Saturday, October 17, 2009


Who knew?

Who knew that the final resting place of John Brown, who earned fame and infamy in Kansas and Virginia, was the rocky soil of North Elba, New York, an Adirondack hamlet just outside Lake Placid?

I didn't. I assumed he was buried in Virginia, where he was hung after his trial and conviction on charges of murder, treason and conspiracy for the raid he led on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry on October 16, 1859, a hundred and fifty years ago. Brown had other plans, though. He didn't want to be buried in Virginia because he didn't want to be buried in a coffin made by slaves. So after his December 2nd execution, Brown's wife shipped his body north, first to New York City, where she engaged a Brooklyn undertaker named Jacob Hopper to prepare it for burial. Hopper's receipt itemizes his services: keeping corpse on ice, washing and soaping corpse out, etc. Then the body was transported to North Elba, where Brown had owned a small spread since 1849. And by the way, although Brown is always depicted with a flowing white beard (as he is in the tableaux at the John Brown Wax Museum in Harpers Ferry), by the time of the raid it had been trimmed to less Biblical proportions.

How do I know all this? Because the extremely knowledgeable and practiced docents at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site, which my wife and I visited in August, told me. It's a marvel they are so practiced because the John Brown Farm is not easy to find. En route, we saw not a single sign pointing the way or even noting the place's existence. We just noodled in and around Lake Placid in search, until we suddenly found ourselves on John Brown Road, which ends in a cul-de-sac, beside which are the house itself, a barn and the little graveyard where Brown and other members of the Harpers Ferry raiding party, including several of Brown's numerous sons, are interred. Close by and towering over the surroundings is a peculiar-looking structure that turns out to be a ski-jump.

It's a haunting place. The house is small and unexceptional except that, as one of the guides mentioned several times, "We are standing on the same floorboards John Brown stood on." There are a few artifacts, including Mr. Hopper's receipt and the Browns' bed, which looks too small for an adult to recline on, which turns out to have been the point. At the time, sleeping upright was thought to prevent, or at least discourage, consumption.

It's no accident that John Brown ended up in the Adirondacks. He bought his land (for a dollar an acre) from a wealthy abolitionist named Gerrit Smith who had established a land grant program for free blacks in hopes of establishing a black community in the Adirondacks called Timbuktoo. Brown moved to the area to provide guidance and help to the settlers, although he spent much of the 1850's in and out of Kansas. Adirondack soil is rocky and the growing season is about eight weeks long. Most of the newcomers Gerrit Smith staked moved on. Timbuktoo faded away.

John Brown, on the other hand, looms ever larger in the national psyche, either a great martyr to a just and necessary cause, or our first domestic terrorist. He is still so controversial that Todd Bolton, director of the Harpers Ferry Museum and organizer of "John Brown Remembered," the Museum's anniversary program of events, noted carefully in the Washington Post that, "We're not celebrating Brown. We're commemorating an important chapter in American history."

The Museum is not alone in this. Last Friday morning, some three hundred history enthusiasts started from Dargan, Md. to follow in the footsteps of the original raiding party of twenty-one. There was an observance on Friday in Torrington, Connecticut, where he was born and there's another planned in Akron, Ohio, where he lived for a while. At the end of the month, Yale hosts a conference on John Brown and his legacy.

For such a dramatic figure, John Brown has never fit well on screen or stage. Johnny Cash played him in the 80's television special North and South and looked like a man with a fake beard. Raymond Massey played him twice, first in Santa Fe Trail (You may well wonder why a movie about Bleeding Kansas is called Santa Fe Trail, and despite having seen it, I cannot begin to explain), and fifteen years later in Seven Angry Men, an excerpt of which can be seen on YouTube, where it was posted by a devotee of the film's costar, Debra Paget. Massey was also in the Broadway production of Stephen Vincent Benet's epic poem John Brown's Body in 1953. Raymond Massie was a great actor, but the great John Brown drama, stage or screen, remains to be created.

Help may be on the way. Both Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorcese have expressed interest in doing movies about John Brown. Tarantino is no doubt disappointed that the victims of the notorious Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas numbered only five, but cheered that they were hacked to death with broadswords. With or without a good new movie version, John Brown's truth--or his legend, or his aura, or what Benet in his poem called "The pure elixir, the American thing"--will almost certainly go marching on.