ⓘ Virginia v. John Brown was a criminal trial held in Charles Town, Virginia, in October of 1859. The abolitionist John Brown was prosecuted for his involvement i ..


ⓘ Virginia v. John Brown

Virginia v. John Brown was a criminal trial held in Charles Town, Virginia, in October of 1859. The abolitionist John Brown was prosecuted for his involvement in a raid on the United States federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. On October 16–18, 1859, Brown led 21 armed men, 5 blacks and 16 white, to Harpers Ferry, an important railroad junction. His goal was to seize the federal arsenal there and then lead a slave insurrection across the South. Brown and his men engaged in a two-day standoff with local militia and federal troops, in which ten of his men were shot or killed, five were captured, and five escaped. Brown was captured and put on trial in a Virginia state court for treason, murder, and fomenting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty on all counts, and hanged on December 2.

Thanks to the recently-invented telegraph, Browns trial was the first to be reported nationally. Considering its aftermath, it was arguably the most important criminal trial in the history of the country, for it was closely related to the war that quickly followed. More than Browns raid, his trial determined the fate of the Union. According to Brian McGinty, the "Brown of history" was thus born in his trial. Had Brown died before his trial, he would have been "condemned as a madman and relegated to a footnote of history". Robert McGlone added that "the trial did magnify and exalt his image. But Browns own efforts to fashion his ultimate public persona began long before the raid and culminated only in the weeks that followed his dramatic speech at his sentencing." After the sentencing, Brown, glad for the publicity, gave interviews to anyone who wanted to talk to him.


1.1. Trial Venue

Brown did not face federal charges. There were no federal court facilities nearby, and transporting the injured Brown and the other defendants to a large city and maintaining them there would have been difficult and expensive. And what would this gain? Murder was not a federal crime, and a federal indictment for treason or fomenting slave insurrection would have caused a political crisis because so many abolitionists would have denounced it. Under Virginia law, fomenting a slave insurrection was clearly and unequivocally a crime. And the defendants could be tried where they were, in Charles Town. "President Buchanan was indifferent to where Brown and his men were tried.Virginia Governor Henry Wise, on the other hand, was adamant that the insurgents pay for their crimes through his states judicial system."

The trial, then, took place in the county courthouse in Charles Town, not to be confused with Charleston, West Virginia, the state capital. Charles Town is the county seat of Jefferson County, Virginia, about 7 miles 11 km west of Harpers Ferry. Since 1863 Jefferson County, including Harpers Ferry and Charles Town, is in West Virginia.

A "large armed force" was stationed at Charles Town "to prevent attempts at rescue." Brown was brought into court "accompanied by a body of armed men. Cannon were stationed in front of the court house, and an armed guard were what was my intention and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.

Let me say, also, a word in regard to the statements made by some of those connected with me. I hear it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.

Now I have done.

The judge sentenced him to death by hanging on December 2; under Virginia law a month had to separate the sentence of death and its execution. Governor Wise resisted subsequent pressures to move up Browns execution because, he said, he did not want anyone saying that Browns rights had not been fully respected.

During the month between his conviction and his execution, Brown wrote many letters, most of which, and a few to him, were collected and published in 1860. He also prepared his will. He had previously been prevented by the Court from "making a full statement of his motives and intentions through the press", as he desired; the Court had "refused all access to reporters". Now that he had been convicted and sentenced, there were no more restrictions on visitors, and Brown talked to reporters or anyone else that wanted to see him. "He states that he welcomes every one, and that he is preaching, even in jail, with great effect, upon the enormities of slavery."


2. Execution

John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, shortly before noon, in a vacant field several blocks away from the Jefferson County jail, where he was held. John Wilkes Booth and Thomas Jackson the future Stonewall Jackson were present, along with 2.000 Federal troops and militia. On the short trip from the jail to the gallows he was protected on both sides by lines of troups, to prevent an armed rescue. Spectators and reporters were kept far enough away that he could not talk to them, and he made no final statement from the gallows. His last known words are those on a note, passed to a jailor who asked for an autograph:

Charlestown, Va. 2nd December, 1859. I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.

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