The revolutionary raid on Harper’s Ferry: How local media covered the state’s response

Author’s introduction

On October 16, 1859, John Brown—at the age of 59—helped lead an insurrection at the Federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Along with 21 men, including five Black people (of whom three were “free,” one formerly enslaved, and another a “fugitive slave,” along with several of his children, the Harper’s Ferry Raid was far from the only armed revolt by multinational abolitionist forces before the Civil War. Nonetheless, it further terrified plantation owners and the slaveocracy of the growing likelihood of a nationwide organized rising up enslaved Black people and their supporters.

What did Brown, all but five of his fellow freedom-fighters and their “conspirators” get for their heroic efforts? Death. Guerrilla fighter Harriet Tubman was on her way to join in the rebellion but, as Frank Chapman notes, fell ill and was, fortunately, unable to make it.

Brown was charged with treason and executed on December 2, 1859. It was a sensational event covered by papers across the country. Crowds gathered, numbering in the hundreds. He was under constant military guard, even after he was pronounced dead, to prevent any attempts to rescue him or take his body. Once he was dead, souvenirs were distributed: the gallows were dismantled, the rope cut into sections, and bits of Brown’s hair were clipped. A common practice. The same thing happened to victims of lynchings.

I grew up in southern Indiana, right at the corner where Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky meet. In school, I think John Brown only came up once or twice. I remember being told he was a terrorist, an evil, violent man who was rightfully hanged for treason. Some areas of Indiana so desperately wish to be part of the Confederacy that collaborating with and empowering enslaved individuals to fight for their freedom is the worst sin of all. 

Then, a few years ago, I started to educate myself about who John Brown really was and what he stood for. I had the privilege of working on a project about Black history in the American Midwest and learned about abolitionist movements and the spectrum of beliefs, and how much of that work took place in my own backyard. I learned about the alliances forged between white abolitionists, free Black communities, Quakers, and AME congregations. I studied organizers and activists like John Brown, Frederick Douglass, George DeBaptiste, Laura Haviland, Levi Coffin, and John Rankin. I read of their secretive, dangerous work in Detroit, MI, Madison, IN, Cincinnati, and Oberlin, OH. 

An important part of education is looking at primary sources. We can learn a lot from newspaper articles and editorials, from how they cover events to what content they leave out. 

One surprise I found came from the Hoosier Patriot in Noblesville on December 8, 1859. 

Coming from my background, I was expecting the standard sensational coverage of the rightful execution of a “terrorist.” Instead, I was surprised to find it was surprisingly sympathetic and surrounded by editorials and coverage of abolitionist speeches and activities. 

The following is the text of that article from Hoosier Patriot, 6, no. 18 (1859): 2. We have fixed misspellings or updated spellings. added names in brackets for additional context, and provided a reference list that includes further reading below. You can find the digitized version in the Hoosier State Chronicles collections here.

Insider’s attending the execution of Brown

From the special dispatches to the Cincinnati Gazette, we give the following incidents attending the execution of Brown:

Last interview of Mr. [John Brown] and Mrs. Brown [Mary Ann Brown]

On arriving at the jail, which was closely guarded, the carriage stopped, and Captain Moore, who rode with Mrs. Brown, jumped from the vehicle, and tendering her his arm, escorted her into the jail.

Captain Brown was informed of his wife’s arrival, and requested that she might be allowed to enter his room as soon as possible. In a few minutes the jailer conducted her into his presence. The meeting was affecting, and at first neither party spoke.

Brown embraced her, pressed her to his besom and exclaimed, “My Wife!” No tears were shed, but a deep drawn sign told too well of the intensity of the feeling which each were undergoing.

After a few moments thus spent, the Captain drew a chair and Mrs. Brown sat down. He then spoke to her of his condition, told her he was contented, and if it was not for parting with her and others whom he loved, he would have no regrets in dying. Mrs. Brown entered fully into the feelings of her husband, and both were resigned to the fate which awaited him.

Captain Brown referred to the disposition of his property and the welfare of his children, and after spending an hour in conversation, supper was brought in by the kind jailer, and the husband and wife sat down together to partake of their last meal. The Captain raised his hands, and asked God to bless the meal, and then with cheerfulness that has no parallel, they commenced their repast. From the time that Mrs. B. arrived old Captain B’s spirits rose and he exhibited lightheartedness, which surprised those who were around him. Mrs. B. remained with her husband until half past 6 o’clock, when she was informed that the interview must end. The Captain desired that his wife might remain with him during the night, but the orders from headquarters were to the contrary, and accordingly they separated. While the parting scene was one which showed much intensity of feeling, there was no exhibition of passion, and after an embrace, and kiss, and kind admonition from Brown, they parted forever.

Mrs. Brown was conducted to her carriage, and under a similar escort with Captain Moore, who was kind and gentlemanly in his deportment, the carriage started for the Ferry.

The substance of Brown’s interview with his wife was relative to a settlement of his monetary affairs, and the disposition of his body. Previous to her arrival he had desired that his body should be burned, and the ashes thereof urned, and in this condition removed. He also expressed as a desire that the bodies of his two sons [Oliver and Watson Brown], who were killed at Harper’s Ferry, should be disinterred, and after undergoing a similar process, be placed in the same urn with his own, and taken North.

This would have been impossible as the physicians of Winchester had secured their bodies and dissected them.

Gov. Wise had given an order to the effect that if any person called for the body of Brown, who was entitled to it that the sheriff should hand the same over, and Mrs. Brown was assured by the authorities that the body would be sent to her address at Harper’s Ferry. Brown spent two or three hours last night, writing and reading, and then retired to rest. He slept soundly and rose about six o’clock, cheerful and apparently unconcerned about the fate that awaited him. About half past seven o’clock, after partaking of breakfast, Captain Avis, who had been very kind to Brown, and who had endeared himself thereby, informed him that he could see [John E.] Cook, Coppic [Edwin Coppoc] and the other prisoners, if he desired. Accordingly, he was conducted to the room of Cook first.

Interview between Brown and his fellow prisoners

On entering, a kind recognition took place, when Captain Brown said, addressing Cook: “I am sorry you have not confined yourself to the truth in your statement called your confession. I never sent you to Harper’s Ferry as a spy, and your statement to that effect is false.”

Cook: “You certainly did.”

Captain Brown (in a commanding tone): “I did not, sir, you have, by your course, held yourself up as an object of contempt, and deservedly so.”

At this remark, Cook’s head fell and he made no reply. Brown was next conducted to [Aaron Dwight] Stevens’ room. The meeting between them was cordial. Brown remarked he was about to die, Stevens said, “I feel assured you will go to a better world than this.” Capt. Brown said, “conduct yourself like a man, I know you will do so without my advising.” They again shook hands and parted. He then repaired to the room of Coppic [Coppoc], where a conversation almost similar took place. Thence he went to the rooms of the [N]egros, whom he said he expected to die like men, and as became their condition and position. The [N]egroes gave him the assurance that they would die fearlessly, as they were fully assured that their action was just and proper. Brown then returned to his room, and continued writing for some time.

The execution

As the hour approached for execution, the Medical Faculty in attendance, the Sheriff of the county and the officers of the jail, visited his room and conversed with him. Brown was cheerful, and talked as though the hour which was appointed for his death was indifferent and far in the future. Nothing of any material interest occurred in these interviews.

The departure of the commanding officer from the town was the signal for the bringing out of the prisoner. A furniture wagon driven in front of the jail, and the military formed around it. Brown was then escorted from his room.

He was dressed in a black suit, much worn, the same he had on when he made his attack on the Ferry. He wore a slouched hat, shoes, and red colored stockings. His arms had been pinioned, and he marched out with a firm step and upright head. He was assisted into the wagon and took a seat on his coffin. 

The train then proceeded to the scene of execution. The military escort was large and imposing. There was no music, and nothing was to be heard save the slow, measured tread of the military, and the rumbling of the wheels of the wagon, which was conveying Brown to his death.

Following the military were about two hundred citizens. The gate was entered, and the command brought to a halt. In a few minutes it again started, and proceeded to the gallows. The wagons was stopped a few yards from the steps leading from the platform, and Brown was assisted out, and immediately started for the scaffold. On one side was the Sheriff, on the other side one of his deputies.

Brown ascended the steps with a cheerful look, a firm, unshaken step, and an unblanched eye. Not an exhibition of fear was given. There was no evidence of a consciousness of the terrible tragic scene which was about to take place, and in which he was to be the actor. As soon as he reached the platform, the military which accompanied him filed to the right and left, and took the position which had been previously assigned them. Brown looked at the crowd, then glanced at the scaffold. The deputy Sheriff extended his hand and took that of Brown and, shaking it, bade him farewell.

No ministers were present, owing to the fact that Brown had refused their offices, The Sheriff approached him, shook his hand, and bade him good-bye. Brown stepped forward, when the deputy Sheriff tied his legs, while the Sheriff drew the white cap over his head, and placed the fatal rope about his neck. As soon as this was done, Brown remarked to the Sheriff, “you will have to guide me from this out.” The sheriff asked:

“Captain Brown, have you any thing to say?”

To which he replied, “Nothing.”

Sheriff: “Will you take a handkerchief and use it as a signal, letting it fall when you are ready?”

Captain Brown: “No sir, I am always ready. Do not keep me unnecessarily long.”

The sheriff then stepped aside while the doomed man engaged in prayer. In a few minutes he stepped softly from the scaffold, and on leaving it, the deputy Sheriff sprung the trap, and J. Brown was suspended between the heavens and the earth.

Not a sound was heard except for the creaking of the timbers of the scaffold and the whipping sound of the wind as it played with the naked branches of the trees.

After he had hung for twenty minutes, Drs. Girard, D.E. Mason, John A. Straith, John Starry and H.P. Cooke, ascended the platform, and, after feeling his pulse, holding their ears to his chest, pronounced him dead. Ten physicians, attached to the different military corps, then visited him, each one of them felt his pulse, and pronounced him dead. Thus ended this tragic scene, which commenced in violence and murder, and closed in shame and death.


On the road to the scaffold, Brown remarked to the undertaker, who was in the wagon with him, on observing the military in the field: “The have excluded all.” “Yes,” was the reply. Captain Brown said: “Gentlemen you are very calm and collected, much more so than I am; and your condition is much more critical. I am cool,” said he, “I have suffered much more from modesty, in my lifetime, than I have from fear. For thirty years I have been educated to look on fear as a myth and now I do not know what it is.” After riding some distance further, and being beyond the limits of the town he said, addressing the same gentleman, “What a beautiful country you have; I had no idea of its beauties and the excellence of the soil. This is true first time I have had the pleasure of seeing it.” No other conversation took place, and he quietly proceed to his death.

Just previous to starting for the execution, Brown wrote the following and handed it to Mr. Hiram O’Bannon:

“I am now convinced that the great iniquity which hangs over this country cannot be purged without immense bloodshed. When I first came to this State I thought differently, but am now convinced that I was mistaken.”

He requested Mr. O’Bannon not to give publicity to the above.

After the body of Brown had hung for thirty-eight minutes, it was cut down and placed in the coffin. The rope with which he was hung, was taken in charge by an officer, and afterwards cut into pieces and distributed to those who were anxious to have it. Parties cut the timbers off the gallows, and carried away the pieces, while others secured a lock of his hair. When the body was placed in the coffin it was conveyed to town and placed in the jail. Many persons desired to visit the jail for the purpose of seeing it, but their curiosity was not gratified. A special train of cars were ordered from the Ferry, and at half past one o’clock, under a strong military escort the coffin was removed from the jail to the cars, where it was placed in a special one, and an escort getting on the train proceeded to the Ferry, where it arrived at half-past seven o’clock.

Author’s conclusion

I want to pay attention to the language used in the article.

First, note the categorization of Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry as “violence and murder” and Brown’s execution as “shame and death.”

Also note the identification of the two white prisoners by name and the other prisoners identification by their skin color. Without further information, it’s hard to tell who they actually were. It’s likely they were John Anthony Copeland Jr. and Shields Green, both of whom were captured and executed alongside Brown in Virginia. 

According to BlackPast, Copeland was born free in North Carolina and spent much of his life in Ohio. He attended Oberlin College and joined the active abolitionist community in the Oberlin area. In 1858, the year before the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Copeland took part in the famous Oberlin-Wellington Rescue to free John Price from the custody of federal marshals. Joining Brown and other freedom fighters, Copeland was captured during the raid and handed the death penalty. He was 23-years-old when he was hanged.

Shields Green was born into slavery in South Carolina and found his freedom through the Underground Railroad. Connecting with Frederick Douglass, Green joined the abolitionist cause to fight for freedom. He was captured at Harper’s Ferry and was hanged. His exact birth year is unknown, but he was likely in his early twenties or thirties. Greene’s body was given to Virginia’s Winchester Medical School, and Green never received a proper burial, let alone that of a hero. 

While we may not see chattel slavery in the same form today, slavery as an institution still exists. We’re still fighting for the same values as our predecessors: for freedom, justice, and equality for all. We can learn a lot from them, both their mistakes and remarkable successes.

References and further readings

  1. Bill Bigelow, “‘If there is no struggle…’: Teaching a people’s history of the abolition movement, Zinn Education Project, available here.
  2. Frank Chapman, Marxist-Leninist perspectives on Black Liberation and Socialism (Minneapolis: Freedom Road Socialist Organization, 2021).
  3. Frederick Douglass, “Speech: Frederick Douglass on John Brown, 1860,” Black Agenda Report, 20 October 2021, available here.
  4. Curry Malott, A history of education for the many: From colonization and slavery to the decline of US imperialism (London: Blooomsbury, 2021), available here.
  5. Neely Tucker, “Hearing Frederick Douglass: His speech on John Brown,” Timeless: Stories from the Library of Congress, 05 June 2022, available here.
  6. Ariana Westbrook, “John Anthony Copeland Jr. (1836-1859),” BlackPast, 28 March 2009, available here.
  7. Paul Wilcox, “Abolitionist solidarity: Black and white in the struggle against slavery,” Liberation School, 07 September 2020, available here.
  8. Shirley Yee, “Shields Green (c. 1830-1859),” BlackPast, 24 May 2011, available here.
  9. Karlson Yu, “Harpers Ferry Raid, 1859,” BlackPast, 12 June 2008, available here.

Featured Photo: Thomas Hovenden, The Last Moments of John Brown, 1882-84, Oil on canvas, 77 3/8 x 66 1/4 in. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Stoeckel, 1897 (97.5). Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image via Wally Gobetz on Flickr.