Category Archives: Civil War

Freedom Seekers in Indiana: A Study in Newspapers

Despite its status as a free state in the federal union, Indiana maintained a complicated relationship with the institution of slavery. The Northwest Territory, incorporated in 1787, banned slavery under Article VI of the Articles of Compact. Nevertheless, enslaved people were allowed in the region well after lawmakers organized the Indiana Territory in 1800. As historians John D. Barnhart and Dorothy L. Riker noted, there were an estimated 15 people enslaved in and around Vincennes in 1800. This number only represented a fraction of the 135 slaves enumerated in the 1800 census. When Indiana joined the Union as a free state in 1816, pockets of slave-holding citizens remained well into the 1830s.

Underground Railroad Routes through Indiana and Michigan in 1848, from Wilbur Siebert’s book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. Internet Archive.

Fugitive slave laws, a core policy that before the Civil War, perpetuated the “dreaded institution.” The U.S. Congress passed its first fugitive slave law in 1793, which allowed for slave-owning persons to retrieve their human property in any state and territory in the union, even on free soil. Indiana, both as a territory and a state, passed legislation that ensured compliance with federal law. The controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 exacerbated the problem, with many arrests, enslavements, and re-enslavements of African Americans in Indiana. Scholars estimate that 1,000-5,000 freedom seekers escaped bondage annually from 1830-1860, or roughly 135,000 before the Civil War.

Indiana’s revised Constitution from 1851. IARA.

Making matters more complicated, Indiana ratified a new constitution in 1851 that included Article XIII, which prohibited new settlement of African Americans into the state. Article XIII also encouraged colonization of African Americans already living in the state. The Indiana General Assembly even passed legislation creating a fund for the implementation of colonization in 1852. It stayed on the books until 1865. This, along with a litany of “black codes,” limited the civil rights of free African Americans and harsher penalties for African Americans seeking freedom. As historian Emma Lou Thornbrough observed, Indiana’s policies exhibited an “intense racial prejudice” and a fear of free, African American labor. One window into understanding complex history of fugitive slaves is by analyzing newspapers. Ads for runaways, fugitive slave narratives, and court case proceedings permeate Indiana’s historic newspapers. This blog will unearth some of the stories in Indiana newspapers that document the long and uneasy history of African American freedom seekers in the Hoosier state.

Indiana Gazette, September 18, 1804. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Runaway advertisements predominantly chronicled fugitive slavery in Indiana newspapers during the antebellum period. These ads would provide the slave’s name, age, a physical description, their last known whereabouts, and a reward from their owner. One of the earliest ads comes from the September 18, 1804 issue of the Indiana Gazette, while Indiana was still a territory. It described two slaves, Sam and Rebeccah, who had run away from their owner in New Bourbon, Louisiana. Sam was in his late twenties and apparently had burns on his feet. Rebeccah was a decade younger than Sam and “was born black, but has since turned white, except a few black spots.” This might have been a case of vitiligo, a skin pigment disorder. In any event, their owner offered a fifty dollar reward for “any person who will apprehend and bring back said negroes, or lodge them in any jail so that the owner may get them.”

Western Sun, December 9, 1807. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On December 9, 1807, the Western Sun ran a similar ad with a small, etched illustration of a runaway slave. Slaveholder John Taylor offered thirty dollars for the capture and return of three slaves (two men and one woman) who had taken two horses and some extra clothes. “Whoever secures the above negroes,” Taylor said, “shall have the above reward, and all reasonable charges if taken within the state; or ninety dollars, if out of the state . . . .”

Western Sun & General Advertiser, June 27, 1818. Hoosier State Chronicles.

These ads escalated after Indiana’s statehood in 1816, leading to expansions of the role of local officials. As Emma Lou Thornbrough noted, African Americans “were sometimes arrested and jailed on the suspicion that they were fugitives enough though no one had advertised them.” For example, the Western Sun & General Advertiser published a runaway ad on June 27, 1818 asking for the return of Archibald Murphey, a fugitive from Tennessee who had been captured in Posey County. Sheriff James Robb, and not Murphey’s supposed owner, took it upon himself to run an ad for the runaway’s return. “The owner is requested to come forward [,] pay charges, and take him away,” the ad demanded.

Western Sun & General Advertiser, October 26, 1822. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Owners understood the precarious nature of retrieving their slaves, so some resorted to long ad campaigns in multiple newspapers. A slave named Brister fled Barren County, Kentucky in 1822, likely carrying free papers and traveling north to Ohio. His owner offered a $100 reward for his return for at least three months in the Western Sun & General Advertiser. He had also advertised in the Cincinnati Inquisitor, Vincennes Inquirer, Brookville Enquirer, Vandalia Intelligencer, and Edwardsville Spectator.

Leavenworth Arena, July 9, 1840. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Other ads provided physical descriptions that indicated the toll of slavery on a human being. Two runaways, named Ben and Reuben, suffered from multiple ailments. Ben had his ears clipped “for robbing a boat on the Ohio river” while Reuben lived with a missing finger and a strained hip. Lewis, a fugitive from Limestone County, Alabama, had a “cut across one of his hands” that caused “one finger to be a little stiff.” They could also be rather graphic. The Leavenworth Arena posted an ad in its July 9, 1840 issue requesting the return of a slave named Smallwood, who scarred his ankles from a mishap with a riding horse; reportedly a “trace chain” wrapped around his legs, “tearing off the flesh.” The pain these men, among many others, endured from the years of their bondage was sadly treated as mere details in these advertisements.

Western Sun & General Advertiser. November 21, 1818. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While ads represented a substantial portion of newspaper coverage, articles and court proceedings also provided detail about the calamitous lives of fugitive slaves. First, court cases provide essential insight into the legal procedures regarding fugitive slaves before the Civil War. The Western Sun & General Advertiser published the court proceedings of one such case in its November 21, 1818 issue. John L. Chastian, a Kentucky slaveholder, claimed a woman named Susan as his slave and issued a warrant for her return. Corydon judge Benjamin Parke ruled in favor of Chastian on the grounds that Susan had not sufficiently demonstrated her claim to freedom and the motion for a continuance on this question was overruled. Even if Susan had been a free person, the legal system provided substantial benefits to the slaveholders, and since she could not demonstrate her freedom, she was therefore obligated to the claimant.

Richmond Palladium, September 30, 1843. Hoosier State Chronicles.

As for abolitionists, they faced court challenges as well. In 1843, Quaker Jonathan Swain stood before a grand jury in Union Circuit Court, “to testify in regard to harboring fugitive slaves, and assisting in their flight to Canada.” When asked to testify, Swain refused on grounds of conscience. The judge in the case granted him two days to reconsider his choice. When Swain returned, “he duly presented himself before the Judge, Bible under his arm, and declared his readiness to abide the decision and sentence of the Court.” The judge cited Swain in contempt and jailed him, “there to remain until he would affirm, or should be otherwise discharged.” This episode was one of many that demonstrated the intense religious and moral convictions of Quakers and their resistance to slavery.

Evansville Tri-Weekly Journal, October 7, 1847. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By contrast, many of those who sought slaves faced little challenge. The Evansville Tri-Weekly Journal reported that Thomas Hardy and John Smith, on trial in the Circuit Court of Gibson County for kidnapping, were acquitted of all charges. The judge’s ruling hinged only on a fugitive slave notice. This notice provided “sufficient authority for any person to arrest such fugitive and take him to his master.” As with the case involving Susan, the alleged slaves procured in this case received less legal protection than the two vigilantes that captured them. These trends continued well into the 1850s through the end of the Civil War.

Evansville Daily Journal, January 18, 1859. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Second, numerous articles and narratives concerning fugitive slaves and free persons claimed as fugitives were published during the antebellum period. The passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, of which Indiana kept its obligation to enforce, exacerbated coverage. Some articles were merely short notices, explaining that a certain number of alleged fugitive slaves were passing through a town or getting to a particular destination. The Evansville Daily Journal ran a brief description in 1859 about two men “who had the appearance of escaped slaves, came upon the Evansville road, last night, and passed on to Indianapolis.” It was also reported that they “had a white adviser with them on the cars,” supposedly a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. In another piece, the Journal wrote uncharitably about a “stampede of slaves” that:

. . . left their master’s roofs, escaped to the Licking river where they lashed together several canoes, and in disguise they rowed down the Licking river to the Ohio and crossed, where they disembarked and made a circuitous route to the northern part of Cincinnati.

After their travel to Cincinnati, the twenty-three fugitives began their route to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

Evansville Daily Journal, June 19, 1854. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Articles covering the arrest of fugitive slaves also filled the headlines. As an example, the New Albany Daily Ledger ran a piece in 1853 about two fugitive slaves captured in the basement of local Theological Seminary. Jerry Warner, a local, arrested them both and received $250 in compensation for their capture. The Evansville Daily Journal reported of the arrest of three fugitive slaves in Vincennes who were on their way to freedom in Canada. Two men, one from Evansville and another from Henderson, Kentucky, pursued and captured the fugitives nearly eight miles outside of the city. The fugitives defended themselves against capture, with one of them brandishing a pistol who “snapped it twice at the officer, but it missed fire.” The officers then transferred the fugitives to Evansville, who were supposedly returned to Henderson.

Evansville Daily Journal, June 2, 1854. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Conductors of the Underground Railroad also faced arrest for the aid of fugitive slaves. Another article from the Evansville Journal chronicled the arrest of a man known simply as “Brown” who aided four female slaves to an Underground Railroad stop at Petersburgh, Indiana. A US Marshal and a local Sheriff “charge[d] on the ‘worthy conductor,’ and he surrendered.” The officers returned Brown to the Henderson jail for processing. It was later discovered that he received $200 from a free African American for his last job. The Journal described Brown as a “notorious abolitionist, and if guilty of the thieving philanthropy with which he is charged, deserved punishment.” Indiana’s free state status did not lessen the prejudice against African Americans and abolitionists; it only obscured it.

Evansville Daily Journal. April 13, 1858. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of the more elaborate, yet challenging methods fugitive slaves used to seek freedom involved shipping boxes. The Evansville Daily Journal reported of a fugitive slave captured aboard the steamer Portsmouth, a shipping vessel traveling from Nashville to Cincinnati. He was in the box, “doubled up like a jack-knife,” for five days before authorities discovered him and took the appropriate actions. The ship docked at Covington, Kentucky and they “placed the negro in jail to await the requisition of his owner.” It was learned later that the fugitive slave had an agreement with a widow to move to Ohio on condition that he work for her for a year. “He had fulfilled his part of the contract,” the Journal wrote, “and she was performing her stipulations, and would have enabled him to escape had it not been for the unlucky accident.” This story was also covered in the Terre Haute Daily Union and similar stories ran in later issues of the Journal, the Nashville Daily Patriot, and the Richmond Palladium.

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, August 16, 1855. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Sadly, the ultimate risk for a fugitive slave was death, and Indiana newspapers chronicled these events as well. The Crawfordsville Weekly Journal published an article on August 16, 1855 detailing the death of a fugitive slave by drowning. It appeared to the authorities that the fugitive, resting near Sugar Creek in Crawfordsville, was discovered by a group of men and questioned about his status. Under pressure, the fugitive leaped into the water and tried to flee, which spurred one man to shoot off his gun in an attempt to stop him. As the Journal wrote, “this alarmed the negro, and he plunged beneath the waters, and continued to rise and then dive, until exhausted, and he sank to rise no more until life was extinct.” His body was discovered a few days later. While some deemed his death a mere drowning, others thought it more “suspicious.” The Journal continued:

Putting the most favorable construction on the circumstances, there was a reckless trifling with human life which nothing can justify. He was doubtless a fugitive, but they knew it not, and had no right to arrest him or threaten his life. They knew of no crime of which he had been guilty, and only suspected him of an earnest longing after that freedom for which the human heart ever pants; and because he acted upon this feeling, so natural and so strong, they threaten to tie and imprison, and when struggling with overwhelming waters, he is threatened with being shot if he does not return ; and then when strength and life were fast failing, stretched not forth a helping hand to save him from immediate death.

If the facts as stated be true, (of which we have no doubt,) there is high criminality, of which the laws of our country should take cognizance; and when the news of the negroe’s [sic] death shall have reached his owner, he will doubtless prosecute those men; it may be for murder in the second degree, or at least for the value of the slave.

The Journal eloquently elucidated why the application of fugitive slave laws, especially by vigilante citizens, harmed the civil rights and lives of both free people and those still in servitude (of which there were a mere few).

Terre Haute Journal, September 2, 1853. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Free African Americans additionally faced threats to their lives and livelihood from the enforcement of fugitive slave laws. A well-known instance in Indiana regarded the arrest and release of John Freeman. Arrested and jailed on June 21, 1853, Freeman faced a charge from Pleasant Ellington of Missouri that he was one of his slaves. Freeman hired a legal team and after a lengthy trial that testified to his status as a free-born African American, he was released on August 27, 1853. It turned out that Ellington misidentified Freeman as a slave named Sam, who fled from servitude in Greenup County, Kentucky and likely escaped to Canada. Due to the diminution of his character, Freeman sued Ellington in civil court for 10,000; it was later ruled in favor of Freeman and he received $2,000 and additional unnamed damages. What Freeman experienced is but a snapshot into how fugitive slave laws harmed the rights of free people as well as slaves.

Indiana State Guard, June 8, 1861. Hoosier State Chronicles.

After the Civil War began, fugitive slaves continued to elicit concern, and coverage, in Indiana newspapers. In the spring of 1861, the Sentinel reprinted a piece from the Jeffersonville Democrat about the rise of fugitive slaves traveling through the Ohio River region: “the number of fugitive slaves caught on the Indiana side of the river, and returned to Kentucky within the past three months, is greater than that of any like period during the past ten years.” Kentucky’s government still offered a reward of $150 for each returned slave. That summer, the Indiana State Guard published President Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on the issue. Lincoln, in a manner characteristic of his own political calculus, declared that Union soldiers were not “obliged to leave their legitimate military business to pursue and return fugitive slaves” but also cautioned that “the army is under no obligation to protect them, and will not encourage nor interfere with them in their flight.” The new President offered a nuanced position that possibly placated the Border States while satisfying the abolitionist wing of his own party. Realistically, it was a long way away from the Emancipation Proclamation.

Greencastle Banner, December 23, 1865. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The end of the Civil War brought the end of slavery as a federally-protected policy, and thus eliminated the need for fugitive slave laws. Their end brought a larger fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s commitment to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Yet, the history of fugitive slaves often fell into tales of folklore and hyperbole. Looking at a primary source like newspapers helps to dispel many of the myths and provides nuance to the controversial subject of human enslavement in the United States. These stories represent a small fraction of the larger narrative about American slavery. To learn more, visit the Library of Congress’ page about fugitive slave ads in historical newspapers: https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/fugitiveAds.html. You can also search Hoosier State Chronicles for more fugitive slave ads and articles.

Other Resources

Indiana Historical Bureau: Slavery in Indiana Territory

Indiana Historical Bureau: Indiana and Fugitive Slave Laws

Indiana Historical Bureau: The Underground Railroad

Montgomery County Newspapers: A Short History

Montgomery County, Indiana has a rich, colorful history of newspapers, both in their coverage and the personalities that ran them. In this post, we will share some highlights of this heritage and emphasize some of the papers that are available in Hoosier State Chronicles (HSC).

Crawfordsville Record, February 8, 1834. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The earliest paper from Montgomery County in HSC is the Crawfordsville Record. Editor Isaac F. Wade and printer Charles S. Bryant published its first issue on October 18, 1831. As Herman Fred Shermer noted in an article about Montgomery County publishing, the “type and presses for the Record plant were brought by freight wagons from Cincinnati, Ohio” and the cost of the publishing the first issue was approximately $400. While Wade and Bryant intended for the Record’s first issue to arrive in September, they were delayed a month because the printer required a capital “D” for typesetting. Wade, as a good Whig, believed that having that capital “D” was essential, as the paper would regularly refer to “Democrats and the Devil.” The paper ran until 1838, after the death of subsequent publisher William Harrison Holmes. A brief revival of the paper in 1839-40, led by William H. Webb and Henry S. Lane, never regained the paper’s subscription base and it ceased altogether.

Henry S. Lane. NARA/Wiki Commons.

Speaking of Henry S. Lane, he also co-founded one of Crawfordsville’s premier Whig newspapers during the 1840s, the People’s Press. Lane, along with a consortium of political and business leaders, established the People’s Press to be the official Whig party newspaper for Montgomery County. They recruited Pennsylvanian William H. Bausman as its editor. It ran from 1844 until 1848, when its “apparent financial success” waned due to “bad editorial management.” It then ran for a short, six-week stint as the Tomahawk until the paper was bought out by publishers Thomas Walker Fry and Jeremiah Keeney.

Crawfordsville Journal, September 14, 1865. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Out of the ashes of the People’s Press and Tomahawk, Fry and Keeney founded one of Montgomery County’s standard papers, one that still continues today (albeit in a different form). The Crawfordsville Journal started publication on July 27, 1848. Originally a Whig paper, the Journal embraced the newly-formed Republican Party in the mid-1850s. The Crawfordsville Review, founded in 1841 and purchased by Charles H. Bowen and Benjamin F. Stover in 1854, served as the Democratic foil to Journal’s Whig perspective.

Crawfordsville Review, September 16, 1865. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Journal’s Jeremiah Keeney and the Review’s Charles H. Bowen (Stover sold out to Bowen six months after their acquisition) maintained a years-long feud in their respective papers. As a recent article in the Crawfordsville Journal-Review noted, Keeney and Bowen exchanged pointed barbs at each other in the press. Here’s a few additional examples we found in Hoosier State Chronicles. In the June 7, 1855 issue of the Journal, Keeney wrote an editorial called “Clean Streets,” where he commended the public workers who swept the streets but then derided Bowen’s supposed quibble with cleanup. “Count Bowen and his clique are probably the only men in town, who will object to cleanliness, and the protection of shade trees,” Keeney declared. Keeney preferred name for the Review’s editor was “Count Bowen,” likely a jab at his purported leadership status in the town.

Crawfordsville Journal, June 7, 1855. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Bowen didn’t take insults lightly and routinely shot back at Keeney in the Review. In its October 7, 1865 issue, Bowen slammed Kenney for his comments on Democratic leaders in the county and threw his own rhetorical venom at the Journal’s publisher. Bowen wrote that Keeney’s targets should:

 [P]ay no attention to the filthy slang of this poor miserable creature, half idiotic and totally irresponsible, he should be passed by with total indifference and regarded only as a canker, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle upon the body of a corrupt and depraved humanity which purity should shun as a pestilence.

Bowen certainly elucidated his point, in the most elaborate way possible. Imagine if these two men were alive today, trading jabs on Twitter or in Facebook comments. Some things don’t change, after all.

Crawfordsville Review, October 7, 1865. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Bowen wasn’t the only eccentric owner of the Review. Bayless W. Hanna, who purchased the newspaper in 1883, wore many hats, including newspaper man, diplomat—and music box operator. A short write-up from the Terre Haute Daily News noted that, “Bayless Hanna, with his monkey and box, was seen going down Eighth street [sic] this morning bound for the rural districts.” The very next week, the Daily News wrote about him again and it was even more interesting:

Bayless Hanna was seen to-day walking down Main street with his music box, following a one-armed soldier who had a hand-organ in a little boy’s express wagon. The soldier would occasionally stop in front of a business house and play a tune, while Bayless and Rodgers would stare with mouth wide open, at the wonderful machine.

He operated the Review for two years before President Grover Cleveland appointed him Minister to Iran and then Minister to Argentina, a position he held until his death in 1889. He died in 1891, in Crawfordsville.

Bayless W. Hanna. Find A Grave.

At a time when women were often delegated to domestic pursuits, Mary Hannah Krout completely bucked the trend. Born in Crawfordsville in 1851, Krout descended from a long-line of accomplished scholars. Specifically, her grandfather served as the state geologist and taught natural science at Butler University. However, her intellectual passion was writing, particularly poetry. She was a published poet in local newspapers as early as 10 years old and gave lectures in her teenage years.    This culminated in her decades-long work in newspaper journalism, with positions at the Terre Haute Weekly Express, the Crawfordsville Journal, and the Chicago Inter-Ocean, where she covered the Hawaiian revolution of 1893. Alongside her newspaper work, she authored eight books and helped Susan Wallace finish Lew Wallace’s Autobiography.

Mary Hannah Krout. Internet Archive.

As for Lew Wallace, a post about Montgomery County and newspapers wouldn’t be complete without a quick discussion of its most famous son. Wallace’s tenure during the Civil War received differing perspectives from the Crawfordsville newspapers. This stemmed from Wallace’s own political evolution; he started the war as a Democrat and ended it a Republican. This changed his relationship with the Crawfordsville Review, who held it against him in editorials. For example, a short piece in their May 19, 1866 issue took umbrage with his military assignment during the second French intervention in Mexico. The Review wrote:

Lew Wallace, who has been rusticating in our city for several weeks past, left suddenly for New York a few days since. Rumor has it that he is about to join a filibustering expedition against Mexico. Should he be so unlucky as to suffer capture by the French mercenaries of Maximillian, we trust he may be granted a fair trial before a drum-head court martial. We should regret very much to hear of his being arraigned before a civil tribunal.

Much like with Keeney and Bowen’s feud, the Review‘s strongly-worded opprobrium against Wallace emanated from intense political partisanship.

Lew Wallace, in full dress uniform. General Lew Wallace Study & Museum.

Another Crawfordsville paper, Thomas C. Pursel and Robert B. Wilson’s Evening Argus, first rolled off the press in 1882. “Argus” as a term seems relatively antiquarian to our ears; nevertheless, its etymology is fantastic. Originally a name for the “giant with 100 eyes” from classical mythology, it eventually meant “watchful guardian.” It seems safe to assume that the latter definition applies more as a name for a newspaper than the former. The daily newspaper had a brief three year run under the solo title of the Argus. In 1885, Walter E. Rosebro and Samuel M. Coffman purchased it and merged it with their paper, the News, to make the Argus-News. It continued to appear in weekly and daily formats until 1900, when Coffman purchased the Review. He dropped Argus from the name and re-branded the paper as the News-Review, which ran for eight years before abbreviating the title to the Review. Coffman later embarked on another newspaper venture, the Crawfordsville Daily Progressive, but it languished and he filed for bankruptcy in 1917.

New Richmond Record, October 15 1914. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Outside of the county seat, one of the more interesting Montgomery County papers available in Hoosier State Chronicles is the New Richmond Record. It ran from 1896 until 1924 under the sole ownership and editorship of Edgar Walts. Here’s an account of its publication from the A. W. Bowen’s History of Montgomery County (1913):

It is a six-column, six-page paper, run on a gasoline propelled power press. It is independent in politics, and makes a specialty of as much local news as is possible to furnish its readers with. It circulates in Montgomery, Tippecanoe and adjoining counties. It meets the requirements of the town and with it is connected a good job department.

During its run, the Record often praised its subscribers for continuing to patronize the paper, in a segment called the Record’s Honor Roll.” The “honor roll” listed all the “new subscribers and renewals to THE RECORD during the past week” from Montgomery County, Indiana, and across the country. His “honor roll” likely helped circulation; by 1920, the Record had a circulation of 500 (for a town whose population was 496, but whose readership likely extended into rural Coal Creek Township and the rest of the county).

New Richmond Record, January 7, 1915. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Today, readers in Montgomery County patronize two major newspapers. The Crawfordsville Journal-Review, founded in 1929 with the merger of two flagship county papers, publishes a Tuesday-Saturday print version and an online versionThe Paper of Montgomery County, established by Journal-Review veteran reporter Gaildene Hamilton in 2004, also delivers a daily print version and online version.

In all, Montgomery County’s newspapers often displayed the rough-and-tumble political winds of the nineteenth century, an era whose partisanship and vitriol mirrors our own. It wasn’t, however, the only part of their story. Montgomery County also facilitated forward-thinking pioneers like Mary Hannah Krout, Samuel Coffman, and Edgar Walts. Like much of history, Montgomery County’s heritage of newspapers exemplifies a nuanced, intriguing legacy.

A Skeleton’s Odyssey: The Forensic Mystery of Watson Brown

John Brown gravestie

When the fiery abolitionist John Brown, “The Meteor” who tried to ignite a slave rebellion in the South, was hanged for treason, authorities turned the body over to his family.  In December 1859, Brown’s remains traveled north by train from the hanging grounds in Charles Town, Virginia, to the family farm in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Around Christmastime, he was laid to rest next to a huge chunk of Appalachian granite.

Twenty-three years later, a Hoosier geologist who studied such rocks for a living helped ensure that one of John Brown’s fellow raiders at Harper’s Ferry — his son Watson, who was gunned down during the raid — would finally be buried next to his father.  In the meantime, Watson’s bones went on a long odyssey out to the Midwest.

Watson Brown was born October 7, 1835, in Franklin Mills, Ohio. His father, the great abolitionist, moved back and forth between northern Ohio and his native New England several times.  After John Brown went out to “Bleeding Kansas” to fight the extension of slavery into the West, Watson left home, too, though he apparently didn’t join in the combat on the Plains.  His father and brothers, however — considered terrorists by some — waged war on pro-slavery factions with guns, fire and on one occasion, with broadswords used to hack their enemies to death.  A letter from Watson to his mother Mary, written in Iowa in 1856, mentions that on his own way west with a team of emigrants — armed with “Sharp’s rifles and cannon” — they met with ex-slave Frederick Douglass and the reformer Gerrit Smith.  Smith, a failed presidential candidate, secretly financed the later raid on Harper’s Ferry.  Watson himself may have helped carry caches of firearms out to the Great Plains, guns paid for by New England anti-slavery committees.


John Brown
John Brown in Springfield, Massachusetts, 1846.

Watson Brown 2
Watson Brown, circa 1859.

John Brown traversed the Midwest many times on trips back East to win the support of reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Henry David Thoreau.  In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers — sixteen white and five black — tried to pull off their most spectacular assault on slavery yet, an attack on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah flows into the Potomac.  The target: 100,000 muskets, to be handed over to slaves for use in a massive insurrection.


Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry, Virginia, now West Virginia.

Optimistic supporters in the U.S. and Canada originally planned for 4,500 men to participate in the raid.  Instead, just twenty-one attacked Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859.  After cutting telegraph wires and taking hostages on nearby farms, Brown’s band moved into town.  Local militia, farmers and shopkeepers, opening fire, quickly pinned down the abolitionists, driving them into a brick engine house.  Under siege, John Brown sent his son Watson and another man out with a white flag.  The crowd shot them.  Watson, aged twenty-four, with a bullet just below his stomach, struggled back to the engine house, fatally wounded.  He begged his father and comrades to “dash out his brains,” then tried to commit suicide.


The Liberator (Boston, Mass), November 18, 1859
The Liberator, Boston, Massachusetts, November 18, 1859.

John Brown raid
Brown’s son Oliver was also killed in the raid, while Watson lay in agony. “With one son dead by his side, and another dying, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand and held his rifle with the other.” (James Redpath, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown, 1860)

The outbreak of the Civil War was still a year and a half away.  In fact, the raid was put down by Colonel Robert E. Lee — of the U.S. Army.  John Brown was hanged for treason in December.  Spectators at his execution included Stonewall Jackson, John Wilkes Booth, and the poet Walt Whitman.

Ten of Brown’s men died in the raid, including two sons.  What became of their mortal remains is a fascinating and rarely told part of the tale.

Eight of the bodies were gathered up by townspeople of Harpers Ferry.  The locals, understandably, didn’t want the raiders buried in the town’s cemetery.  They gave a man named James Mansfield five dollars to take care of the corpses.

Packing eight men into two large wooden store boxes, Mansfield buried them along the Shenandoah River about a half-mile from town.  The grave, half forgotten, remained there until 1899, when Dr. Timothy Featherstonehaugh, Captain E.P. Hall, and Orin Grant Libby, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, exhumed the corpses for transfer to the Brown family farm in upstate New York.  Professor Libby took femur notes while examining the skeletal remains, comparing them for size against his own leg.  On August 30, 1899, the mingled raiders’ bones were re-interred at the Brown plot — in a single silver-handled casket.


New England Magazine, April 1901(New England Magazine, April 1901.)


This wasn’t the first time, however, that a box of old bones was brought to North Elba, New York, to lie next to John Brown’s. Two of his followers were never initially buried at all.  One of them was his son Watson.

Remarkably common in the nineteenth century, body-stealing was a feature of reality at a time when medical schools had trouble acquiring corpses for anatomy classes.  Rarely able to do so legally, they had to steal them, giving rise to the “resurrectionists” who nabbed the dead out of fresh graves.

Yet other examples of body-theft involved mere curiosity seekers and bogus scientists.  During the heyday of phrenology — the long-discredited study of bumps on the skull, which, it was believed, actually determined one’s personality, creative genius, or propensity to crime — “cranioklepty” (the theft of skulls) was far from rare.

The more famous the head, the better.  When the composer Joseph Haydn died in Vienna in 1809, wealthy robbers paid a cemetery attendant to open up the new grave and cut off his head.  “Scientists” then boiled off the flesh or used acid to remove the skin and muscle in order to examine Haydn’s cranial bumps.  Until 1954, the famous skull remained on display in a glass case in Vienna, when it was reunited with the rest of Haydn’s bones.   After the coffins of Beethoven and Schubert were exhumed for relocation in the 1860s, their skulls were also examined, as was the entire mummified body of American naval hero John Paul Jones, unearthed in subterranean Paris in 1905 — a hundred-and-thirteen years after he died.

Watson Brown and Jeremiah Anderson — two Midwesterners gunned down at Harpers Ferry — were considered “fine physical specimens.”  Southern doctors took them to Winchester Medical College in Virginia, where, like Joseph Haydn, they had (most of) the flesh stripped off them.  John Brown’s 24-year-old son, who had left behind a widow, Isabella, and a young child who died in 1863, was turned into a model skeleton for the instruction of future Southern medical men.


Dr. Jarvis Johnson
Dr. Jarvis Johnson, surgeon of the 27th Indiana Volunteers.

Yet Winchester, Virginia, just thirty miles from Harper’s Ferry and the Potomac River, changed hands several times during the Civil War.

In the spring of 1862, two and a half years after Watson Brown’s death, the 27th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers marched into town with the Union Army.  Among them was regimental surgeon Dr. Jarvis Jackson Johnson.  Born in Bedford, Indiana, in 1828, Johnson practiced medicine in Martinsville, half way between Indianapolis and Bloomington.  He would have been 34 when he walked into Winchester Medical College and found out what doctors had done to the remains of Watson Brown — an action for which, Virginians believed, Union troops burned down the college, the only case of arson during Winchester’s military occupation.

In 1882, the Indianapolis Journal printed the most widely-accepted version of the tale.  It came in the aftermath of a visit by John Brown, Jr., who visited Morgan County, Indiana, with several other investigators to examine a set of human remains there.

Dr. Johnson had stated that while serving as commander of a military hospital in Winchester, he acquired Watson Brown’s body from the museum of the medical college — then shipped it on a train to Franklin, Indiana, the nearest railroad depot to his home in Martinsville.  Like the Virginia doctors, Johnson kept the body in a case at his medical office.  For twenty years, the raider’s bones were a strange part of the life of a Hoosier country town.


Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882

Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882 (2)
Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882.

In 1882, word of the skeleton’s whereabouts came to John Brown, Jr., Watson’s elder brother and the abolitionist’s oldest son, after Jarvis Johnson put a notice in the Chicago Tribune looking for family members.  The doctor claimed, probably disingenuously, that he hadn’t realized any of the Brown brothers were still living, and he hadn’t wanted to upset Watson Brown’s mother.  Though John Brown, Jr., had fought in “Bleeding Kansas,” he in fact wasn’t part of the raid on Harpers Ferry.  During the Civil War, he helped recruit troops for the famous “Jayhawk” border fighter James H. Lane. (Before Lane became an anti-slavery senator from Kansas and a famous target for Confederates, he had been the lieutenant governor of Indiana.)

Brown, Jr., visited Indiana in September 1882, having already moved back east to Ohio, where he grew grapes for the wine business on South Bass Island in Lake Erie and took an interest in geology.


John Brown, Jr.
John Brown, Jr.

The other main forensic investigator to come to Martinsville that September was one of Indiana’s most prominent scientists, the impressively-bearded State Geologist John Collett.  Remembered as a beloved “Santa Claus” figure, Collett was a Wabash Valley native who lived in Indianapolis and often weighed in on scientific and agricultural questions — from the study of caves and killer meteorite hoaxes to how to improve celery crops.  Collett traveled to Martinsville with several doctors to look over the badly-treated remains of the bygone Harpers Ferry raider.


John Collett
Hoosier geologist John Collett, who drew the first maps of Wyandotte Cave, helped Watson Brown get back to New York.

The Indianapolis Journal printed this description of the scene at Dr. Johnson’s office:

The body has received careless treatment during the last few years. It has been carted about from place to place, and has been doing duty in all the anatomical exhibitions about town. During the first few years it was in the possession of Dr. Johnson it was in a remarkably fine state of preservation, but ill usage has ruined it. For several years, it has been lying in the Knights of Pythias hall, and, it is whispered, was used in the mystic ceremonies of the order. The best of care had not been bestowed upon it, and it was infested with worms and insects. Knowledge of its ill-usage was sedulously kept from Mr. Brown. When he intimated that he would like to see the body, he was considerately kept in waiting until it could be removed from the lodge-hall to the residence by way of a back street, and there placed in better condition for the examination.

At the time, it wasn’t clear whether the skeleton was that of Watson or 22-year-old Oliver, John Brown’s other son killed in October 1859.  Watson and Oliver looked alike.  Both stood six feet tall.

An office assistant of Dr. Jarvis’ showed John Brown, Jr., a “coffin-shaped box standing against the wall.”  Then he removed a cloth covering, exposing “a bare and hideous skeleton.”

“Gentlemen, if it is either of my brothers, I am now inclined to think that it is Oliver,” Brown exclaimed after picking up and poring over skeletal fragments and examining the shape of a half-missing skull.   Yet the more he looked, the more he came to think he was looking at his other brother, Watson.


Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882 (3)


Geologist John Collett wasn’t a qualified expert in forensic facial reconstruction, a process that would actually be pioneered in the next decade.  (When Johann Sebastian Bach’s bones showed up at a church in Leipzig, Germany, in 1894, Swiss anatomist Wilhelm His reconstructed a face from the skull, which resembled an old painting of Bach — who became an unwitting helper in the baby science of crime-scene forensics.) After comparing all the forensic evidence available, however, including written descriptions of Watson Brown’s gun wound, it was John Collett’s opinion that the cadaver standing before him in Martinsville, Indiana, was, in fact, the man in question.

True to the often bogus science of the time, though, some of the “professor’s” statements expose how ludicrous phrenology was.


The Inter Ocean, September 14, 1882 (2)
The Inter Ocean, Chicago, September 14, 1882.

Then came a fascinating insight.  Dr. Jarvis Johnson’s written affidavit, notarized by Morgan County lawyers, also shed light on why doctors in Virginia wanted to preserve Brown’s corpse in the first place.

When he was put in charge of local Union Army medical operations, “A number of the prominent citizens of Winchester called upon me at the hospital, and each and all declared that [these were] the remains of a son of John Brown.”  Amazingly, the doctor who “prepared” the body, whom Johnson never identifies by name, also stopped by — and pleaded with Johnson to give him back this “exceedingly valuable piece of property.”

Like the medieval Europeans who condemned criminals to be drawn-and-quartered, Virginia doctors held up the corpse as a warning to  their state’s enemies.  Sic semper tyrannis?


The Inter Ocean, September 14, 1882
(The Inter Ocean, Chicago, September 14, 1882.)

Who was this doctor, then?

He was surely on the faculty list — and it’s a small one.  Founded by Dr. Hugh Holmes McGuire, Winchester Medical College had only four instructors in 1859, including the founder’s son, Hunter Holmes McGuire (1835-1900).  At age 24, Hunter McGuire, already a professor anatomy at his father’s school, would have been an exact contemporary of the “fine specimen” killed at Harpers Ferry.

Hunter McGuire, however, was probably not the culprit. In late 1859, he was studying medicine in Philadelphia.  The young doctor was even there during the famous walk-out of Southern medical students, which occurred after John Brown’s body was paraded through the streets by Northern admirers.  Insulted, McGuire led an exodus of about three-hundred Southern students from Jefferson Medical College, who dropped out, went down to Richmond, and re-enrolled at the Medical College of Virginia.  Some sources say that he financed the trip of all these students with his own savings.

Dr. Hunter McGuire later enlisted in the Confederate Army and even served as Stonewall Jackson’s personal surgeon, amputating the general’s arm after Chancellorsville.  He went on to become the president of the American Medical Association.  In the 1890s, McGuire would contribute to the debate over eugenics, racial purity, and the castration of rapists, especially African Americans — arguments that eventually led to Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, a major victory for the controversial eugenics movement and one of the worst misapplications of science in history.  He also strove to ensure that Southern school textbooks “would not poison the minds of Virginia schoolchildren” by teaching a northern revisionist history of the Civil War.

The Medical Pickwick (1918) states that Watson Brown was “dissected by students.”  McGuire, as stated, was in Pennsylvania in the aftermath of Harper’s Ferry.  But did he have anything at all to do with this man’s bizarre fate?


Faculty of Winchester Medical College


It seems that he did.  Mary Greenhow Lee, a famous diarist in Winchester during the Civil War, wrote  that when Union soldiers torched the medical school on May 16, 1862, “They buried in the yard what they supposed were [Oliver Brown’s] bones, but the genuine ones had been removed by Hunter McGuire, thus foiling their malicious designs.”  Were the bones buried those of Jeremiah Anderson, a native of Wisconsin who fought with John Brown?  Lee might have been mistaken about the identity of the bones.  It’s harder to believe she was mistaken about Dr. McGuire.  After all, he was fighting in northern Virginia and may have been the doctor who approached Jarvis Johnson.

Twenty years later, Johnson willingly handed over to the Brown family the cadaver he claimed to have shipped by train from the Shenandoah Valley to the Midwest.  In October 1882, Watson Brown’s strange post-mortem odyssey finally came to an end.  On an autumn day in the Adirondacks, he was laid to rest in a patch of soil near his famous father, who — as the old Union song put it — had long lain “mouldering in the grave.”


John Brown's body 2


Isabella Thompson, aged just 22 when the Harpers Ferry raid left her a widow, married Watson’s cousin, Salmon Brown.  For decades, the couple lived in Kilbourn City, Wisconsin — later renamed Wisconsin Dells.  Isabella may have died near Traverse City in northern Michigan in 1907.  Her second husband died in neighboring Antrim County, Michigan, in 1921.  “Bella” was buried at North Elba, New York, near her first husband, his final whereabouts pinned down at last.

John Collett passed away in March 1899 and was buried in Terre Haute.  Dr. Johnson died that September, just a few weeks after the mass re-interment of Brown’s other missing men, among whom was his son Oliver, who had lain in a merchant’s box on the Shenandoah for forty years.  Johnson rests at East Hill Cemetery in Morgantown, Indiana.