The Harper's Ferry Insurrection [John Brown, Now Under Sentence of Death for Treason and Murder, at Charleston, VA.]

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The Harper's Ferry Insurrection [John Brown, Now Under Sentence of Death for Treason and Murder, at Charleston, VA.]
November 18, 1859
Martin L. Lawrence (photographer)
1808 - 1859
Page 383
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. No. 207 Vol. 8
Engraving from photograph
Oversize A 5 .34 Vol. 8
Newberry Library

What could this man have done to have such a big picture on the front page of a newspaper?  This is a portrait of abolitionist John Brown who was convicted of treason for leading an attack on the Federal Armory (a weapons storehouse) at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Brown believed that God had chosen him to end slavery. He planned to distribute captured weapons to slaves and lead them to freedom in the Appalachian mountains.  Eighteen men, including five African Americans and his own son, joined him in the attack. Brown was captured by Marines under the command of  Colonel Robert E. Lee (later commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia).

After his execution, John Brown became a hero to many people, but he was a controversial leader even within the abolitionist movement. Many Northerners thought him brave and respected his beliefs, but disapproved of his violent actions. And, because Brown’s effort had been funded by leading abolitionists, slaveholders saw him as the natural consequence of anti-slavery politics and used the event to justify secession.

Note the caption on this image that says that it was based on a photograph by Martin M. Lawrence, taken the previous year. Lawrence was a well-known photographer who had left the jewelry business in New York (as did his fellow photographer Matthew Brady) to take up the new art of making daguerreotypes in the early 1840s. Because it was not possible to publish photographs in the newspapers, publishers hired illustrators to create engraved copies for printing.

1. Does this man look like a criminal? John Brown was considered dangerous and crazy by some people. Does his portrayal in the image reflect this description?

2. Look at how much space is given to this picture on the front of the newspaper.  How important do you think this story was? 

3. Even today, people have different opinions about Brown. What do you think about what he did?

Further reading:
Edward Whitney, “Reminiscenses,” in Photographic Times and American Photographer (New York) 14:159 (new series no. 39) (March 1884): 122–24. In Gary W. Ewer, “The Daguerreotype: An Archive of Source Texts, Graphics, and Ephemera. .

Finkelman, Paul. His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid. University of Virginia Press, 1995.

McGlone, Robert E. “Rescripting a Troubled Past: John Brown’s Family and the Harpers Ferry Conspiracy.” The Journal of American History 75, no. 4 (March 1989): 1179-1200.

Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. New edition. Harper Perennial, 1977.

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago