John Brown artifacts sold

October 29, 1999|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

YORK, Pa. - The chief interpreter for the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park said he hopes the new owner of an 1859 poster urging residents to stay inside during the execution of abolitionist John Brown will return the artifact to Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Fat chance, said buyer Wesley Small of Hanover, Pa. The poster's going to Gettysburg.

Small spent $6,000 for the poster at an auction of John Brown and other Civil War artifacts at the York Fairgrounds in York Friday. The auction resumes today.

Small said he bought it for the Friends of the National Park Service at Gettysburg.

"Eventually it will be donated to the new (Gettysburg) museum," he said. "Maybe Harpers Ferry can trade something for it later on."

The auction featured more than 590 lots with heavy emphasis on Brown and the Civil War in Jefferson County, W.Va., from the vast collection of Charles Town, W.Va., native Thornton Tayloe Perry, who died in 1981.


A lot that contained pieces of the rope used to hang Brown, matches he used in his death cell and a single strand of his hair drew most of the attention during Friday's bidding.

The lot eventually brought $1,200.

Also getting a lot of attention was a letter written to Brown while he awaited execution in the Charles Town, W.Va., jail from Mahalia Doyle, whose husband and sons were murdered in her presence outside their home in Tennessee during one of Brown's violent raids to free slaves.

It sold for $5,000.

Perry was a well-known figure at area auctions. His interest was anything historic connected to Jefferson County. He had amassed so many items that he built a special private museum to hold his collection.

Many of his books have been sold or donated to libraries, according to Jim Presgraves, a Wytheville, Va., antique book dealer who was bidding heavily Friday.

The auction was put together by John Newcomer, a friend of Perry's who helped him assemble the collection. Newcomer, a former antiques dealer with shops in Harpers Ferry and Funkstown, is the appraiser for the York auction company.

Bidders included private individuals and representatives of historical societies and agencies from around the country, Newcomer said.

Cal Packard, an educator and history buff from Mansfield, Ohio, paid $1,200 for the lot containing the hanging rope, matches and strand of Brown's hair.

The rope was only about 4 inches long and about the width of a pencil.

Packard will add his purchase to his collection of artifacts that he displays at Civil War events. He was the second-highest bidder for the Doyle letter, dropping out at $4,900.

Dan Smith, owner of the Anvil Restaurant in Harpers Ferry, said he bought it for $5,000 to display in his restaurant. The name Anvil comes from a Civil War play written by the late Julia Davis of Charles Town. Smith said there are references from Doyle's letter in Davis' play.

"It has significance to me," Smith said. "I bought a couple of pieces. The prices are pretty salty, but you'll never see these things again."

Bruce Noble, chief interpreter at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, was bidding on items for the park.

He bought a sketch of the Kennedy farm house where Brown and his men plotted their raid at Harpers Ferry, a book written by Capt. John H. Zittle in 1905 of Shepherdstown entitled, "A Correct History of the John Brown Inclusion," and three early photos of Brown.

Noble said many of the items won't be exhibited until sometime "well into the future."

He bought them because of their connection to Brown and Harpers Ferry. He said he hoped important items like Doyle's letter eventually find their way back to West Virginia.

Other area bidders included James Holland, past president of Historic Shepherdstown and Garland Moore who was buying items for the Jefferson County Museum.

John Brown was a militant abolitionist who attempted to use force to free the slaves in the South. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and a small band of followers seized the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The weapons were to be used by his "army of emancipation."

They took 60 hostages and held out against the local militia, but were then attacked by U.S. Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee.

Two of Brown's sons and ten others were killed. Brown was wounded and taken prisoner. He was tried by the Commonwealth of Virginia and convicted of treason, murder and inciting slaves to rebellion.

He was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859, in Charles Town.

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