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