Precedents

October 27, 1859

John Brown's Trial Begins

Posted Oct 1, 2009 7:00 PM CDT
By George Hodak

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Courtesy West Virginia State Archives, Boyd B. Stutler Collection

John Brown’s long, self-declared war against slavery came to a tumultuous end in October 1859 at Harper’s Ferry, Va., where he led a small band of followers on a raid of a U.S. armory. Intended to spark a slave insurrection, the raid was suppressed within two days by forces led by Col. Robert E. Lee. Brown was severely injured and 10 of his men were killed (including two of his sons); four townsmen and one soldier died in the clash.

Charged with four capital counts, including treason, Brown was hastily tried in a Virginia circuit court and found guilty of three. Though there was little doubt as to the outcome, the proceedings drew unprecedented media attention as the trial became a national drama.

Before the court, Brown accepted his fate but denied his guilt under “the law of God” and declared his willingness to die for the “millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded.” Efforts to secure clemency failed, and on Dec. 2 he was hanged. A note left with a jail guard proved hauntingly prophetic: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.”

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