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Brown's raiders honored, 150 years after their executions

December 16, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- " ... that scaffold has little dread for me ... by the taking of my life and the lives of my comrades, Virginia is but hastening on that glorious day when the slave shall rejoice in his freedom. When he can say, 'I too am a man and am groaning no more under the yoke of oppression.'"

Those words were found in a letter written to Joshua Coppoc by his nephew, Edwin Coppoc, one of four members of abolitionist John Brown's Harpers Ferry raiding party who was hanged in Charles Town on Dec. 16, 1859.

On Wednesday, the local NAACP branch sponsored a sesquicentennial commemoration of the executions of Coppoc, Shields Green, John Copeland and John Cook. 

Coppoc wrote the letter to his uncle shortly before he and his fellow raiders were taken to the same gallows where Brown was hanged two weeks earlier in what was then a field, now the front lawn of an elegant brick home owned by Gene and Jo Ann Perkins at 515 S. Samuel St.

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Two weeks ago, the 150th anniversary of Brown's execution was witnessed by more than 200 people. Brown, portrayed by Greg Artzner, was led, arms bound in ropes, from the Jefferson County Courthouse by uniformed re-enactors and taken to the gallows by horse and wagon. Artzner stood in front of the scaffold and spoke some of the fiery abolitionist's last words.

Wednesday's re-enactment of the execution of his four followers drew a smaller crowd of about 60 onlookers. There were no actors standing in for the four and no wagon ride through town. The audience walked the five blocks to the hanging ground.

Copeland and Coppoc had descendants standing in for them -- Judy Ashelman of Ranson, W.Va., whose great-great-grandfather on her mother's side was Joshua Coppoc, and Brian Beatty, 37, of Stafford, Va., a descendant of Copeland.

Proxy stand-ins for Green and Cook were James Tolbert, a member of Marshall-Holly-Mason Post 102 American Legion in Charles Town, and Emily Gilbert, 14, a Harpers Ferry Middle School student.

Each stand-in placed a wreath beneath the gallows in memory of the four men hanged that day.

Cook, 27, came from a wealthy Connecticut family, attended Yale University and studied law. He was with Brown in Kansas, married a local girl and befriended many area residents. 

He escaped during the raid and was captured later at Emmanuel Chapel on what is now Penn State University's branch campus in Mont Alto, Pa.

Coppoc, 24, and his younger brother, Barclay, were Quakers from Iowa who joined Brown in 1858. Edwin was captured in the engine house in Harpers Ferry. Barclay escaped and went home.

Green, 23, an escaped slave from Charleston, S.C., and friend of Frederick Douglass, also was captured in the engine house.

Copeland, 25, was a free black born in Raleigh, N.C. His family moved to Ohio, where he attended Oberlin College. He joined Brown the night before the raid and was captured trying to escape across the Shenandoah River.

All four men were tried and convicted in the Jefferson County Courthouse.

Green and Copeland were hanged on the morning of the 16th, and Coppoc and Cook were hanged in the afternoon. The same wagon hauled all four from the jail, now site of the Charles Town Post Office, to the execution ground.

According to a report of the hangings in the Virginia Free Press newspaper, read Wednesday by Bob O'Connor, local historian and author, "Copeland stood with head erect and eyes closed ... Green stood with his hands clasped in front and rocked to and fro ... he appeared deeply affected and evidently realized the situation in which he was placed ... "

The newspaper, reporting the afternoon hangings of Coppoc and Cook, said they shook hands on the gallows "and bid each other goodbye." When the caps were placed over their heads Cook said, "Wait a minute. Where is Edwin's hand?" Coppoc said, "Be quick as possible," and the two men dropped together.

Marshall-Holly-Mason Post 102 was originally named Green-Copeland Post 63 in honor of the two condemned raiders.

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