"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Confabulation and Fabrication: Russell Conwell on John Brown

Russell H. Conwell (1843-1925) was a big deal.  Born to a pious Methodist farmer and reared "on a 350-acre hardscrabble subsistence farm in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts," Conwell grew up near South Worthington, about 15 miles from Westfield, Mass. He was a climber by all accounts.  He left home in 1861 and enrolled at Yale University to study law, but returned to Massachusetts when the Civil War began.  He enlisted in--and perhaps was responsible for recruiting the entire--Company F, 46th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, where he served as captain.

Conwell as Soldier
Conwell and Company F were mustered out in July 1863.  Conwell was wounded and became sick, but after recovering, he reenlisted, becoming captain of Company D, 2nd Regiment, Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. In 1864, when he went on an errand with permission but without proper documentation in North Carolina, Conwell was courtmartialed and dismissed from the service on May 20, 1864.1

Afterward, Conwell worked as a reporter for the Boston Evening Traveller and the American Traveller, and enjoyed adventures overseas.  He also wrote a number of biographies of contemporary political figures like Presidents Grant, Hayes, and Garfield, and other works of contemporary historical interest, from an account of an 1872 fire in Boston to issues relating to Chines immigration and to the life of the famous English preacher, Charles Spurgeon.
Writer and Preacher
State Library of Mass.

By 1876, Conwell had changed tracks, finding his vocation in pastoral ministry and leading a feeble Baptist congregation in Lexington, Mass.  He is credited for reviving the church, and three years later was ordained at the Andover Newton Seminary.  His next pastoral charge in 1882 was a step up, when Conwell assumed the pulpit of the Grace Baptist Church, in Philadelphia, Pa.  As one author put it, "Conwell’s energy, organizational skills and gifted oratory attracted many new parishioners, and soon there was not enough room to accommodate all who wished to worship at the church and to listen to the brilliant, entertaining and motivating pastor."2  Conwell's fame preceded him because of his oratorical labors on the Chautauqua circuit, a popular effort in the 19th century that enabled authors and artists of all kinds to present and perform in a kind of big tent show throughout much of the heartland of the United States.  One source says Conwell gave one particular speech entitled, "Acres of Diamond," over six-thousand times.  Conwell also wrote books, including an adaptation of this popular tale, in which is considered a "morality tale" that could sound at times like a sermon, then a lecture, and then a dramatic story-telling.

Acres of Prestige
Wikimedia Commons
Conwell was no theologian, but rather an orator and preacher of the American practical religion, not unlike the contemporary preaching of Joel Osteen, dubbed quite unfortunately as "America's Pastor" by some.3  It was not that his work lacked orthodoxy, but whatever the content of his weekly sermons, he is remembered more for morality tales and themes that uplifted the Puritan ethic of family, community, and education.  His "Acres of Diamonds" told the story of Al Hafed a farmer in the east who enjoyed a contented life until he became obsessed to find diamonds.  After scouring much of the middle east, Al Hafed exhausted his resources and had to return to his home on the River Indus.  It was only then that he discovered that his own land was diamond rich.   Conwell's moral was that one should not think that wealth can be obtained only outside of his own place and context, but that wealth could be made in one's own circumstances.

A partial list of Conwell's books suggest this was the line of his inspirational ministry: Acres of Diamonds (1890, 1915); The Key to Success (1917); Increasing Personal Efficiency (1917); Every Man His Own University (1917); What You Can Do With Your Will Power (1917); Praying for Money (1921); Health, Healing and Faith (1921); Subconscious Religion (1921), and Unused Powers (1922).  [A longer list can be found on the website of Grace Baptist Church of Bluebell, Pa.] As one chronicler put it: "Conwell’s message had a larger purpose transcending contemporary wisdom. The pathway to personal success, he stressed, was largely education. Educated persons, in turn, were obligated to serve the less fortunate and to help them realize their full potential. Further, it was the duty of all to meet the needs of the community. “We must know what the world needs first,” said Conwell, “and then invest ourselves to supply that need, and success is almost certain.”4

Philadelphia Pastor
Grace Baptist Church
To his credit, Conwell's pastorate involved ministries to the poor across ethnic lines, although his interests increasingly led toward education.  In the 1880s, his tutoring of young ministry students led to the formation of a school in the church basement, and then the formation of Temple College in 1887.  Of course, this was the first manifestation of today's Temple University.5  Conwell is also the namesake of one of the theological schools that combined to make the notable Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in Gloucester, Mass.

Confabulation and Fabrication

While all of this is generally interesting for anyone with an appetite for 19th century U.S. history, what captured my interest in Conwell was coming upon the little book he wrote late in life, Why Lincoln Laughed (1922).6   In this work, Conwell included in chapter 8, entitled "Lincoln and John Brown, in which Conwell reflects upon his childhood reminiscences of John Brown the abolitionist.  The gist of the chapter was to contrast Brown was a devout, godly, and heroic man who was dour and humorless, with the warmth of President Lincoln, whom he claimed to have spoken with during the Civil War.  Referring to Brown, Conwell says he knew him "intimately in my boyhood days" as "high minded, probably as anyone who ever lived," and while regarded as a saint by many, "never captured the heart of the people as Abraham Lincoln did, and to-day is virtually forgotten."7

Conwell claimed to have had a "long interview" with Lincoln in the winter of 1864, where he informed Lincoln about his John Brown backstory. He says that he had gone to Washington to plead for a pardon for a friend, but Diane Brenner assures me that this is highly unlikely, and her familiarity with the topic is well studied.8  Equally problematic is Conwell's claim that his father had a wool business partnership with Brown for many years in Springfield, Mass., and "was a frequent and intimate caller at our house."  He writes that his father and Brown were closely associated in the underground railroad and discussed his plans for a slave uprising at their table "again and again for years before the Harper's Ferry raid finally took place." He says that John Brown kept a "summer place" in the Adirondacks, "and when he left there a man remained behind in the old cabin to help the slaves escape." Of course, this is quite incorrect.  According to Conwell, the underground railroad ran from Springfield to Bellows Falls on his father's branch and claimed it was common for his father's woodshed to be filled with fugitives.9

Conwell claimed that Lincoln was very much interested in what he could learn about John Brown.  He says that he told Lincoln that his mother thought Brown a monomaniac despite his father's devotion to him.  "Nobody could be more earnest or sincere than Lincoln, but he could laugh; John Brown could not." Conwell compares Brown, in his "earliest impression as a little boy," to "one of the old prophets" with his "long beard and [he] was always very, very serious."10

"The first great man
I ever saw"
Conwell says his father was a Methodist but he never heard that John Brown was a member of any church, although actually he was a Congregationalist.  He says that Brown was at his house nearly every month, and that his father and Brown would sit at the dining room table and talk late into the night, poring over maps and lists of memoranda.  He describes Brown's voice as "low, even-toned."  He also claims that William Lloyd Garrison had told Brown that his Virginia plan "was a very foolish enterprise."11  It is very doubtful that Brown divulged his Virginia plan to Garrison, whom he respected but would not have trusted.

He says the last time he saw John Brown, he had driven out to our house before leaving Springfield to go to Harper's Ferry, and that his father drove Brown to Huntington railroad station, then known as Chester Village.  He claimed that John Brown wrote to his father from jail in Virginia before being executed, but he does not paraphrase the letter, let alone quote from it.12

In what clearly was an authorized "great man" type of biography by Agnes Burr, Conwell tells his writer that John Brown was a frequent visitor to his childhood home.  He told Burr that Brown was "the first great man I ever saw."13

In an interview with Burr, Conwell dated a visit by Brown to his home as taking place in 1852, when Conwell would have been nine years of age.  According to the account, Conwell had barged into the cold northwest bedroom of their house, thinking that a favorite uncle had come to stay.  Instead he discovered "a giant," who was so long in bed that his toes stood up at the footboard, with long hair "spread out over the pillow and his long gray whiskers."  He claims he was terrified by Brown's "huge size" of "that awful giant." Afterward, he and his brother grew to love JB, a man with a benign smile, "one of the loveliest men we ever knew."14  Indeed, in the account given to Burr, John Brown becomes "Uncle Brown" and had even taken young Conwell to school in his wagon.  He says the last time that he and his brother Charles saw Brown, he had told them to stay at home "with the old folks."15

The Conwell home in South Worthington,
where John Brown visited in the early 1840s
Although he misdates the day of Brown's hanging as Dec. 9, 1859, he repeats the claim that his father had received a letter from Brown in jail, adding that in the letter Brown "sent his love" to him and his brother, "asking them to think of him sometimes in after life as a man who had humbly tried to do his duty."   He says on the day Brown was hanged, his home was full of sorrow and his parents did not eat, and his father wept aloud when the clock struck noon on that "awful day."  Conwell concluded that losing Brown "filled us with extreme prejudices against the people of the South," and "our souls were filled with bitterness and hatred," and he uses this point to emphasize "how useless and fratricidal, after all, that war was.  How much better it would have been to have accepted President Lincoln's recommendation and purchased the slaves of the South at their normal valuation and set them free without revolution and without bloodshed."16

Conwell also told Burr that his family had Frederick Douglass in their home as a guest, and that young Conwell thought him too light-skinned to be a black man.17  He told Burr that his first lectures were given about John Brown, when he sold Redpath's biography, which would have been in 1860, when he was about seventeen-years-old.18

Interestingly, with but one exception, there is no significant mention of Brown in an earlier and more professional biographical work by Albert Hatcher Smith, The Life of Russell H. Conwell (1899).
Without any apparent reference to his boyhood, instead Smith includes the transcript of Conwell's "Acres of Diamonds" speech, in which Conwell identifies himself with lawyers, whom he lauds for serving humanity.  Among these admirable lawyers, Conwell alludes to--but does not name--George H. Hoyt, whom he had probably met on the lecture circuit.   In the speech, Conwell says that he had  met "one who defended poor John Brown, of Ossawatomie--the indiscreet but martyr-like lover of the slaves."  This lawyer "went from home and safety to meet foes and danger, that the accused might have all of the few privileges known to the slaveholder's law."19

Stutler: Conwell not
an authoritative source
on John Brown
Toward the Truth

After my initial reading of some Conwell sources, I was naturally provoked to interest as to establishing a base line of historicity (if possible) in Conwell's references to John Brown.  My first inclination, upon reading the obviously stylized material in Why Lincoln Laughed was to consult the Stutler Papers.  It is still hard to beat old Boyd B., and sure enough I found some evidence that Stutler was aware of Why Lincoln Laughed--and granted it no historical value.   In 1960, a professor of journalism from Temple University contacted Stutler about Conwell's references to Brown.  Stutler replied that he had Brown's wool business letter books and never saw his name in any of his correspondence.20  In all my studies over the years, neither have I.

In 1963, Stutler got a letter from a Philadelphia admirer of Conwell, recounting the latter's intimate connections with John Brown.   Stutler wrote back, telling the man that after investigation of Brown's papers, he had "found nothing," and did not consider Conwell "an authoritative source."   The man was outraged and wrote back to "deplore" Stutler's conclusions, and then lectured him on Conwell's reliability.21  Given Stutler's disregard for Conwell, I nearly closed the case and moved onto grading final papers (which is what I should be doing now.)   Certainly, Conwell's narratives, conveyed later in life to his admiring bio-stylist, Agnes Burr, and in his own self-flattering, Why Lincoln Laughed, are fraught with confabulations at best, and fabrications at worst.  It is also interesting that the more substantial biography by Albert Hatcher Smith in 1899 has almost no mention of Brown whatever.  It is thus necessary to start at a minimalist baseline.

It is feasible that John Brown was an associate of Conwell's pious Methodist parents, Martin and Meranda Conwell.  The Conwells were abolitionists by reputation and there is no reason to doubt that John Brown probably met them in his early sheep-and-wool surveys throughout the northeast.  I have surveyed this period elsewhere, and I am quite certain that Brown traversed western Massachusetts in the early-mid 1840s when he was honing his specialization as a wool guru.  His travels really kicked into high gear after he partnered with Simon Perkins of Akron, Ohio, when he visited many farms as northward as Vermont and Maine and as southward as Virginia.  His study of flocks and breeds undoubtedly gave the Perkins flock its great reputation, which can be found in contemporary agricultural journals from the mid-1840s.   Often, too, Brown blended antislavery interests in meeting farmers and wool growers, and so the idea that Brown knew and stayed with the Conwells is entirely feasible.

Happily, a local historian named Diane Brenner, from South Worthington, Mass., has been greatly helpful by confirming the following details: Martin Conwell (1812-1874) was a strident abolitionist.  He and his wife Meranda left the Methodist Episcopal Church and joined an antislavery Wesleyan-Methodist church because the latter was pronounced in its view of slavery.  Brenner believes that Russell Conwell's narrative was greatly exaggerated, although she has evidence that Martin and Meranda donated $10 to John Brown's cause.  "It is likely that as sheep farmers and abolitionists they met John Brown during the time he first came to the area to sell wool," Brenner writes.22 This is helpful, although Brown did not so much sell wool as he did examine flocks and breeds.  After 1846, however, he would have been interested in getting Conwell to sell his wool through the Perkins and Brown operation in Springfield.  But since there is no reference to Conwell in Brown's business letters, I doubt this was the case.   I believe it is more likely that Brown and the Conwells knew each other from the earlier 1840s, perhaps from about 1844 or 1845.

Graves of Martin, Meranda, and son Charles Conwell
in South Worthington, Mass. (Find a Grave)  Russell is buried
on the grounds of Temple University in Philadelphia
As to Brown's antislavery interests, he was in touch with the right people.  Brenner says the Conwells "were also likely part of a wider network stretching north through Worthington, into Cummington and Plainfield."  She correctly recalls that Plainfield was where the school run by the Reverend Moses Hallock was located, and where Brown attended briefly as a youth.  Hallock continued there into the 1840s, so this would have been another reason for Brown's visits to the area.  Brenner says some locals in this area were participants in the Underground Railroad along this route.23

What of Russell Conwell's memories of John Brown?   Personally, I doubt any of them are substantial and most of what he has written must range from confabulation to fabrication.  I do not believe the "Uncle Brown" reminiscences are true at all, and certainly his descriptions of Brown are physically incorrect and inappropriate to chronology.  Most obvious, Brown was not a "giant" man.  In 1852, when he describes a visit by Brown in his home, the abolitionist did not have long hair and a long beard, and he was not so tall that his feet would have been propped up on the bed.  This either is fiction or he has confused another visitor in memory.  Since Conwell was born in 1843, he might have had some vague memory of Brown's visits in the later 1840s, but it is doubtful Brown was so frequently in their home, and certainly there was no wool business operation in Springfield that involved the elder Conwell.  For whatever reason, Martin Conwell seems to have had no wool business dealings with Brown in Springfield in the later 1840s.  Still, it is possible that Brown visited them occasionally and that he did talk to Martin Conwell about slavery, although how much Brown revealed at that date is unclear.   Perhaps if Brown assisted fugitives from slavery while in Springfield, he may have looked to the Conwells for some assistance.  But again I doubt there was much frequency, and Brenner doubts very much that the Conwells were that busily engaged in underground railroad activity the way Russell Conwell later recounted the story.
Brown as he looked
in the 1840s

Since Brown knew the Conwells from the 1840s, it is possible that the younger Conwell did see Brown occasionally afterward.  For instance, Brown was in Springfield in February 1852 on business; did he venture out to South Worthington to visit the Conwells?  It is possible.  He traveled through western Massachusetts in late 1852, and then again in February 1853.  Any one of these visits might have entailed stopping by to see the Conwells.  Interestingly, too, Brown visited Springfield after returning from Kansas, in February 1857, when it is even more likely that he would have sought out the aid of the Conwells (this may be when he received $10 from Martin Conwell, but I'd have to confirm that with Diane Brenner).   More likely, he seems to have been in Springfield for an extended visit in March-April 1857, and one might wager that this visit included a meeting with the Conwells.  There is no evidence in Brown's letters that he returned to western Massachusetts after 1857, although it is possible that he made a flying visit there sometime in late May-early June 1859.  But without any evidence of a stop, the idea that a bearded John Brown ever visited the Conwell household seems quite unlikely.

Temple UniversityLibraries
John Brown as a Reinvention

Russell Conwell was by all accounts a notable figure in 19th century U.S. history, a man of high profile, considerable gifts and talents, and of no small success.  Unlike other confabulators and fabricators of the John Brown myth, Conwell at least was not using the abolitionist to attain popularity, as was the case with the Canadian fraud, Alexander Milton Ross.  Ross spun an ornate web of lies and went to the point of inventing letters from John Brown so he could wile his way into the hearts of Brown's children. 

Conwell was already a success and it is more likely that he was just spinning yarns from the slight fabric of memory and family history.   I would like to believe that in Russell Conwell's early childhood memory, he could recall John Brown--at least, the figure of a kind man that he later was told had been John Brown the abolitionist.  The fact is that when John Brown was most present in his home, he was too young to know him or recall him in any significant manner.  It is clear that in some cases Conwell is familiar with Brown's narrative from other authors.  His description of Brown from his "earliest impression, as a little boy" as  looking like "one of the old prophets" with his "long beard" reminded me immediately of the description of Brown in 1858 by the wife of Martin Delany, preserved in Rollin's sketch of Martin Delany (1883): "She described him as having a long, white beard, very gray hair, a sad but placid countenance; in speech he was peculiarly solemn; she added, 'He looked like one of the old prophets.'"24
He wasn't "Uncle Brown"

Many of the descriptions provided of Brown by Conwell are clearly fictional, from physical descriptions to the description of his voice.  Brown was wiry and muscular, but he was not tall or big-boned.  His voice has never been described as low or deep.  More likely he spoke with a nasal tone and an Ohio twang (example saying "boosh" for "bush.")   Conwell, if he saw Brown in the later 1850s, never saw him with a beard.  He wasn't "Uncle Brown" and I doubt very much that Brown ever took him to school. 

John Brown as a Device

Assuming that only a small percent of Conwell's description of Brown is reliable, the question is why a successful man felt it necessary to spin so much confabulation and fabrication about him.  I suppose that no matter how successful a man becomes, he always wants to be more successful.   By1922, Conwell was an old man and in decline.  It is not unusual for elderly people to specialize in tall tales, either to enhance their profiles or extend the viability of their public profile.  I would assume the latter with Conwell--that by 1922, he needed to connect with a larger-than-life Lincoln in order to recapture the fame and popularity he had enjoyed in earlier decades.

If there is another device in Conwell's "memory" of Brown it is to convey his political sensibilities, and these are a mirror of the times.  By 1922, Abraham Lincoln had been fully deified in American memory as the redeemer of the Republic.  The historical wind had shifted from the late 19th century heroism of John Brown and yielded to the new century of white nation-building-and-expansion.  Reconstruction was long dead, Jim Crow and de jure segregation was now in power, and the plight of African Americans was put to the side as immigrants and industrialization defined the nation's modern comeuppance.  In such a context, John Brown declined in national memory, particularly in white national memory.  Oswald Villard had already written his blaming biography of Brown twelve years before (1910), and from this point until about 1970, the 20th century would steadily become more hostile to the memory of the abolitionist, even as it became more adoring and worshipful of Lincoln.

Conwell: Lincoln "captured the
heart of the people"
This is exactly the trajectory implied by Conwell's assessment in Why Lincoln Laughed: John Brown may have been "high minded, probably as anyone who ever lived," he writes.  But while regarded as a saint by many, Brown "never captured the heart of the people as Abraham Lincoln did, and to-day is virtually forgotten."25   This reading of the past is part-and-parcel of the great revision revealed in David Blight's Race and Reunion--the retro reading of the 19th century struggle over slavery from the presumptions of racial revisionism and privilege.

This is likewise apparent when Conwell tells Agnes Burr that losing Brown "filled us with extreme prejudices against the people of the South," and that "our souls were filled with bitterness and hatred." But rather than a mere description of the past, Conwell's point is to  emphasize "how useless and fratricidal, after all, that war was.  How much better it would have been to have accepted President Lincoln's recommendation and purchased the slaves of the South at their normal valuation and set them free without revolution and without bloodshed."26
Conwell: John Brown is
"virtually forgotten"

This is the voice of historical regret--not merely that many lives were lost, but that so many white lives were lost to liberate the enslaved blacks of the United States.  John Brown was now bound up with the regrets of white society--regrets that it had shed so much blood so "uselessly," and that "bitterness and hatred" had clouded the vision of North and South, when the bond of family (and race) lay between them.  After all, Conwell is saying, that war to end slavery simply cost too much.  Better to have made the South richer by buying their slaves--even though he apparently forgot that in the 1860s the South was not in the market for selling off her slaves.  Rather, the South wished to multiply them and expand the territory of slavery farther west and southwest.   John Brown had seen this and had taken action.  He had planned "revolution," Conwell suggests, and the nation would have been better without him and his plans, just as it would have been better without the Civil War. 

This is really what Conwell meant when he portrayed Lincoln as a man of laughter, beloved of the people.  Quite in contrast, the time for a humorless John Brown was past.  For Russell Conwell in 1922, John Brown was ill-suited to the new century--"virtually forgotten."

Perhaps this is why Conwell's Lincoln laughs.

      1 In some sources I've read online, the military court martial and discharge of Russell Conwell is treated as a controversy emanating from his critics.  However, Diane Brenner of the South Worthington (Mass.) Historical Society has kindly provided me with copies of his court martial guilty verdict and officers' casualty sheet showing his dismissal.
      2 "Russell H. Conwell."  Excerpted from James Hilty, Temple University: 125 Years of Service to Philadelphia, the Nation, and the World. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010).  Retrieved from the website of Temple University (https://goo.gl/e8uJyb).
      3  For example, "Mr. Conwell [as a mature preacher presented] the great truths relative to the Third Person of the Trinity from a practical rather than a doctrinal standpoint." Albert H. Smith, The Life of Russell H. Conwell (New York: Silver, Burdett Co., 1899), p. 161.   
      4  "Russell H. Conwell," Temple University website.
      5  I am not particularly interested in providing an extensively researched sketch of Conwell's life, but there are abundant sources on the internet by and about Russell H. Conwell for those who are interested, beginning with the Internet Archives.  My sketch is based largely on the Temple University website sketch by James Hilty, and also some use of the Wikipedia article about him. 
      6 Russell H. Conwell, Why Lincoln Laughed (New York: Harper Brothers, 1922).
      7 Ibid., pp. 136-37.
      8 Ibid., p. 143; Electronic communication from Diane Brenner to Louis DeCaro Jr., Apr. 22, 2018.
      9 Conwell, Why Lincoln Laughed, pp. 137-38.
    10 Ibid., pp. 138-39.
    11 Ibid., pp. 140-41.
    12 Ibid., p. 142.
    13 Agnes Rush Burr, Russell H. Conwell and His Work: One Man's Interpretation of Life (Phil: John C. Winston Co., 1917), p. 48.
    14 Ibid., p. 49.
    15 Ibid., pp. 50-51.
    16 Ibid., pp. 52-53.
    17 Ibid., p. 53.
    18 Ibid., p. 327.
    19 Smith, The Life of Russell H. Conwell, p. 331.
    20 Boyd B. Stutler to Joseph C. Carter, Nov. 12, 1960, RP01-0076B, Stutler Papers, West Virginia Memory Project.
    21  See Stutler's Feb.-Mar. 1963 correspondence with David Keiser, Stutler Papers.
    22  Electronic mail from Diane Brenner to Louis DeCaro Jr.,  Apr. 18, 2018.  Diane has kindly provided me the source for the elder Conwell's gift to Brown.  "Martin Conwell gave ten dollars to John Brown of the Harper's Ferry raid."    Rev. George Reed Moody, The South Worthington Parish (South Worthington, Mass., 1905), p. 79.
    23  Ibid.
    24  [Frances] A. Rollin, Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1883), p. 85.
    25   Conwell, Why Lincoln Laughed, pp. 136-137.
    26   Burr, Russell Conwell and His Work, p. 53.  Emphasis added.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

In the News: From Kansas City to "Mutton Hill"

Two Martyrs Remembered

Attendees leave garlands of hearts in
commemoration of King and Brown
(Mary Rupert, Wyandotte Daily)

Yesterday a memorial program marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. was held at the Quindaro John Brown statue in Kansas City, Kan.  Mary Rupert of the Wyandotte Daily online has an excellent report with photos that was posted in the April 5th edition (https://goo.gl/a5Sgp3).

As Rupert observed, the memorial program "was an answer to the vandalism with hate slurs discovered March 18 at the John Brown statue."  Rupert also points out that the erection of the Brown statue by the black community in 1910 was prompted by the election of a racist mayor in Kansas City, Kan. 

The memorial was attended by students, educators, community leaders, and by John Brown scholar and local historian, Fred Whitehead.  One of the featured speakers, Commissioner Harold Johnson, commented:
   “Let us not fool ourselves, my brothers and sisters, there are still forces, even within our community, who allow evil to dictate their motivations,” Johnson said. “Those who would stoop so low as to deface this monument of hope, such as this John Brown memorial, we can look to history as our guide, because we can see even 50 years ago there were those who sought to silence Dr. King. They stood against his position of nonviolent civil discord. Even during this season of Easter, we are reminded of those who defamed the personhood of Christ. So while those moments in time served as a stain on the consciousness of our community, our beloved community, those heinous moments did not and must not cause the efforts of righteousness and equity to cease and desist.”

Wool Days in Akron Revisited

 The Summit County Historical Society (SCHS) in Akron, Ohio, has found some creative ways to revisit the days of John Brown and his wealthy partner, Simon Perkins Jr.   The Perkins mansion was reopened yesterday (Apr. 4) with a self-guided tour ($8 for adults and $2 for students), available from Wednesday through Saturday from 1-4 p.m. (The cost for guided tours is $12. Guided tours are now by appointment only.)  

More interesting perhaps is the news from SCHS that sheep have been restored as a presence on the grounds of the Perkins property for the first time since the mid-19th century, when John Brown resided in Akron, acting as the supervisor of the Perkins flocks and farm (1850-54).  In those days, the Perkins residence was nicknamed "Mutton Hill" by Akronites.  Here is the notice from the SCHS website:
Sheep Graze Again At Perkins Mansion 
The Society's board of directors in May approved a proposal to return a flock of Dorset sheep to the grounds of the Perkins mansion this summer. "It will be the first time in a century that the home of Akron's founding family will see the return of the animal that first made Simon Perkins and John Brown famous," says Society chairman Dave Lieberth. The proposal calls for the demonstration project to be underway by the Society's annual Family Fun Day, Saturday, July 16, and continue through August or later, depending on weather and grazing conditions. 

"Mutton Hill" is the name that residents of 19th century Akron gave to Perkins' 150-acre farm, known for its 1,500 sheep that were reputed to produce some of the finest wool in the world. The Society is collaborating with The Spicy Lamb Farm of Peninsula to bring the sheep to the mansion grounds. Owner Laura DeYoung Minnig, who is also the Executive Director of Urban Shepherds, says "I'm excited to promote urban sheep grazing as a cost-saving and environmental alternative to mowing, while educating youth and recruiting future shepherds." 

In 1844, Col. Simon Perkins employed abolitionist John Brown to tend the flock of Merino sheep. Brown lived with his family in the 2-room house at Diagonal and Copley Roads, and traveled to Europe to promote the Perkins-Brown partnership. "We want to interpret the importance of agriculture in Summit County's growth and development before it became a manufacturing center," says Society CEO Leianne Neff Heppner. For generations of the Perkins family lived at the Stone Mansion estate. Ohio was a major producer of mutton and wool in the 19th century. All of the soldiers in the Civil War wore wool uniforms. Lieberth says sheep dog herding demonstrations, craft activities for children, fiber art, and wool spinning will also engage visitors to the properties this summer.


On January 11, 1844, John Brown wrote to his namesake, informing him of his new partnership with Simon Perkins Jr.:
I have lately entered into a partnership with Simon Perkins Jr of Akron with a view to carry on the Sheep business extensively.  He is to furnish all the feed, & shelters for wintering as a set off against our takeing all the care of the flock.  All other expences we are to share equally, & to divide the proffits equally.  This arangement will reduce our cash rents at least $250 yearly & save our hireing help in Haying. [John Brown Jr. Papers, Ohio Historical Society] 
The Practical Shepherd
ca. 1857
(Kan. State Hist. Soc.)
As a side note, Brown was rejoicing that the partnership would be profitable, particularly as he would save $250 annually on rental and hiring help for haying.  In 2018 dollars, Brown was talking about saving as much as $8,000 a year.  Keep in mind that Brown was already under the employ of another prosperous Ohio figure, Heman Oviatt of Richfield, Ohio.  Brown was doing similar work with Oviatt and had begun to build quite a profile as an expert in fine sheep and wool by 1844, when he was hired by Perkins to come to Akron. Part of Brown's genius as a sheep "guru" was extensive traveling and surveying of flocks throughout the east, as far north as Vermont and as far south as Virginia.  His skill and expertise in breeding made him both a recognized expert in the field and a prospective leader among the wool growers.  This led to his (and Perkins') failed foray into the wool commission business between 1846-49, in Springfield, Mass.  However, after the closing of the wool commission house, Brown returned to Akron and remained in partnership with Perkins for four more years.  So much for the hackneyed claim that he was an utter failure in business.
Simon Perkins Jr.
in later life (ca. 1870)

While most historians make quick work of this period of Brown's life in order to rush to "Bleeding Kansas," I find the period of the Perkins-Brown collaboration most interesting and inspiring.  In some sense, one will never learn more about the man John Brown than one will by observing him in the years of this partnership.   When one is reminded that Brown and Perkins were partners for a full decade (1844-54), then it is important to note that the narrative of this period contradicts the hackneyed notion of Brown as an utter failure who turned to abolition as a kind of last effort to redeem himself.  The John Brown of the Perkins and Brown period was a maturing, active, and self-restrained figure--managing farm, flocks, and wool business concerns while intensely observing the slavery issue, engaging in conversations with abolitionists, and planning his own antislavery effort. The idea that he did not become the John Brown we know until he went to Kansas is utterly false.  Personally, though, I treasure the vignette of the "practical shepherd," the man who took great pains to care for the sheep and who believed that each sheep had a distinct face, just as do people.  

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

"Legends & Lies," and Some Errors Too

Last evening, the first installment of season three of “Legends & Lies”premiered on the Fox News Channel.  According to Fox News Insider: “The 12-episode miniseries, hosted by Brian Kilmeade, vividly recounts America’s epic struggle over slavery and freedom through the stories of the war’s greatest heroes and villains, including Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, John Wilkes Booth and Frederick Douglass.” 

Overall, “Legends & Lies” (heretofore, L/L) has much to commend it.  For the most part, its dramatic representations of history are nicely done, and despite some notable errors, the guiding narrative scripted for Kilmeade leans toward fairness, and in some places is quite satisfying in comparison to the documentaries on Brown that have preceded over the past twenty years.  Indeed, one gets the impression from the full run of this episode that those who produced it actually recognize that antislavery violence may be justified, particularly given by the expansive evil that was “the crime of slavery.”   This is not something that has ever been stated in documentaries on PBS or The History Channel.

Despite the criticisms that follow, L/L's John Brown episode did not leave me unsettled or annoyed on the whole.  To be sure, the actor who was cast as John Brown was too young and too stout, and really did not look anything like the abolitionist.  In contrast, the producers of L/L did a much better job of casting for Lincoln, so this was a visual disappointment.   On the other hand, there were small details that impressed me.   At the time of the Harper’s Ferry raid, Brown is shown wearing some kind of fur hat, and although he looks more like Daniel Boone than John Brown, at least the producers of L/L did their homework and tried: at Harper's Ferry, Brown was described as having worn an otter skin cap.    In the execution scene, a woman wearing a bonnet is seen watching Brown’s on the gallows, although the narrator points out that no civilians were present.  As far as the visuals go, this L/L episode really merits commendation.  I was particularly impressed by the moving panorama of antebellum New York City portrayed just before Abraham Lincoln is pictured speaking at the Cooper Union.  Having appreciated some aspects of L/L, a good many things came up that merit closer consideration if not criticism.

Juxtapositions: Pottawatomie, a Boyhood Memory, and the Sumner Caning Fiction

At the onset of the episode, the Pottawatomie killings of May 1856 are juxtaposed with John Brown’s experience as a traumatized twelve-year-old, forced to watch a white man brutally beating a young black man with a shovel, an incident that Brown recalled in a letter when he was nearing sixty years of age.  It is an important juxtaposition, although it would have been fair more accurate to have simply contextualized the killings in the political violence that had been unleashed by proslavery terrorists prior to the Pottawatomie incident.  Nevertheless, L/L goes further than any documentary I’ve seen by showing that antislavery people in Kansas were met with violence from the proslavery side.  Of course, L/L does not adequately explain how the Pottawatomie killings were specific to a local threat looming over the Browns as radical abolitionists.

Following the conventional narrative, L/L also connects the Pottawatomie killings to the beating of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina on May 22, 1856, in Washington D.C.   This mistaken notion was addressed on this blog by my able associate and contributor H. Scott Wolfe in 2011 [Aug. 6], when he wrote with well-place sarcasm:

The ruffians sack Lawrence on the 21st, right? Sumner is caned in Washington, D.C. on the afternoon of the 22nd. How does Brown, on the plains of frontier Kansas, learn of it on the same day? Did the New York Tribune rent a Space Shuttle? The telegraph ended at St. Louis…and the tracks to St. Joseph would not be finished until the ‘60s. What did they do? Hire an Olympic swimmer at St. Charles and have him paddle up the Missouri with a message in his trunks?”

 As Wolfe pointed out, the connection of the caning of Sumner to Pottawatomie was fabricated by Brown’s son, Salmon, later in life, but was not really questioned until 1971 by Brown biographer Jules Abels.  As Wolfe concluded, it is clear that Salmon Brown had used the Sumner caning incident to “embellish” his narrative in 1908—an error which ended up in Oswald Villard’s 1909 biography and spread into much of the 20th century literature.  In the same blog entry, too, the reader will find that Salmon had made no mention of the Sumner caning as an influence on Brown when he wrote a detailed account in 1901.  In 2011, Robert McGlone, who is far too inclined to deny incidents in Brown’s life, fortunately took the correct side in challenging the Sumner caning as an influence on the Pottawatomie affair. (As I wrote in 2011: “What surprises me about McGlone, however, is that he does not bother to trace [the Sumner-Pottawatomie link] to Salmon Brown, nor to raise his “memory” thesis, in which he points out the distortions and revisions that sometimes take place in later accounts provided by eyewitnesses.”)

In the Pottawatomie portion, L/L also features some interesting misrepresentations of a secondary nature.  First, the episode shows an enslaved man cowering on the edge of the scene as Brown’s men kill their victims.  Secondly, it also shows Brown shooting one of his fallen foes, who lies moaning at his feet.  The man allegedly shot was James Doyle, one of the local proslavery thugs who intended to attack Brown and his sons but was surprised when his intended victims struck first.

Bullet to the Head

The claim (based on one unreliable source) that Brown killed Doyle by shooting him in the head, actually flies in the face of evidence and testimony, and the most intensive scholarly investigations have found to the contrary.  There is no doubt that Brown actually shot the head of Doyle’s corpse, but the motivation for the act and its meaning to Brown even eluded his sons.  The best discussion on this point is found in McGlone, John Brown’s War Against Slavery (pp. 139-41).  Even Oswald Villard, who was absolutely critical of Brown’s actions at Pottawatomie, concluded that the old man had shot Doyle’s corpse. We may only speculate as to why Brown would shoot a corpse.  One theory is that Brown’s single shot in the night was a signal to the others, still out in the darkness, finishing the bloody work at Pottawatomie.  Another theory is that Brown might have been gripped by the sudden notion that Doyle was still alive, and he shot him to put him out of his misery.  However, I would prefer to think that the shot in the head of Doyle’s corpse was a personal and ceremonial act of desecration—a statement, as it were, from one father to another.  Doyle and his two sons had plotted to kill the Brown boys for their outspoken abolitionism, but the good father had intervened and killed the bad father.   Perhaps the bullet to Doyle’s corpse punctuated the conclusion of the matter as Brown saw it.  He thereafter repeatedly and denied that he had taken part in the killings, and one should understand his claims in the most literal sense.  He was present and commanded the attack, but he had raised his hand against no man alive nor taken a life.

In the end, L/L’s use of the Pottawatomie affair is somewhat better than it has been presented in other TV documentaries, although we have yet to see a television narrative that appreciates the extent of danger that the Browns were facing from proslavery invasion in May 1856.  What was interesting was not that Brown escaped being compared to a terrorist, but that he was described as “equal parts prophet and terrorist.”

Miscellaneous Errors

One important misrepresentation of this L/L episode was the historical premise that following the revolution, the United States had become two nations within one.  According to L/L, the North had become dependent upon industry, and the South had become dependent upon cotton.  This is a skewed and misleading statement and is only true insofar as it reflects the cultural differences that continued to define the contrast between industrialized northern cities and rural southern life.  However, economic and political terms, there was no such contrast.  Northern industry and commerce was directly linked to and dependent upon Southern slavery.  This was no more evident than in the case of New York City, where proslavery interest in business was rife.  As I’ve shown in Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown, the uproar against Brown and against possible southern secession (i.e., for the sustenance of the status quo, including slavery) was fueled largely by political and economic interests in the North.

Another error is made in Kilmeade’s narrative about Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, when he says that “few know that John Brown was part of the same organization of abolitionists.”   Of course, the underground railroad was not an “organization,” but a collaborative system at best.  The underground railroad had no organizational structure, nor officers, nor political documents.  The abolitionist organization that did exist most expansively was William Lloyd’s Garrison’s American Antislavery Society, and John Brown was never a member of this or any organization. (A minor detail regarding Brown and Tubman in Canada is the misspelling of “St. Catherines,” which actually is “St. Catharines” (but now I’m being picky).

Tubman and Brown

Interestingly, perhaps the worst feature in this episode of L/L pertains to Harriet Tubman.  It comes in the form of a frankly stupid, biased, and gratuitous interpolation by Kirk Ellis, the screenplay writing “historian” who is included as one of the program’s “talking heads.”  Ellis’ remark comes in relating the mysterious dream that Harriet Tubman had prior to meeting John Brown, in which she saw the old man and his sons defeated.   Tubman’s dream was symbolic, and in “Fire from the Midst of You,” I have offered an interpretation of the strange imagery of that dream, in which she saw an old, bearded white man as a serpent in the wilderness (see p. 263).  

In L/L, Ellis contorts this religious dimension in Harriet Tubman’s life, referring to her premonitory dream of Brown as a “vision,” which he attributes to a head wound that she had sustained years before while in slavery.  “As a result,” Ellis opines, “she was subject to what we now think was temporal lobe epilepsy, which would give her these stunningly realistic premonitory visions.”   I wonder, who the “we” is who “now think” that Tubman’s spirituality can be summed up by a head wound?   This is a silly speculation, and the subject matter—Harriet’s prophetic dream of John Brown—would have been better left as a mystery of her biography. 

Harper’s Ferry and Some Weak Links

As to the Harper’s Ferry raid, L/L’s screenplay-historian Ellis reiterates the old Virginia myth that Brown intended to seize the arsenal weapons in order to get guns for the slaves.   He tag-teams this nonsense with David Eisenbach of Columbia University, who then rants: “[Brown is] going to send out his men, they’re going to liberate the slaves, give them guns, and then those slaves are going to go out  and take over more plantations and get more slaves with guns, he’s going to build this sizable army and then they’re going to march into the South armed to the teeth.” To the contrary, John Brown was not trying to build an army and march into the south “armed to the teeth.”  He was trying to build a growing movement of associated armed cadres  that would conduct armed rescues throughout the south, leading enslaved people off and destabilizing slavery from Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico--without large military conflicts.   But Eisenbach can be forgiven because he is the weakest link in the program.  As an accomplished scholar of contemporary history and culture, Eisenbach simply doesn’t know jack-squat about John Brown—his specializations apparently being the pornographer Larry Flynt, the gay rights movement, and media studies.   

The Raid and Civil War "Experts"

Overall the portion about the Harper’s Ferry raid presented by L/L is an extremely condensed version, but not badly done. In L/L, Kilmeade’s commentary properly observes that Brown wanted to connect his effort with the claims of the founding fathers, showing the consistency of his liberation movement and the inconsistency of slavery.   L/L also shows how the men at Harper’s Ferry—who actually were mostly drunken—fired upon A.D. Stevens under a flag of truce, nearly killing him.  On the other hand, however, there is no reason to believe that John Brown was inside the engine house in the last moments of his stand, barking to the enemy outside, “God is on our side!”

Far worse, L/L includes a bona fide Civil War scholar, Brooks D. Simpson, Ph.D., who predictably weighs in on the raid by stating: “Brown’s raid caught people by surprise, it was so audacious, it was so daring, and yet it was so badly planned that it was doomed to failure from the beginning.” What can one say to such expertise?  To borrow a line from Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again!”  Since the 20th century, Civil War military historians have often been drawn upon as experts on John Brown, although typically scholars like Simpson know next to nothing about him.  The tendency to mistake Civil War scholars for John Brown experts is a perennial problem and Professor Simpson is the latest example.  Although he’s a brilliant and prolific writer, Simpson suffers from a proximity presumption.  He imagines that because he studies the Civil War, he is competent to speak to John Brown’s plans—a very questionable conclusion.  Contrary to Simpson, John Brown’s plan was well made, and only the deity could say that it was “doomed to failure.”  Far worse plans have succeeded, and perhaps far more certain plans have failed.  But Simpson, lacking an indepth study of Brown’s plan and purposes, is simply in no place to make such judgment, and instead seems to be speaking from unstudied prejudice.

As to the man who became the 16th president, L/L is fair enough in showing that Abraham Lincoln was moderate, and that he defended slavery’s right to remain in slave states on the legal basis of the U.S. Constitution, and that he was a gradualist in his view of removing slavery.  This honest portrayal of Lincoln surprised me.  He was not candy-coated.  At the Cooper Union, he separates himself and his Republican party from John Brown, his presidential victory sparks a rebel reaction because, as L/L rightly observe, the southern slaveholders wrongly assumed that Lincoln was another John Brown.

The Hanging

For dramatic effect, no doubt, L/L features JB speaking from the gallows, as he was made to do in Santa Fe Trail (1940).  L/L overplays the presence of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, being in Charlestown, although it is true that he did join a Virginia militia group in order to participate in the execution.   L/L portrays Booth as having words with Brown in jail, and although this is possible, it is nowhere documented (not even by Booth).  L/L places Booth at the execution of John Brown, but says he stole a uniform to get there, which is not the case.  Booth actually was friends with certain Virginia militia men and was enabled by this connection to join them and go to Charlestown.

Not a Bad Conclusion

At the conclusion of L/L, Kilmeade makes a thoughtful assessment that frankly surprised me. “Now from its beginning, America is celebrated as a land of opportunity, and to many it is.  But while some prosper, millions of African Americans are robbed of their freedom and their humanity.  And when rational argument and appeals to human decency fail to end the horrors of slavery, it takes a violent demand that the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness be fulfilled—at any cost.  John Brown’s cry to purge the land with blood is ultimately answered by the most brutal and bloody time in American history.”   This is worth one good “Amen.”--LD