expected of the young scholars and his employees alike:

In the winter, breakfast was usually had before daylight, im­mediately after which Bibles were distributed-Brown requiring each one to read a given number of verses, himself leading; then he would stand up to pray, grasping the back of the chair at the top, and inclining slightly forward … an inspired paternal ruler control­ling and providing for the circle of which he was head.

In the evenings, while wolves howled outside in the cold darkness, the two-room cabin would be lit up as Brown conducted debates with his family and the hired help boarding with him. Seated on chairs and benches before a roaring fireplace, they dis­cussed various subjects, as Brown was skilled in the So­cratic method of exposing weak arguments through questioning. Contests of strength also took place on the floor, not for mere amuse­ment, but for conditioning muscles, Brown told the com­petitors, sternly disapproving if they became rough.

Mostly self-educated, Brown tried to keep well­-informed. He furnished news­papers to keep his charges posted on current events and circulated books and periodi­cals to start a reading commu­nity in Randolph. His library featured religious and histori­cal works, in particular the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and the essays of Benjamin Franklin, who together re­flected Brown’s self-image as a model Christian businessman. To Delamater and the rest of the youngsters, Brown moral­ized from Aesop’s Fables and quoted maxims frequently. In Pennsylvania’s vast wilder­ness, Brown, perhaps, was an uncommon sight reading through the snowy nights, but reading was his link to the outside world, and he exem­plified American’s increasing awareness that learning meant progress.

A devout Christian, his favorite book, the source of wisdom he constantly con­sulted, was the Bible. “He had such a perfect knowledge of it that, when any person was reading it, he would correct the least mistake,” his daugh­ter Ruth said. “When he would come home at night, tired out with labor, he would, before going to bed, ask some of the family to read chapters … and would almost always say, ‘Read one of David’s Psalms.'”

As a father, Brown, in ac­cordance with Scripture and custom of the early nineteenth century, did not spare the rod, and his punishment of disobe­dient children could be unique as well as stringent. In the Life and Letters of John Brown by Franklin B. Sanborn, who compiled recollections about the abolitionist and was one of his intimates, John Jr. told of neglecting tannery chores to join the children “out at play in the sunshine.” His father in the past had reprimanded him for laziness and, trying an­other tact, devised a ledger to record his good and bad be­havior. Eventually, the “debits” outran the “credits,” and Brown summoned his son.

“I then paid about one­-third of the debt,” John Jr. explained, “reckoned in strokes” from a switch applied “masterly.” What happened next utterly astonished him. Handing the boy the whip, his father shed his shirt and stooped. “Lay it on,” he in­structed. Said John Jr.: “I dared not refuse to obey, but as first I did not strike hard. ‘Harder!’ he said; ‘harder, harder!’ until he received the balance of the account. Small drops of blood showed on his back where the tip of the tin­gling beech cut through.” Although “too obtuse” at that age to perceive how justice could be satisfied by inflicting, the penalty of the guilty upon the innocent, John Jr. later understood the incident as a “practical illustration of the doctrine of atonement” based on Christ’s crucifixion.

In the memories of his sons and daughters, Brown’s ten­derness offset his severity. They never failed to note how he stayed up nights nursing them when they were sick little “chicks”; how he sang his favorite hymn, Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow, when rocking them before bedtime; how he dried their wet faces with a pretty handkerchief when they were baptized.

Sorrows accompanied the family’s joys. Four-year-old Frederick died in 1831, and Brown’s thirty-one-year-old wife and a newborn son suc­cumbed the following year. They were buried, Dianthe in her wedding dress, on the farm near the tannery. “We are again smarting under the rod of our Heavenly Father,” re­marked Brown, writing his father at Hudson on the death of the woman who bore him seven offspring, four of them in Randolph.

For a while, Brown, numb with grief and ill with fever, was unable to care for his family. He took in a house­keeper, a blacksmith’s daugh­ter from nearby Troy Township, who presently sent for her younger sister, Mary Ann Day, to assist in the du­ties. The quiet, sturdy girl caught Brown’s attention and soon received a letter propos­ing matrimony. She was so overcome by the thought of marrying a man of his stature, albeit twice her age, that she couldn’t reply. The next morn­ing, when she went down to the spring for a pail of water, Brown followed her and re­ceived his answer. They wed­ded within a year after he lost Dianthe.

Although only seventeen, Mary was more rugged emo­tionally and physically than Brown’s former wife. If lacking her husband’s intellect, she must have shared his outlook that life was predestined, for she willingly endured tremen­dous hardships. Certainly, their marriage could not have lasted without her loyalty and sell-sacrifice, especially during the coming years of Brown’s financial setbacks, abrupt changes of residence and dar­ing crusades against slavery.

Even in remote Randolph, absorbed as he was in family and civic pursuits, Brown worried about slavery and wished it abolished. His father had reared him to despise the evil institution. And Brown’s study of the Bible convinced him that human bondage violated the precept to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He was persuaded, too, by The Libera­tor, an anti-slavery sheet pub­lished by Boston reformer William Lloyd Garrison, who called for immediate emancipation of Blacks on grounds that their enslavement contra­dicted both the command­ments of God and the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

While living in Crawford County, Brown was motivated to aid the abolitionist cause and did. The haymow of his barn concealed a chamber for hiding fugitive slaves likely headed north via Lake Erie to safety in Canada. The barn was one of the county’s nu­merous “stations” on the Un­derground Railroad, the legendary covert network of Blacks and whites who shel­tered and transported run­aways escaping Southern slave states in the decades before the Civil War.

John Brown boldly ac­knowledged Black equality and instilled that view in his family. He defied America’s rampant racism, defending Blacks without patronizing them as some white abolition­ists did. Brown considered Blacks so much his peers that he hoped to adopt a slave child. Ruth reminisced about her father:

One evening after he had been singing to me, he asked me how I would like to have some poor little black children that were slaves (explaining to me the meaning of slaves) come and stay with us, and asked if I would be willing to divide my food and clothes with them. He made such an impres­sion on my sympathies that the first colored person I ever saw (it was a man on a street in Mead­ville, Penna.) I felt such a pity for him that I wanted to ask him if he did not want to come and live at our house.

Brown also dreamed of starting a “Negro school,” which abolitionists elsewhere in the United States were do­ing. In a letter from Randolph dated November 21, 1834, to his brother Frederick in Hud­son, Brown pondered the idea. The correspondence – his first written reference to any plan for breaking up slavery­ – appeared in Sanborn’s 1885 biography of Brown. “If the young blacks of our country could once become enlight­ened,” he stated, “it would most assuredly operate on slavery like firing powder confined in rock, and all slave­holders know it well. Witness their heaven-daring laws against teaching blacks.”

Brown realized that Blacks couldn’t better their lot if kept ignorant. Thus, he wanted Frederick and a few “first-rate abolitionist families” from Ohio to unite with him in opening a school for Blacks. He deemed Randolph “a most favorable location,” anticipat­ing “no powerful opposition” to the project because the township had none of the racial controversies raging at Hudson and throughout northeastern Ohio’s Western Reserve section.

The school never material­ized. By spring 1835, Brown could not obtain cash for his goods, blaming the situation on Pres. Andrew Jackson’s hard-money policies. Pressed for income, he and his family left Crawford County en route to Franklin Mills, Ohio, where Zenas Kent, whose surname the town today bears, had offered him partnership in a tannery if Brown would con­struct it. Scarcely after the building was finished, the partnership dissolved when Kent allowed his son to rent the space for another enterprise – which did not include John Brown.

During the ensuing years, Brown plunged into a series of unprofitable ventures that ranged from land speculation to wool trading. He struggled against chronic indebtedness and lived transiently at Frank­lin Mills, Hudson, Richfield and Akron in the Western Reserve and at Springfield, Massachusetts. Troubled fi­nances, combined with family tragedies, hounded him. In the course of two weeks in 1843, for example, an epidemic of dysentery struck down four of the thirteen children from his second marriage, one a daughter, Sarah, who had been born in Pennsylvania.

Brown’s commitment to abolitionism gradually pre­vailed over his business ambi­tions and entailed long absences from home. On his return visits to Crawford Coun­ty, friends noticed his hatred of slavery had intensified.

In 1849, he and his family put down stakes at North Elba (Lake Placid), New York, where Brown looked after a colony of Black farmers. The next year, Congress passed a law that permitted retrieval of fugitive slaves in the North, heavily penalized anyone interfering with their arrests and, in effect, enabled paid “kidnappers” to carry off falsely accused free Blacks. Four years later, the Kansas­-Nebraska Act stipulated that popular vote could authorize slavery in territories where it previously was prohibited.

Slavery, it seemed, was being protected, actually ex­panding, under a government substantially controlled by plantation interests. Experi­mental Black schools and vil­lages proved freemen could be responsible, productive citi­zens, but that fact hardly swayed slaveholders to un­chain their servants. For Brown and the militant aboli­tionist fringe, peaceful alterna­tives had been exhausted, and political solutions seemed impossible; only violence could end slavery.

Brown’s readiness to prac­tice the forcible resistance he preached earned him fame and infamy among his contempo­raries, depending upon their opinions about slavery. In 1856, he and six of his sons were emigrants in Kansas seeking to preserve its “free soil” against a proslavery legis­lature elected by fraud and backed by allies who threat­ened to murder Northern sympathizers, and did in six instances. When border ruffi­ans from Missouri ransacked the anti-slavery stronghold of Lawrence, Brown, retaliating, supervised the midnight mas­sacre of five proslavery settlers at Pottawatomie Creek, trig­gering territorial warfare that subsided with the Kansas free­-state party’s victory in a sec­ond election.

Having fought in a number of celebrated skirmishes be­tween the free-soilers and proslavers, Brown undertook one of the boldest expeditions in Underground Railroad history when he and comrades swept into Missouri, released eleven slaves and sneaked them one thousand miles by wagon, railroad and ferry to Windsor, Ontario, in the win­ter of 1858-1859.

Shortly before the upcom­ing fall, he met with Black abolitionist orator and writer Frederick Douglass in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where Brown stored pikes and other weapons for a plot he unveiled to attack the Harpers Ferry armory, rally slaves and push southward from mountain defenses to ignite a chain reaction of servile mutinies. Declining to enlist in the mis­sion, Douglass warned that authorities would promptly crush his friend and handful of revolutionaries. But Brown refused to listen.

Now, incarcerated and doomed to die at the gallows, John Brown unexpectedly encountered Morrow B. Lo­wry, a future state senator who once was his tanning appren­tice. Brown no longer was the thriving entrepreneur and community improver he was at Randolph in his prime. Look­ing older than his fifty-nine years, he wore a white beard, and his skin was leathery like the hides he used to cure, wrinkled from business and family misfortunes, and toughened by anti-slavery campaigns that cost him three slain sons, one in Kansas, and two at Harpers Ferry. In sev­eral weeks, he would be bur­ied near the North Elba farmhouse where his wife still dwelled. His stay in Crawford County was his least mobile and probably most tranquil.

“He alluded to Crawford as being very dear to him,” Lowry remembered, “as its soil was hallowed as the resting-place of his former wife and two beloved children, and the sight of anyone from that region was most cheering.”

There were widespread contentions that Brown was insane. Even the Crawford Journal of Meadville editorial­ized he was, pleading to no avail that the Virginia court spare him for asylum (which was the hope and motive of some of Brown’s friends and kin who testified he was de­ranged). But, ironically, the Harpers Ferry raid was consistent with qualities that had won Brown respect in north­western Pennsylvania.

His notion of being God’s instrument to destroy slavery, the savior of a captive people, stem.med from his religious zeal. His vigorous reasoning and sense of principle gained him the confidence of influen­tial Eastern humanitarians who donated money for his war against slavery and shared his thinking that, as a last resort, illegal means are war­ranted to amend man-made laws conflicting with God’s “higher law.” His reputation at Randolph for “strictest integ­rity” became evident in his widely publicized courtroom speeches and prison letters whose noble eloquence, dis­pelling much of the initial press reaction that he was a lunatic, affirmed Brown’s fear­less dedication to racial freedom – Southern enemies not only conceded his bravery, but Northern partisans made him a martyr, thanks in part to lectures on his behalf by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, whom Brown had met, and literary tributes from the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Her­man Melville and Walt Whit­man.

“And here, as I parted from him, telling him I would see him again, if possible, he re­peated to me – ‘Tell those with­out that I am cheerful.'” Brown bade Lowry farewell, and the door to the jail cell closed between them. Brown was a topic of conversation for years afterward in Crawford County, an 1885 history of which com­mented: “His many neighbors, Republicans and Democrates alike, deplored his fate, and if not in accord with his philan­trophic sentiments threw the mantle of charity over his rash deeds by believing his impulses for the liberation of the African race too powerful to be restrained.”

Outraged by the plight of the Black man in a Christian country promising liberty and justice for all, Brown forfeited his life rather than ignore the dictates of his conscience. His short-lived Harpers Ferry invasion had set off no slave uprisings. It ultimately suc­ceeded, however, in heighten­ing Southern anxieties over Northern abolitionist med­dling, anxieties that hastened separation and erupted into the Civil War. And whether wrong in his behavior, John Brown was right in his predic­tion that only bloodshed would cleanse the nation of slavery.


For Further Reading

Blockson, Charles L. The Under­ground Railroad in Pennsylva­nia. Jacksonville, N.C.: Flame International, 1981.

Boyer, Richard O. The Legend of John Brown. New York: Alfred A.Knopf, Inc. 1972.

History of Crawford County. Chicago: Warner, Beers and Com­pany, 1885.

Lingo, William B. The Pennsyl­vania Career of John Brown. Corry, Pa.: 1926.

Miller, Ernest C. John Brown: Pennsylvania Citizen. Warren, Pa.: N.P., 1952.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

Redpath, James. The Public Life of Captain John Brown. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860.

Sanborn, Franklin B. Life and Letters of John Brown. Boston: N.P., 1885.

Villard, Oswald G. John Brown, 1800-1959: A Biography Fifty Years After. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1910.


Mark Peaster, a resident of Frank­lin, is a magna cum laude graduate of Westminster College, New Wilmington. He received his master’s degree in journalism from Kent State University, Kent, Ohio, in 1983. He served as an information writer for Edinboro University of Pennsylvania from 1984 to 1986. His newspaper experience included his roles as Pennsylvania correspondent for Ohio’s Youngstown Vindicator, and general assignment reporter for the Butler Eagle. His articles have appeared in numerous na­tional and regional magazines, including USAir, edu, Western, Reserve Magazine and The Marketplace. His feature stories have been carried by several news­papers such as the Erie Times, the Franklin News-Herald and the Greenville Record-Argus.