John Brown led an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in the 19th century. He and his fellow raiders have been well recognized throughout the history of the abolition of slavery. Although, some people played just as big of a part in John Brown’s plans as his raiders but receive little credit. These people are the women in his family; most importantly his wife, Mary Ann Day Brown, and his daughter Annie Brown. They contributed to radical abolitionism in many ways, but most of all in their sacrifices. The brown women endured much sacrifice; not only the loss of their male family members and friends but also economic stability along with social and psychological well-being.
To start off the long list of sacrifices the women made, there is the deaths of their male family members and friends at the arsenal. Two sons, Oliver and Watson died in the raid and John Brown followed soon after by hanging (Laughlin-Schultz,15). Many friends also died that to the Browns were considered fictive kin, not of blood or marriage ties, but were still considered family (Weaver, 11/9-11). Many more of Mary’s children would also die of accidents and diseases. Between the years 1843 and 1849, 6 children were lost while balancing many pregnancies and moving all over Ohio (Laughlin-Schultz, 22). Sarah (I), Charles, Peter and Austin all died of dysentery at young ages. Another, Amelia who was only 16-months, died because a pot of boiling water for the laundry fell off the stove and scalded her (Laughlin-Schultz, 24).
Mary gave her own health for the cause, too. She was constantly going through childbearing, having 13 children in all, not including her 5 step-children from John Brown’s first marriage to Dianthe Lusk. That would have been a huge undertaking considering the average family size before this time was had shrunk to 4-5 children (Weaver, 9/16)
John Brown’s family was also forced to live very poor lives. He claimed that it was the price of their anti-slavery work (Laughlin-Schultz, 43). At one point, Mary wrote to John’s father for money because they had to “pay up all of our debts & some over to get leather for shoes.” (Mary Brown, 43).
The family also moved a lot. Just some of the places they lived were New Richmond (PA), Franklin Mills, Akron,Hudson, and Richfield Ohio, North Elba (NY), and even across the country in California (Laughlin-Schultz, 15). Just moving that many times would put a financial strain on anyone.
The Browns also relied on money and charity from the supporters of their anti-slavery work. When they arrived in California they were met with generosity. The townspeople gave them groceries, clothing and necessities along with the setup of a fund-raising drive in sympathy for them (Laughlin-Schultz, 105). Their home was also provided for them through these fund-raising efforts and was deemed “John Brown Cottage” (Laughlin-Schultz, 105).
Another sacrifice they had to make was socially. When John Brown moved closer to Harper’s Ferry, he rented a farmhouse. The house was far enough from neighbors to be private and he asked Annie and Martha to come to help maintain their cover of “Isaac Smith and Sons” (Laughlin-Schultz, 54). They had to be very careful because housed inside the farmhouse were the soon-to-be raiders of a federal arsenal. Annie brown remembered that she and Martha “were so self-conscious that we feared danger when no man pursued or even thought of it.” (Annie Brown Adams, 419). They could not have anyone know what they were planning or how many people were really there. Any visitors had to be carefully entertained so as to not raise suspicion.
Although a blessing when speaking about charity, always being associated with John Brown was also a curse. John Brown, along with being portrayed as Moses, saving not Israelites but slaves, like in the painting by John Steuart Curry titled Tragic Prelude below, he was also seen as a martyr.
In the trial of John Brown, he was given a chance to speak and he said, “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice… I say let it be done.” (R.M. DeWitt, 1859). He was going to be a martyr and he knew his life was the price to pay for the end of slavery.
His actions helped the Civil War come to being. Although many anti-slavery people saw him as a great leader and martyr, many pro-slavery advocates saw him as an enemy, murderer and terrorist for their way of life. The women in his family had to deal with that and faced much prejudice during the entirety of their lives. Even after the death of John Brown, they only had very few close acquaintances like Franklin Sanborn who wrote Life and Letters of John Brown, 1885. To get those letters he would have had to have been rather close to the Brown women.
The family of the late John Brown were very close and served as a social group. Mary, late in her life, travelled and visited her children along with attending a reception for her in Kansas (Laughlin-Schultz, 131). The family kept correspondence regularly as they were spread throughout the country.
Finally, John Brown’s determined efforts to abolish slavery took a toll on the women psychologically. Mary was often left alone for weeks at a time while her husband was off doing abolition work. John and Mary had a companionate marriage, or one based off of mutual love, respect, and friendship instead of a contract between two families (Weaver, 9/14-16). In a letter from John to Mary, he said that he was “sacrificing their togetherness for the cause” and that they have to bear it even though they missed each other very much (Laughlin-Schultz, 47).
During one of John’s absences along with the losses of her many children, caused Mary to travel to David Ruggle’s water cure in 1849 in Northampton, Massachusetts (Laughlin-Schultz, 26). The water cure was described as a physiological and psychological sanctuary that offered cold water wraps and plunges as well as special diet, exercise and clothing to help “cure” patients (Laughlin-Schultz, 26-28). Even with being very poor, she somehow afforded the $5.50 a week fee which she deemed necessary enough for her own mental health and respite (Laughlin-Schultz, 26).
Annie Brown also had a hard time with her father’s wishes. At the farmhouse, secrecy was of utmost importance. Although, from birth the Browns’ were taught that a lie, even one of omission, was sinful. She was being forced to live a lie for her father’s work. The Browns were very religious and although they were living in sin, they believed that it would be forgiven when slavery was brought to an end (Laughlin-Schultz, 59). It was also said that Annie cried herself to sleep that first night in the farmhouse but soon settled into her life there as a housekeeper, cook, and disguise with her father, “Isaac Smith”, and brothers, both real and fictive (Laughlin-Schultz, 54).
The story of John Brown is well known, but the story of the faithful women in his family is often overlooked. They hold a big place in the contributory history of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and his radical abolitionist ideas (Weaver, 10/28). This is significant because not only did Mary Ann Day Brown and Annie Brown take part in that historical event but they suffered a tremendous amount of sacrifice individually, economically, socially and psychologically. Yet, somehow they still managed to carry on the John Brown legacy with pride and create their own.
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