On the morning of December 2, 1859, Mary Day Brown and her companions Hector Tyndale and James and Sarah McKim left the Wager House Hotel in Harpers Ferry, Virginia for a walk at the start of what promised to be another long and trying day.
They had barely started out when a gunshot cut the air; Tyndale felt a bullet brush by his head.
Whether this was a serious attack or a prank by some over-excited local was not something worth contemplating. They turned around and returned to the hotel, where they spent the rest of the morning in seclusion, hands clasped “eyes streaming, hearts uplifted in prayer, waiting for the hour to strike.”
Mary Brown’s ordeal had weeks before when news reached their home in North Elba, New York that her husband’s attempt to seize the Federal armory in Harpers Ferry and spark a slave revolution had gone fatally wrong. Confirmation came in the form of a New York Times dispatch, read aloud by one of her children, after a long and sleepless night in late October.
“There was very little weeping or wailing or loud demonstration on the part of our broken household,” daughter Annie Brown later recalled. “We were most of us struck dumb, horror stricken with a greif too deep and hard to find expression in words or even tears.” Brown had always spoken of the potential that he might fall in service to the antislavery cause, said another daughter “but I did not think failure possible.”
Not only was her husband wounded and sure to face death for his efforts, her sons Watson and Oliver had died by his side. A stepson, Owen, had escaped, his whereabouts unknown. Also dead were William and Dauphin Thompson, the brothers-in-law of two of her surviving children.
Mary had given her husband 13 children since their marriage in 1833. Disease and accident had taken seven of them while young. After October 18, 1859, only four remained.
Within a few days of the news, Mary was convinced to travel south by the Reverend Thomas W. Higginson, a noted abolitionist and one of John Brown’s greatest champions. Along with several other prominent Northern men, Higginson believed Brown might still be rescued from the gallows, and he convinced Mary that her presence might convince the prisoner to fight on. She left North Elba on November 2, her path eased by abolitionist supporters eager to help Brown’s cause.
In Charlestown, Brown panicked. Mary’s health was often fragile, and even with assistance the trip could cost money the family did not have. “Mr Brown says ‘for God’s sake don’t let Mrs. Brown come,” his lawyer wired to Boston, too late to stop her. “If my Wife were to come here just now,” he wrote to Higginson on November 4, “it would only tend to distract her mind, Ten fold; & would only add to my affliction; & cannot possibly do me any good…I beg of her to be calm, & submissive; & not go wild on my account.”
“In regard to your coming here; If you feel sure that you can endure the trials and the shock, which will be unavoidable (if you come), I should be most glad to see you once more; but when I think of your being insulted on the road, and perhaps while here, and of only seeing your wretchedness made complete, I shrink from it. Your composure and fortitude of mind may be quite equal to it all; but I am in dreadful doubt of it,” he wrote her on November 16, as she waited in Philadelphia.
One he knew she was in Virginia, though, he was happy for her presence, saying “if you now feel that you are equal to the undertaking do exactly as you FEEL disposed to do about coming to see me before I suffer. I am entirely willing.”
His fears of her being “insulted,” were well-founded. When she was finally allowed to visit him at his jail in Charles Town the day before the execution, she had to pass through joyous crowds playing martial music in anticipation of the hanging. At the jail, she was strip-searched by the warden’s wife for fear she was carrying weapons or poison.
Husband and wife were allowed several hours together – not alone, but at least together. They talked about the family’s scant finances, about how Mary should raise their three surviving daughters, about the brutal deaths of Watson and Oliver. Watson’s body had been defiled by students from the local medical college and Oliver’s tossed in a mass grave with others killed in the raid. His request they and the Thompson boys be exhumed and cremated so she might take them all home had been denied, but he urged her to keep trying.
In the end, they were resigned. While Mary didn’t play an active role in her husband’s activities, she was no less an abolitionist, and just as sure he that he was about to die for a just cause. “God bless you and the children,” he said as the warden allowed them a final embrace. “God have mercy on you,” she replied. Crying, she was led to a carriage and taken back to Harpers Ferry. She would not be allowed in Charles Town during the hanging. She never saw his face again.
For Further Reading: Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown In Virginia by Louis DeCaro Jr