150 years later, Brown's hanging re-enacted in Charles Town

Event marks anniversary of abolitionist's death

Event marks anniversary of abolitionist's death

December 02, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

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    CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- John Brown's body might have stopped "a-mouldering in the grave" for an hour or so Wednesday when the 150th anniversary of his hanging for treason Dec. 2, 1859, was commemorated.

    Greg Artzner, who portrayed Brown during the the re-creation of his last hour and execution on the gallows, presented a demeanor and impressive likeness to period images of the fiery abolitionist that added to the realism of the commemoration.

    A crowd of more than 200 people stood in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse Wednesday morning to hear some of the exact words spoken by John Wilshire, the foreman of the jury that found Brown guilty on Oct. 30, 1859, of "treason and conspiring and advising with slaves and others to rebel, and murder in the first degree."


When the verdict was read, "Not the slightest sound was heard in the vast crowd in the courtrom" said Bob O'Connor, local historian, author and narrator for the day.

Jefferson County Commissioner Lyn Widmyer gave the welcoming address on behalf of the Jefferson County Chapter of the NAACP, a main sponsor of the event.

O'Connor read Brown's words that he spoke in the well of the Jefferson County courtroom moments before Judge Richard Parker was to sentence him to "hang by the neck until he be dead."

" ... In the first place," Brown began, "I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, of a design on my part to free the slaves ... as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without snapping a gun on either side ... I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale ... that was all I intended to do. I never did intend murder or treason.

"Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, then I say let it be done."

O'Connor called Brown's remarks "one of the two greatest speeches ever given in this country. The other being the Gettysburg Address."

Artzner was led out of the courthouse under guard, his arms bound by ropes at the elbows, to a waiting two-horse wagon carrying an empty casket. He carried a Bible which he gave to a re-man portraying John Blessing, his jail cook, before stepping up into the wagon.

He sat on the casket as the horses moved up Washington Street toward the execution grounds escorted by federal re-enactors, including two mounted officers, one of them Capt. Robert E. Lee.

The re-enactors were led by Kirk E. Davis Sr., capital projects manager for Jefferson County government.

The cortege turned right on Samuel Street and ended up on the front lawn of what today is an elegant brick Victorian at 515 S. Samuel St. The house, built after the Civil War, is owned by Gene and Jo Ann Perkins.

A reproduction gallows, two-thirds the size of the scaffold on which Brown was hanged, was set up in Perkins' front yard at exactly the same spot as Brown's, O'Connor said.

Ten steps led to the platform and trap door. Brown's gallows had 16 steps, O'Connor said.

Artzner stood below the scaffold that would have dropped Brown into history and read a compilation of letters and papers Brown had written on the ills of slavery. 

"I go willingly and gladly into my day of reckoning ... The evil that it (slavery) has wrought will reverberate through the ages and your day of reckoning is yet to come. I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood."

Among the crowd witnessing Brown's execution in 1859 was John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln six years later.

The people standing in Perkins' yard Wednesday held a moment of silence before Alice Keesey McCoy of Texas, Brown's great-great-great grandaughter, told the audience that she was "overwhelmed by the response" to the day's events. "We're not here commemorating a hanging but a life."

She called Brown a compassionate father and a loving husband who spent years away from his family trying to fight slavery and who believed that owning another person was not right.

McCoy laid a wreath below the trap door.

Terry Leonino, portraying Brown's wife, Mary, followed the wagon with her husband's remains in the casket, back to the courthouse. In 1859, Mary Brown escorted her husband's body to North Elba, N.Y., where he is buried.

Jennifer Maghan, Jefferson County Clerk, led the audience in the singing of "John Brown's Body."

The commemoration ended with a trumpet solo on Perkins' lawn by Joe Wilder.

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