Tag Archives: Morgan County

Indiana’s “Pot of Gold”

Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1903

Though you won’t become a millionaire panning for gold in Indiana, today’s recreational gold hunters have a lot of fun sloshing around Hoosier creeks in search of the shiny metal that led many a conquistador to his doom.  Around 1900, however, Indiana farmers and geologists explored the possibility that the hills of Brown, Monroe, and Morgan counties might become something of a Klondike.

Mining for gold in the Eastern United States might sound far-fetched, but it goes back over two centuries.  While Spanish explorers who crisscrossed parts of the South and Southwest were fooled by El Dorado myths, the soils of the Southeastern U.S. do hold significant quantities of the mineral.  In fact, until the discovery of California’s huge deposits in the 1840s, most domestic gold came from North Carolina, home of America’s “first gold rush.”

The South’s gold industry began in 1799, when a 17-pound nugget turned up on the farm of John Reed, a former Hessian soldier.  An illegal immigrant, Johannes Ried had deserted from the British Army and settled near Charlotte after the war, anglicizing his name. Reed had apparently never seen gold and didn’t know what the shiny yellow rock his son had found was.  For three years, he used it as a door post. Finally asking a jeweler to appraise it, Reed got swindled: he sold the big nugget, actually worth thousands of dollars, for just $3.50.


North Carolina gold


Fortunately, Reed and other North Carolina farmers soon caught on. By the 1830s, placer mines on farms around Charlotte gave way to heavy-duty mining operations.  At their peak, these mines employed about 25,000 people.  With deep-vein mines wreaking havoc on the land and destroying good agricultural sites, Southern gold mining may have played a role in the exodus of Southerners to fertile land in the Midwest.  Yet the mines were a big boon for the U.S. government, which authorized a new branch of the U.S. Mint in Charlotte in 1837.  Although it was still the poorest state in the South, North Carolina produced the first gold coins ever minted in the U.S.  These replaced English and Spanish coins legally used by Americans as currency.

Begun by Germans, the Southern gold industry also attracted thousands of immigrants, mostly from places with a long history of mining, like Cornwall, Wales, and Germany.  Many joined the rush to California in 1849, around the time the Carolina gold rush peaked. Others came to the Midwest, settling in places like Wisconsin, originally a federal lead mining district.

Gold mining never really took off in Brown County, Indiana.  But when Southerners flocked into the uplands in the 1830s, they began finding gold there, too.

The irony is that one of the historically poorest Hoosier counties got an unexpected windfall from the glaciers that stopped on its doorstep and spared most of it from being flattened.  That gift was Canadian gold, originally delivered to Earth — so the theory runs — by asteroid collisions four billion years ago.

While artist colonies found a different sort of gold in Brown County’s rustic hills, farmers — most of them with Southern Appalachian roots — found the allure of gold hidden in creek beds worth pursuing.  By the 1920s, traditional upland farming practices, heavy logging, and hogs wandering loose through the woods had seriously degraded Brown County’s soil.  The situation was so bad that by the time of the Great Depression, much of the county was nearly abandoned.  Conservationists were able to snatch up plenty of cheap land for the new park, created in 1929, plus other degraded land later added to the Hoosier National Forest and Yellowwood State Forest.  Though considered the crown jewel of the state park system today, Brown County was no wilderness a century ago.  And the presence of gold there must have appealed to cash-strapped farmers eking out a basic livelihood.


Indianapolis News, November 4, 1893
Indianapolis News, November 4, 1893. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Locals had been panning gold in streams like Bean Blossom Creek, Lick Creek, and Bear Creek since at least the 1840s, often turning up enough of the mineral to supplement their small income from crops and livestock.  In 1897, one prospector told of making as much as $27 a day — over $700 in today’s money — but nobody here was getting filthy rich.  Yet in 1903, Indiana State Geologist Willis S. Blatchley came down from Indianapolis to weigh in on an old debate about whether Brown County could sustain a serious gold mining operation.

Blatchley wrote several reports, intended for a popular audience. He described how the glaciers that once covered Indiana in ice five-hundred feet thick lugged gold-bearing rocks down from Hudson Bay, depositing them in “terminal moraines,” piles of rubble left where the ice sheets stopped.  Water erosion then washed the gold out of the moraines into streams, dispersing it over several counties south of Indianapolis, where it turned up as tiny flakes in creek beds. Primitive panning and placer mines would help sift the gold out from mud and gravel, but more intensive mining to get all the gold wasn’t traditionally considered worth the effort.


Willis S. Blatchley, 1918 (2)
Geologist and entomologist Willis S. Blatchley, 1918. He served as State Geologist of Indiana from 1894 to 1910 and was also well-known in Florida.

Blatchley was one of Indiana’s great naturalists and took a strong interest in mining.  Born in Connecticut, he grew up on farms in Putnam County, whose unusual geology and rich wildlife got him interested in nature, especially rocks, bugs, and butterflies.  At Indiana University in the 1880’s, Blatchley studied with the great ichthyologist David Starr Jordan and geologist John Casper Branner. Pioneer Hoosier scientists, Jordan and Branner, later became the first and second presidents of Stanford University in California.

Ironically, Branner, who served as Arkansas State Geologist while still a faculty member at IU, was famously burned in effigy in 1888 after he exposed bogus gold and silver mines in the Ozarks, dashing the hopes of optimistic capitalists and investors there.  One of Branner’s assistants on the Arkansas surveys turned out to be future U.S. president Herbert Hoover, who majored in geology at Stanford after Branner left his job in Bloomington to head the new department. (Hoover went on to get his first job after college as a gold-mining engineer in Western Australia and later worked for the Chinese Bureau of Mines and in Russia.  Before he went into politics, Hoover was an internationally-recognized mining expert and even published a standard textbook on the subject.  In 1912, he and his wife also made the definitive translation from Latin of a 16th-century German mining classic, De re metallica.)


De re metallica
Herbert Hoover once studied with IU geology professor John C. Branner.

On the heels of a new hunt for Hoosier gold, Branner’s former student W.S. Blatchley’s trip to southern Indiana in early 1902 was covered by the Indianapolis News.  The News was excited to announce “great gold discoveries,” and the Chicago Tribune reprinted the story almost verbatim the following winter. The exciting gold finds of 1902, however, were on Highland Creek, between Martinsville and Brooklyn in Morgan County.

Leading the hunt for Highland Creek’s gold was a former California miner, F.F. Taylor, and R.L. Royse, an “Indianapolis gold and diamond prospector.”  Taylor ran a hydraulic operation on the creek, called “The Black Eye Flumes,” a name inspired by all the ridicule heaped on Indiana gold mining. Though most experts remained skeptical, the flamboyant Royse announced his confidence that Indiana was soon destined to become the “richest placer gold state” in the Union.


Terre Haute Daily Tribune, February 22, 1903
Terre Haute Daily Tribune, February 22, 1903. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis News, March 7, 1903 (2)
Indianapolis News, March 7, 1903. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis News, March 7, 1903 (4)
Indianapolis News, March 7, 1903. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Taylor and Royse tried to disprove what a previous State Geologist, John Collett, had said about Indiana gold.  Collett, who died in 1899, quipped that he thought there was enough gold in Brown County to pay off the national debt, but that it would “take the dollar of gold mined and an extra dollar to mine every dollar of it.”  The brash prospector R.L. Royse, however, insisted that not only was he going to make a fortune in Morgan County:  soon enough, he said, he would come to downtown Indianapolis and “pan some gold out of Washington Street.”  (He had already claimed to have found gold in a North Indianapolis street sewer.)

William E. Stafford, known as “Wild Bill,” was one of the colorful prospectors scouring the creeks of Morgan and Brown counties. The reporter for the News gave Stafford a long write-up in 1902. This “Hercules of the gold diggings” would reappear in the Chicago Tribune a year later.


Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (2)
Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (1)

Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (3)
Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another man who panned gold on Hoosier streams was “Uncle” John Merriman.  Merriman, who lived until 1906, was the son of Hoosier pioneer William Merriman.  (William was born in Virginia in 1786, just three years after the end of the Revolutionary War.) Originally from Morgan County, John had lived around Ellettsville and Bloomington, then moved over to Fruitdale in Brown County in the 1870s, where he ran an orchard.  Panning gold helped supplement his small income.  In spite of a bad kidney ailment, Merriman took enough interest in gold to venture out to the California gold fields in the 1880s.

Like many men who went west, the Hoosier prospector never struck it rich.  But in 1903, the 69-year-old helped show State Geologist Blatchley around Brown County’s own “gold fields.”


John Merriman panning for gold
“Uncle” John Merriman panning gold around 1900. Merriman had been in the papers before. The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported in 1899 that he lived on “1,000 acres of barren land” and subsisted on brown sugar alone while out searching “for the yellow metal.”

Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (4)
W.J. Richards panning gold. Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Blatchley wrote of men like John Merriman that some “do little else than pan gold along the streams.”  The geologist did some panning himself on Bean Blossom Creek, where children went out looking for gold after floods and snow melts. Merriman came with him. Blatchley wrote that Merriman averaged about $1.25 a day — approximately $30 in today’s money.  Both men thought that modern machinery could increase the yield.

Some panners, like W.W. Young — alias “Old Man” Young — sent their gold off to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.  “Old Man” Young found fourteen ounces of gold in nine months of panning and got a receipt from the mint for $250.07, equivalent to about $7,000 today. Young was considered “quaint . . . the most peculiar character in any of the Indiana diggings.  He will not permit anyone to be near him, and will not pan as long as there is anyone in sight.”


Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (5)
Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Blatchley’s report states that local Indiana “drift gold” averaged 22 carats, compared to 16-18 for California gold and 14-16 for Alaskan Klondike gold.  In other words, Hoosier gold was actually superior to the stuff out West.

Yet he also recognized that shortage of local water sources during the summertime, when many streams ran almost dry, would seriously hamper mining of the mineral.  “By constructing permanent dams in several of the valleys enough water could probably be conserved to tide over the dry season.”  Taylor proposed sluicing water out of the White River, but the plan never really took on.

For a while, rumor even had it that birds had gotten interested in mining.  Gold in duck craws?  The tales you’re about to hear sound like an old St. Nicholas story.  But for now, we’ll assume these aren’t just tall tales.


Indianapolis News, February 21, 1903 (2)
Indianapolis News, February 21, 1903. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Ultimately, however, predictions about great yields of gold in southern Indiana weren’t justified.  The slough of excited stories in the Indianapolis press about gold mining going on just “twenty-three miles from the golden dome of the Indiana State House” died out after 1903.  But that didn’t stop two men from Ohio from coming to Brown County, panning the stuff, and buying a farm with their profits in 1908.

Today, gold prospecting is said to be the fastest-growing form of outdoor recreation of Indiana and many other states.  (In 2010, when the price of gold hit almost $1,500 an ounce, the Wall Street Journal hosted a video about the revival of recreational gold-seeking in Vermont, where it’s a great way to get outdoors, but “more about the experience than the riches.”)  Brown, Morgan, and Monroe counties are still the most popular places for gold prospecting in the Hoosier State, but Blatchley reported many other counties where the mineral turned up, including a few in northern Indiana like Cass and Warren.

But watch out, Indiana!  Don’t hunt on private property unless you have permission first . . . even if you think you’re as clever as this guy:

Indiana Jones and Golden Idol


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

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.