My Visit to Harpers Ferry
by Lane Smith
I recently vacationed with my older brother from Pittsburgh PA. The trip was two fold:
- I wanted to drive to West Virginia, which we did, traveling over a thousand miles, on two lane highways, in five days with many tourist stops, including Ft. Necessity, Monticello, Harpers Ferry (see Photos 1 and 2), a coal mine museum in Beckley WV, the capitol of WV at Charleston to include the capitol museum, and an oil & gas museum at Parkersburg WV. West Virginia is a beautiful state to travel.
- I also wanted to visit Charles Town WV to see if there was historical data concerning the trial and execution of John Brown.
John Brown's Trial
The Jefferson County courthouse (see Photo 3), where the trial took place and was built in 1836, is located on the northwest coiner of the mam intersection of Charles Town. On the southeast coiner of that intersection w'as the location of the jail that incarcerated Brown. Today, a post office and an historical marker (see Photo 4) are located on the original grounds of the jail. Because of wounds suffered at Harpers Ferry, Brown had to be assisted daily, as he was moved back and forth from the jail to the courthouse during the trial.
The trial commenced on October 27, 1859. One of the witnesses for the prosecution was Colonel Lewis Washington, great grandnephew of George Washington. Washington had been captured by Brown and was forced into the fire engine house with other captives. Robert E Lee was commander of the forces that were assigned to capture Brown and his associates. Lt. Jeb Stuart was assigned by Lee to negotiate the surrender of Brown.
When at the door of the fire engine house and negotiations taking place, Lee knew' Washington wrell and recognized his voice wiien he yelled “never mind us, fire." Lee quietly responded to those near him: “The old revolutionary blood does tell." The trial concluded on November 2, 1859 with the verdict of guilty of treason and the sentence of execution by hanging, winch w'as carried out on December 2, 1859 at Charles Town.
John Brown's Execution
The hanging took place in a vacant pasture (see Photo 5) five blocks from the jail. A house now sets on that pasture lot.
Brown was handcuffed and collared (see Photo 7 of both, now displayed in the state museum at Charleston, also the alleged rope, see Photo 8, that was used to hang Brown, although this rope is veiy questionable) and taken to the gallows in a wagon that also included the casket that Brown sat on during his transport to the execution site (see Photo 6; this wagon is displayed in the Jefferson County library museum one block from the courthouse).
No one may have understood better than Brown what the future would hold. For Brown's last message read: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged aw'ay but with blood." His prophecy would have horrendous results in the war that would soon follow.
The community was packed with onlookers and journalists during the trial and at the execution. To be sure the execution would not be interfered with, 800 militiamen stood guard to prevent any attempt to free Brown. Also in attendance was a contingent of cadets from VMI, led by Thomas J. Jackson, to provide additional security. Among the onlookers was rabid secessionist Edmund Ruffin, who would fire one of the first shots at Fort Sumter, and also an actor by the name of John Wilkes Booth.