The John Brown of the song "John Brown's Body" (1800-1859) was an American anti-slavery activist. He started out in Kansas, directing the murder of proslavery settlers during the conflict as to whether Kansas would be a slave or free state. Later he would attack the U.S. federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and take people of the town hostage. Eventually the town was overrun by federal troops and Brown was captured, tried, convicted of "murder, treason, and inciting a slave insurrection" and hanged. Some abolitionists considered him a martyr to their cause, hence the song saying that his soul marches on as others worked to abolish slavery.

John Brown
Edwin Arlington Robinson

Though for your sake I would not have you now
So near to me tonight as now you are,
God knows how much a stranger to my heart
Was any cold word that I may have written;
And you, poor woman that I made my wife,
You have had more of loneliness, I fear,
Than I -- though I have been the most alone,
Even when the most attended. So it was
God set the mark of his inscrutable
Necessity on one that was to grope,
And serve, and suffer, and withal be glad
For what was his, and is, and is to be,
When his old bones, that are a burden now,
Are saying what the man who carried them
Had not the power to say. Bones in a grave,
Cover them as they will with choking earth,
May shout the truth to men who put them there,
More than all orators. And so, my dear,
Since you have cheated wisdom for the sake
Of sorrow, let your sorrow be for you,
This last of nights before the last of days,
The lying ghost of what there is of me
That is the most alive. There is no death
For me in what they do. Their death it is
They should heed most when the sun comes again
To make them solemn. There are some I know
Whose eyes will hardly see their occupation,
For tears in them -- and all for one old man;
For some of them will pity this old man,
Who took upon himself the work of God
Because he pitied millions. That will be
For them, I fancy, their compassionate
Best way of saying what is best in them
To say; for they can say no more than that,
And they can do no more than what the dawn
Of one more day shall give them light enough
To do. But there are many days to be,
And there are many men to give their blood,
As I gave mine for them. May they come soon!

May they come soon, I say. And when they come,
May all that I have said unheard be heard,
Proving at last, or maybe not -- no matter --
What sort of madness was the part of me
That made me strike, whether I found the mark
Or missed it. Meanwhile, I've a strange content,
A patience, and a vast indifference
To what men say of me and what men fear
To say. There was a work to be begun,
And when the Voice, that I have heard so long,
Announced as in a thousand silences
An end of preparation, I began
The coming work of death which is to be,
That life may be. There is no other way
Than the old way of war for a new land
That will not know itself and is tonight
A stranger to itself, and to the world
A more prodigious upstart among states
Than I was among men, and so shall be
Till they are told and told, and told again;
For men are children, waiting to be told,
And most of them are children all their lives.
The good God in his wisdom had them so,
That now and then a madman or a seer
May shake them out of their complacency
And shame them into deeds. The major file
See only what their fathers may have seen,
Or may have said they saw when they saw nothing.
I do not say it matters what they saw.
Now and again to some lone soul or other
God speaks, and there is hanging to be done, --
As once there was a burning of our bodies
Alive, albeit our souls were sorry fuel.
But now the fires are few, and we are poised
Accordingly, for the state's benefit,
A few still minutes between heaven and earth.
The purpose is, when they have seen enough
Of what it is that they are not to see,
To pluck me as an unripe fruit of treason,
And then to fling me back to the same earth
Of which they are, as I suppose, the flower --
Not given to know the riper fruit that waits
For a more comprehensive harvesting.

Yes, may they come, and soon. Again I say,
May they come soon! -- before too many of them
Shall be the bloody cost of our defection.
When hell waits on the dawn of a new state,
Better it were that hell should not wait long, --
Or so it is I see it who should see
As far or farther into time tonight
Than they who talk and tremble for me now,
Or wish me to those everlasting fires
That are for me no fear. Too many fires
Have sought me out and seared me to the bone --
Thereby, for all I know, to temper me
For what was mine to do. If I did ill
What I did well, let men say I was mad;
Or let my name for ever be a question
That will not sleep in history. What men say
I was will cool no cannon, dull no sword,
Invalidate no truth. Meanwhile, I was;
And the long train is lighted that shall burn,
Though floods of wrath may drench it, and hot feet
May stamp it for a slight time into smoke
That shall blaze up again with growing speed,
Until at last a fiery crash will come
To cleanse and shake a wounded hemisphere,
And heal it of a long malignity
That angry time discredits and disowns.
Tonight there are men saying many things;
And some who see life in the last of me
Will answer first the coming call to death;
For death is what is coming, and then life.
I do not say again for the dull sake
Of speech what you have heard me say before,
But rather for the sake of all I am,
And all God made of me. A man to die
As I do must have done some other work
Than man's alone. I was not after glory,
But there was glory with me, like a friend,
Throughout those crippling years when friends were few,
And fearful to be known by their own names
When mine was vilified for their approval.
Yet friends they are, and they did what was given
Their will to do; they could have done no more.
I was the one man mad enough, it seems,
To do my work; and now my work is over.
And you, my dear, are not to mourn for me,
Or for your sons, more than a soul should mourn
In Paradise, done with evil and with earth.
There is not much of earth in what remains
For you; and what there may be left of it
For your endurance you shall have at last
In peace, without the twinge of any fear
For my condition; for I shall be done
With plans and actions that have heretofore
Made your days long and your nights ominous
With darkness and the many distances
That were between us. When the silence comes,
I shall in faith be nearer to you then
Than I am now in fact. What you see now
Is only the outside of an old man,
Older than years have made him. Let him die,
And let him be a thing for little grief.
There was a time for service, and he served;
And there is no more time for anything
But a short gratefulness to those who gave
Their scared allegiance to an enterprise
That has the name of treason -- which will serve
As well as any other for the present.
There are some deeds of men that have no names,
And mine may like as not be one of them.
I am not looking far for names tonight.
The King of Glory was without a name
Until men gave him one; yet there He was,
Before we found Him and affronted Him
With numerous ingenuities of evil,
Of which one, with His aid, is to be swept
And washed out of the world with fire and blood.

Once I believed it might have come to pass
With a small cost of blood; but I was dreaming --
Dreaming that I believed. The Voice I heard
When I left you behind me in the north, --
To wait there and to wonder and grow old
Of loneliness, -- told only what was best,
And with a saving vagueness, I should know
Till I knew more. And had I known even then --
After grim years of search and suffering,
So many of them to end as they began --
After my sickening doubts and estimations
Of plans abandoned and of new plans vain --
After a weary delving everywhere
For men with every virtue but the Vision --
Could I have known, I say, before I left you
That summer morning, all there was to know --
Even unto the last consuming word
That would have blasted every mortal answer
As lightning would annihilate a leaf,
I might have trembled on that summer morning;
I might have wavered; and I might have failed.

And there are many among men today
To say of me that I had best have wavered.
So has it been, so shall it always be,
For those of us who give ourselves to die
Before we are so parcelled and approved
As to be slaughtered by authority.
We do not make so much of what they say
As they of what our folly says of us;
They give us hardly time enough for that,
And thereby we gain much by losing little.
Few are alive to-day with less to lose
Than I who tell you this, or more to gain;
And whether I speak as one to be destroyed
For no good end outside his own destruction,
Time shall have more to say than men shall hear
Between now and the coming of that harvest
Which is to come. Before it comes, I go --
By the short road that mystery makes long
For man's endurance of accomplishment.
I shall have more to say when I am dead.

Born in 1800 and hanged in 1859, called Old Brown of Osawatomie, John Brown, an American abolitionist, attempted to end slavery by force and greatly increased tension between North and South in the period before the American Civil War.

Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut. His family moved to Ohio when he was five years old. His family owned no slaves, so, at a young age, he was taught to hate this institution. While living in Pennsylvania in 1834, Brown initiated a project among abolitionists to educate young blacks. The next 20 years of his life were largely dedicated to this and similar abolitionist ventures, entailing many sacrifices for himself and his large family. In 1855 he followed five of his sons to Kansas Territory, then a center of struggle between the antislavery and proslavery forces. Under Brown's leadership, his sons became active participants in the fight against terrorists from Missouri, whose activities led to the murder of a number of abolitionists at Lawrence, Kansas. Brown and his sons avenged this crime, on May 24, 1856, at Pottawatomie Creek by killing five proslavery adherents. This act, as well as his success in withstanding a large party of attacking Missourians at Osawatomie in August, made him nationally famous as a terrible enemy of slavery.

Helped by increased financial support from abolitionists in the northeastern states, Brown began in 1857 to formulate a plan, which he had long entertained, to free the slaves by force. He felt this was the only way slavery could be abolished, as did many other abolitionists. He secretly recruited a small band of supporters for this project, which included the establishment of a refuge for fugitive slaves in the mountains of Virginia. After several setbacks, he finally launched the venture on October 16, 1859, with a force of 18 men (including several of his sons), seizing the United States arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), and winning control of the town. But he never made any attempts to keep it. His force was surrounded by the local militia, which was reinforced on October 17 by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee. Ten of Brown's men, including two of his sons, were killed in the ensuing battle, and he was wounded and forced to capitulate. He was arrested and charged with various crimes, including treason and murder. He distinguished himself during his trial, which took place before a Virginia court, by his defense of his efforts in behalf of the slaves. He was hanged in Charlestown(Charleston), Virginia (now West Virginia) in December 1859. For many years after his death, Brown was generally regarded among abolitionists as a martyr to the cause of human freedom. He became the subject of a famous song, known generally by the first line as

"John Brown's body lies a-mould'ring in the grave...."

My Old US History book, Me, Ms. Panel, and World Book.

John Brown, who would become famous for his efforts in his raid on Harper's Ferry, was born in 1800. He came from a very religous family, in which all of the members read the Bible regularly. John Brown's father taught him that slavery was a sin against God. Brown's mother died when he was only 8 years old, and the loss embittered Brown deeply. His father remmaried, but this only annoyed Brown more. Never truly loving his stepmother, he remembered his loss through all his life.

Brown spent most of his early years in Ohio with his step family. Prefering to work outside, Brown was not very interested in going to school and becoming educated. Instead, John Brown went through various careers early on in life. At first, he had decided on life as a minister. Going to study theology, he found that he was unsuccessful. He followed his attempt at ministry with many jobs. Going from state to state looking to feed his large family, he worked as a tanner, surveyor, postmaster, and a farmer, among others. However, he was never far from broke and starving.

John Brown began his own family early, and eventually fathered twenty children. In 1820 he married Dianthe Lusk, who died in 1832. Their marriage brought John Brown seven children. In 1833, John Brown remarried. His new wife was Mary Ann Day, who gave birth to thirteen children. The whole Brown family was raised with abolitionist notions, and so it was not surprising when Brown's sons called for him to join them in Kansas just when the issue of slavery was being settled in this colony. Brown traveled to join them.

Brown began his major abolitionist activities in Kansas. While there, he was responsible for the murders of at least five men and committed many violent crimes in an attempt to keep Kansas for the free soilers, or abolitionists. The five men he helped to murder were all pro slavery and thought to be among those who had burnt a Kansas town. John's activities here, along with those of other abolitionists, would cause the state to be known as "Bleeding Kansas."

Brown followed these activities up with his famous Harper's Ferry Raid. Almost all of John's family who survived through to see the start of the Harper's Ferry Raid participated actively in it.

When Brown's plans went so horribly wrong at Harper's Ferry, the question was raised as to whether he was in fact insane. In defending him against the charges from the raid, his lawyer offered the court a telegram giving reason to doubt Brown's sanity. The telegram was sent by AH Lewis of Ohio and read:

"John Brown, leader of the insurrection at Harper's Ferry, and several of his family, have resided in this country for many years. Insanity is hereditary in that family. His mother's sister died with it, and a daughter of that sister has been two years in a lunatic asylum. A son and daughter of his mother's brother have also been confined in the lunatic asylum, and another son of that brother is now insane and under close restraint."
Apparently John Brown was not consulted on bringing this telegram forth as evidence, for when his lawyer used it to attempt to put in a plea of insanity for him, Brown was offended and chose to address the court:
".....I look upon it as a miserable artifice and pretext by those who ought to take a different course in regard to me, if they toook any at all, and I view it with more contempt then otherwise. As I remarked to Mr. Green, insane persons, so far as my experience goes, have but little ability to judge of their own sanity, and, if I am insane, of course I should think I know more then the rest of the world. But I do not think so. I am perfectly unconscious of insanity, and I reject, so far as I am capable, any attempt to interfere on my behalf on that score."

Brown then pleaded not guilty as charged to the accusations put forth by the court. Considering he had been caught red handed, so to speak, there was not much his lawyers could do to support this plea. The prosecution had a great deal of evidence proving Brown was responsible for leading the raid, and Brown was sentenced to be hanged. He was executed on December 2, 1859.

Works Cited

  • John Brown Articles.
  • John Brown's Raid. National Park Service History Series. National Park Service, 1973.
  • Levine, Michael. African Americans and Civil Rights. Onyx Press, 1996.
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press, 1998.

This text was adapted in part from my Harper's Ferry FAQ which is archived for academic purposes on my personal website at
Born on a farm in Crathie, Scotland 1826.

He was employed as a servant at Balmoral castle at the time of its purchase by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria.

He rose to become Prince Albert's ghillie and Victoria's personal servant after they bought the castle.
After Albert's demise and up to his own death, he became the Queen's closest friend. The mutual devotion between the Queen and her servant was the cause of much gossip and malcontent among those in the Queen's entourage and family who resented her close relationship with the good-looking, outspoken commoner.

On one occasion, 1872, he saved the Queen from an assailant by disarming him.

The Faithful Servant Medal and the Devoted Service medal were created by the Queen especially for John Brown.

He died from a cold in February 1883m while in service at Windsor Castle, and was buried in the Crathie Kirk Kirkyard.

Queen Victoria kept his memory alive until her death. She had a very lifelike statue of him placed in Balmoral's Garden Cottage, where she often wrote letters. His room was preserved as it was at the time of his death, as Prince Albert's was.
A fresh flower was placed on his pillow every morning.

After Queen Victoria's death in 1901, the Prince of Wales, Edward VII attempted to destroy anything that reminded him of John Brown, although many items were in the Brown family's care and survived.

John brown's relationship with Queen Victoria is the subject of the movie 'Mrs. Brown', starring Judi Dench and Billy Connelly (

Sources: various internet pages
The idol of and inspiration for the fictional domestic terrorist organisation found in the video game "(Tom Clancy's) Splinter Cell: Double Agent", named "John Brown's Army", or JBA. Led by the ruthless Emile Dufraisne, this organisation (in collaboration with several other terrorist organisations) plots to overthrow the US government, as they see it as being overtly corrupt. Operating from what appears to be an abandoned industrial compound of sorts, they are extremely well-funded and highly dogmatic.

Undertaking the "most dangerous mission of his career", the series' protagonist Sam Fisher infiltrates this organisation in order to destroy it and reveal its associates. In order to maintain his cover, Sam must become an accessory to some of the JBA's crimes: the destruction of a Mexican cruise ship (including passengers), the instigation of a large prison riot, and the murders of many civilians that stand in their way. Eventually, Sam destroys the organisation before it has a chance to use its "Red Mercury" bomb on New York City, saving countless lives, but is then hunted by the authorities for his association with the JBA (since his own organisation must deny his existence).

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