John Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut, the fourth of eight children of his parents. His father was Owen Brown (February 16, 1771 – May 8, 1856), his mother was Ruth Mills (January 25, 1772 – December 9, 1808, and his grandfather was Capt. John Brown (1728 – 1776). He traced his ancestry back to 17th-century English Puritans.
Owen Brown opened a tannery in Hudson, Ohio, in 1805 and moved his family there. He was a supporter of the Oberlin Institute (now known as Oberlin College) but later became critical of its leanings.
John Brown was a member of the Congregational church until the 1840s when he withdrew his membership and never officially joined another one. He was only 16 years old when he left his family to enroll in a preparatory program in Plainfield, Massachusetts. He soon transferred to the Morris Academy in Litchfield, Connecticut. He hoped to become a minister for the Congregationalist church but lack of money and problems with his eyes forced him to drop out of school and return to Ohio. He worked briefly for his father and then opened his own successful tannery.
In 1820 Brown married Dianthe Lusk, and their first child, John Jr, came just over a year later. He purchased 200 acres of land in 1825 in New Richmond, Pennsylvania, and moved his family there. He cleared 25 acres and built a cabin, barn and tannery; his tannery employed 15 men within a year. In 1978 The John Brown Tannery Site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Brown also raised cattle and surveyed as well as helped establish a Post Office and a school. In 1831 Brown began to see problems: one of his sons died, he became ill, his businesses suffered and left him great debt. The next year was even worse. In the summer of 1832, a newborn son died and was followed by the death of Dianthe.
Brown married 16-year-old Mary Ann Day (April 15, 1817 – May 1, 1884) on June 14, 1833; she was originally from Washington County in New York. They became the parents of 13 children, plus the seven surviving children from his previous marriage. Brown moved his family again in 1836 to Franklin Mills, Ohio (now known as Kent) and “borrowed money to buy land in the area, building and operating a tannery along the Cuyahoga River” with a partner. He again suffered great financial losses due to the economic crisis of 1839.
Brown made a public vow in 1837 in response to the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”
John Brown’s troubles continued. A federal court declared John Brown bankrupt on September 28, 1942, and four of his children died of dysentery in 1843. Brown and his sons managed the flocks and farms of Col. Simon Perkins of Akron, Ohio, and Brown moved his family into a home across the street from the Perkins Stone Mansion located on Perkins Hill. The John Brown House (Akron, Ohio) is now owned and operated by The Summit County Historical Society of Akron, Ohio.
John Brown believed that the institution of slavery in the United States could only be destroyed by armed insurrection. He led forces in the 1856 conflict in Kansas at the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie. At Pottawatomie his followers killed five people that supported slavery. He led an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859 that resulted in his capture; this resulted in his conviction and a sentence of death by hanging.
“Brown’s attempt in 1859 to start a liberation movement among enslaved African Americans in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (later part of West Virginia), electrified the nation. He was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty on all counts and was hanged. Southerners alleged that his rebellion was the tip of the abolitionist iceberg and represented the wishes of the Republican Party to end slavery. Historians agree that the Harpers Ferry raid in 1859 escalated tensions that, a year later, led to secession and the American Civil War.”
Brown is still a controversial figure, and historians are divided about whether or not he is “America’s first domestic terrorist.” “He is sometimes memorialized as a heroic martyr and a visionary and sometimes vilified as a madman and a terrorist.”
I found some of the last written words of John Brown to be almost prophetic and believe they come close to echoing scripture. Early on December 2, 1859, John Brown wrote: “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.”
Among his final acts John Brown read from the Bible and wrote his final words to his wife, including his will. He was escorted from the county jail at 11:00 a.m. “through a crowd of 2,000 soldiers a few blocks away to a small field where the gallows were.” He was accompanied by the sheriff and his assistants but received no religious services. He was hanged at 11:15 a.m. and pronounced dead at 11:50 a.m. His body was put in a wooden coffin with the noose still around his neck; the coffin was put on a train to New York where several memorial meetings took place with church bells ringing and minute guns being fired.
John Brown was buried on December 8 at the John Brown Farm located near Old Military Road in North Elba, New York, on the outskirts of Lake Placid. His sons Oliver Brown and Watson Brown, killed in the Harpers Ferry raid, were buried near him. The tombstone of his grandfather Captain John Brown (1728-1776) is on the grave of his grandson John Brown.