An Abolitionist Fanatic

John Brown was an unsuccessful leather tanner and farmer from Ohio. He moved to New York State and then Kansas, working for abolition. During the Kansas-Missouri border wars, he led others in the murder of some pro-slavery men. Then he traveled east, and in October, 1859, with the help of armed associates, attacked the town and government arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown hoped to arm slaves with guns from the arsenal and start a rebellion. He believed God wanted him to end slavery with bloodshed. After his arrest, he told his attorneys of this message. His words shocked them, and they wanted him to plead innocent by reason of insanity. Brown refused.

The Harpers Ferry engine house became a tourist attraction in the days following the crisis and was photographed often. This souvenir picture is from the postwar years.


When John Brown and his gang assaulted Harpers Ferry, they took several prominent citizens hostage.

Armed with weapons taken from the town's federal arsenal, they barricaded themselves inside the local volunteer fire company's engine house and ignored the calls of local law enforcers to surrender. Within two days, a small force of U.S. Marines arrived and, using a ladder as a battering ram, smashed open the engine house door. All the Marines escaped harm, but Brown was wounded and arrested. He was tried, convicted of treason, and executed. After his death, John Brown became a martyr of the abolitionist movement.

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