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Virginia v. John Brown

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Title: Virginia v. John Brown  
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Subject: Lewis Washington, Virginia state case law, John H. Brown (scholar), John Brown, Origins of the American Civil War
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Virginia v. John Brown

A daguerreotype of John Brown taken in Kansas, ca. 1856

Virginia v. John Brown was a criminal trial held in Virginia in October 1859 to prosecute radical anti-slavery abolitionist John Brown for his involvement in a raid on the United States federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia) on October 16–18, 1859. This event resulted in the death of 14 people and the wounding of nine others.

John Brown led 21 armed men, five blacks and 16 whites, on a raid of the railroad town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His goal was to seize the Federal arsenal there and then lead a slave insurrection across the South. Brown and his men engaged in a two-day standoff with local militia and federal troops, in which ten of his men were shot or killed, five were captured, and five escaped.[1] Brown was captured and put on trial. In a Virginia state court, he was found guilty, and hanged.


  • Trial 1
    • Venue 1.1
    • Unfair prosecution 1.2
    • Inadequate defense 1.3
    • Evidence 1.4
    • Conviction 1.5
  • See also 2
  • References 3


Brown was charged with treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, multiple first-degree murders, and inciting an insurrection among Virginia slaves.

The trial took just over a week, starting on Tuesday, October 25, 1859 and concluding on Wednesday, November 2, 1859.


Despite Brown's offenses having occurred on Federal property, he was brought to trial in the nearby Virginia State Circuit Courthouse.

The trial took place in Charles Town, the county seat capital of Jefferson County, Virginia (located around seven miles west of Harpers Ferry). Charles Town is now located in the extreme north-eastern panhandle of West Virginia (not to be confused with Charleston, West Virginia, the State Capitol).

Unfair prosecution

The political nature of the case resulted in unfair and unusual judgements from the court. Many likely and legitimate objections by Brown's defense lawyers were overruled by the presiding judge in haste. Such a judgment would almost certainly be thrown out on appeal on the grounds of judicial bias in Virginia's current judicial system.

James Redpath’s pro-Brown account includes an inflammatory charge to the jurors by the judge, often neglected in popular accounts of the trial.

Judge Richard Parker has been attributed by some with having said to the jury:

"I will not permit myself to give expression to any of those feelings which at once spring up in every breast when reflecting on the enormity of the guilt in which those are involved who invade by force a peaceful, unsuspecting portion of our common country, raise the standard of insurrection amongst us, and shoot down without mercy Virginia citizens defending Virginia soil against their invasion."

Inadequate defense

Brown very likely received inadequate counsel to defend him. His defense lawyers were appointed by the court, and they expressed strong misgivings to the case. The recent insurrection and hysteria in the community led to Brown's trial being rushed with very little time to prepare for a defense just one week after the Harper's Ferry raid. Brown attended the trial supine upon a cot, since he had suffered multiple saber wounds when captured. During the opening arguments, Brown's appointed defense counsel admitted the fact of the crimes, shared in the outrage of the community, and apologized for defending Brown.

Lawson Botts, a prominent Virginia attorney, was appointed to be the lead defense counsel; he delivered the opening arguments.

Even in the event that there was no judicial bias and inadequate lawyers, Brown's defense team had a difficult and nearly impossible task of successfully representing him, since Brown and his men had planned and carried out an insurrection, signed the provisional government charters, fired upon local, state and federal forces and caused at least five civilian deaths.

The defense’s stronger points are quite amplified in the apologia of Redpath, but are clear enough even in the “consensus” account. On the first day of the trial, the defense first attacked the multiple count indictment and called for severance of the separate counts within this ‘all or nothing’ indictment. The defense repeatedly asked for a continuance of at least a month to prepare a defense. Brown himself asked Judge Parker for a few more days to recover from his wounds. More time was requested again when George Hoyt arrived. All these motions were denied. Unable to slow the trial on (appropriate) procedural grounds, and unable to get the unusual indictment thrown out, the defense stressed jurisdictional ambiguities and extenuating circumstances.

The defense claimed that the Harpers Ferry Federal Armory was not on Virginia property, but since the murdered townspeople had died in the streets outside the perimeter of the Federal facility, this carried little weight with the jury. John Brown’s lack of official citizenship in Virginia was presented as a defense against treason against the State. The judge dispatched this claim by reference to “rights and responsibilities” and the overlapping citizenship requirements between the Federal union and the various states. John Brown, an American citizen, could be found guilty of treason against Virginia on the basis of his temporary residence there during the days of the insurrection.

Three other substantive defense tactics failed. One claimed that since the insurrection was aimed at the U.S. government it could not be proved treason against Virginia. Since Brown and his men had fired upon Virginia troops and police, this point was mooted. Another defense claim must have pained John Brown upon his cot. His lawyers explained that since no slaves had joined the insurrection, the charge of leading a slave insurrection should be thrown out. The jury apparently did not favor this claim, either.

Extenuating circumstances were claimed by the defense when they stressed that Colonel Washington and the other hostages were not harmed and were in fact protected by Brown during the siege. This claim was not persuasive as Colonel Washington testified that he had seen men die of gunshot wounds and had been confined for days.

The final plea by the defense team for mercy concerned the circumstances surrounding the death of two of John Brown’s men, who were apparently fired upon and killed by the Virginia militia while under a flag of truce. The armed community surrounding the Federal Arsenal did not hold their fire when Brown’s men emerged to parley. This incident is noticeable upon a close reading of the published testimony, but is generally neglected in more popular accounts. If the rebels under a flag of truce were fired upon, it did not appear to be a major issue to the biased judge and jury.


The central prosecution witness in the trial was Colonel Lewis Washington, of President Washington’s family, who had been kidnapped out of his home and held hostage near the Federal Armory. His slaves were militarily “impressed” by Brown, but they took no active part in the insurrection. Other local witnesses testified to the seizure of the Federal Armory, the appearance of Virginia militia groups, and shootings on the railroad bridge. Other evidence described the U.S. Marines raid on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad engine house occupied by Brown and his men. U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee and cavalry officer J.E.B Stuart led the Marine raid, and it freed the hostages and ended the standoff. Lee did not appear at the trial to testify, but instead filed an affidavit to the court with his account of the Marines raid.

The manuscript evidence was of particular interest to the judge and jury. Voluminous documents were found on the Maryland farm rented by John Brown under the alias Isaac Smith. These documents included a provisional constitution, which Brown and his officers had signed. These documents clinched the treason and pre-meditation murder charges against John Brown. The defense called no witnesses, and Brown himself did not testify.


John Brown was convicted of all the charges on November 2, 1859 after the jury deliberated for only 45 minutes. He was executed within a month of conviction.

John Brown was allowed to stand up from his cot, supported by three courtroom officers because of his still-weakened condition of recovering from his wounds during the Harper's Ferry raid weeks earlier, where he made a speech to the court after his conviction.

"John Brown ascending the scaffold preparatory to being hanged", from the December 17, 1859 edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
"I have, may it please the court, a few words to say." "In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection." "I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment." "This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. 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, I submit; so let it be done!" "Let me say one word further." "I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances. it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated from the first what was my intention and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind." "Let me say, also, a word in regard to the statements made by some of those connected with me. I hear it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated. Now I have done."

John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, shortly before noon in a vacant field several blocks away from the county jail where he was incarcerated. John Wilkes Booth and the future Stonewall Jackson were present among the 2,000 Federal troops and militia for the proceeding. His final words, a note passed to a supporter on his way out to the heavily protected field gallows, read:

Charlestown, Va. 2nd December, 1859. I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.

See also


  1. ^ Harpers Ferry
  1. John A. Garraty, The American Nation (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 464-466. Estimates of the exact number of Brown’s co-conspirators differ. Garraty gives 18 while J. Roark (The American Promise) gives 22. 17 were killed or captured, and approximately three “irregulars” slipped away.
  2. Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (New York: Knopf, 1971), 689, 687f, 708. Select Committee of the Senate appointed to inquire into the late invasion and seizure of the public property at Harpers Ferry, Report and Testimony, 36th Congress 1st Session Rep. Com. No. 278 (Washington D.C: U.S. Senate, 1860), 38, 42. Hereafter referred to as Senate Committee, this book is related to a more detailed National Archives Southeast Collection Microfilm, Reel M1-196. Robert DeWitt, The Life, Trial and Execution of Captain John Brown known as “Old Brown of Ossawatomie” Compiled from Official and Authentic Sources (New York: DaCapo Press, 1969). This “consensus” version was compiled by the publisher Robert DeWitt circa 1860 and was reprinted by DaCapo in 1969. Hereafter referred to as The Life.
  3. Villard, 690. James Redpath, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860), 393, 289. F.B. Sanborn, The Life and Letters of John Brown: Liberator of Kansas and Martyr of Virginia (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), 4.
  4. The Life, 59, 55, 63, 78, 90. Villard, 687f, Garraty, 465.
  5. State Historical Markers, Charlestown, WV.
  6. Redpath, 296.
  7. The Life, 57-84.
  8. The Life, 57, 71-84. Villard, 334. Senate Committee, 5.
  9. Villard, 483, 484.
  10. The Life, 57-84, 90, 78, 86.
  11. The Life, 57-84. Redpath, 328.
  12. Redpath, 350, 353. Senate Committee 24-38.
  13. Redpath, 355. The Life, 63, 65.
  14. Villard, 555.
  15. Douglas Southall Freeman, R.E. Lee: A Biography Vol. 2 (New York: Scribners, 1934), 359.
  16. D.S. Freeman, Vol. 2, 371. D.S. Freeman Vol. 1, 397.
  17. Villard, 465, 466.
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