Most Americans have heard of John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry or at least they should have. Most Americans have probably not heard of a group called “The Secret Six” who provided Brown with funding and support for his failed attempt.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson – a friend of Emily Dickinson and minister of a church in Worcester, Massachusetts. He later went on to command black troops during the Civil War
Samuel Gridley Howe – founder of the Perkins School for the Blind. His wife wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic
Theodore Parker – at the time, the country’s leading Unitarian minister
Franklin Sanborn – secretary of the Massachusetts – Kansas Committee and a friend of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson
George Luther Stearns – Head of the Emigrant Aid Society
Gerrit Smith – New York State landowner and reformer
All were white and were educated at Harvard.
Brown needed money for guns and supplies to support his raid and these gentlemen were well connected among the elite of Boston. Their specialty was fundraising. All were abolitionists and felt that the only way the could show their patriotism was to help support a slave revolt. At the risk of being charged with treason, these men went about raising funds (in secret) for the noble cause.
A Fly in the Ointment
Not long after the fund raising activities began, Sanborn received a letter from a man in Kansas. The letter claimed that he worked with John Brown in Kansas and was owed a substantial sum of money. He threatened to go public with the plan to attack Harper’s Ferry and expose the backers.
A meeting was called and the Secret Six were divided as to their course of action. Gerrit Smith wanted to cut all ties with Brown and began to question the wisdom of the plan. Higginson wanted the plan to proceed post haste. Amidst much arguing for both sides, they finally agreed to delay the operation. They also went on to set up a new arrangement with Brown. From now on, Brown was not to reveal what the cause was for any of the monies he received. The members of the Secret Six felt that this approach would provide them with plausible deniability should they ever be uncovered and charges filed.
After months of delays, Brown finally made his attack on October 16th , 1859. The Secret Six were probably not surprised at the failure of the attack. To their credit, they were happy that Brown was at least alive (for the time being) and happier yet that he wasn’t revealing his source of funding.
Unfortunately, documents discovered in Browns hideout revealed their identity. Suddenly they weren’t so secret anymore.
Month after month, delays pushed the raid back, and pressure within the group continued to build. Then, on October 16, 1859, John Brown made his attack.
As the weeks went by, the Secret Six awaited their fate. They expected to be rousted from their homes and hauled off to Virginia to stand trial. They retained high priced lawyers to defend Brown and delay any extradition. In the meantime though, the real question was “Do we stay or do we run?"
Gerrit Smith, always considered one of the weakest links suffered a mental breakdown. He was crated off to an asylum supposedly waving his arms and screaming that he was going off to Virginia to suffer with John Brown.
Howe and Sterns bolted for Canada and remained there until after Brown’s execution.
Sanborn too took off for Canada, twice. On both occasions he felt his arrest was imminent. On April 3, 1860, federal marshals did attempt to capture Sanborn, but the townspeople of Concord turned out to protect him.
Higginson didn’t run. His plan was to save Brown by kidnapping Governor Wise of Virginia, but it was never attempted. He always felt responsible for Brown’s ultimate demise. He was quoted as saying, "I should have realized the need to protect John Brown from himself."
Last but not least, the good Reverend Theodore Parker took off for Rome and was soon dying from tuberculosis. He claimed Brown was an American saint and, on news of his execution had this to say, "The road to heaven is as short from the gallows as from the throne.”