TO: Students in CJ 330 (Violence, Crime, and Justice).
FROM: R. B. Taylor
DATE: 9/3/99
RE: More background on John Brown; connections with extremist current-day violence

From Pottawatomie Creek to the Oklahoma City Bombing of the Federal Building

     Later in the course we will be talking about extreme right-wing militia groups, and extremist violence associated with that, carried out or advocated either by individuals or groups. Benjamin Smith, Matt Hale, Buford Furrow and the like. But we want to consider the origins of this type of violence in American society. Where did it come from?
     I drew on several current sources for this investigation, and one set of historical sources. As part of a recent research project on the Civil War and how it affected people in northern Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania, U. Va researchers put some of articles on line from two newspapers: the Staunton (VA) Spectator and the Chambersburg (PA) Valley Spirit. Needless to say, there were significant differences of opinion on John Brown, his trial, and the rest. The master list of newspaper articles about John Brown can be found at the following location:

http://jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU/jbrown/news.html .

     Lane makes the claim (1997, p. 138) that when John Brown, with his sons and others, murdered five pro-slavers in Kansas in May 1856, he added "a new element to American homicide: ideological murder as an act of terrorism." So Lane is suggesting that we start with John Brown when looking at the origins of this type of racially, idoelogically motivated terrorism. Before we consider whether we agree or disagree with this statement, let's get clear on the situation, and on John Brown.
     Brown was born in Connecticut on May 9, 1800. One source lists his birthplace as Litchfield, another as Torrington. He grew up in Ohio. "During most of his adult years Brown wandered from job to job. Ill fortune, business reverses, and charges of illegal practices followed him from the 1820s onward. By the 1850s, however, he had become deeply interested in the slavery quetsion" (Stewart, 1997). He became a rabid abolitionist, and moved to Kansas in the spring of 1855, bringing in guns and other weapons. As you recall from Lane, the situation in Kansas was confused at the time. Rembember, the 1854 Kansas-Missouri Act said let the voters decide if Kansas would be a free state or a slave state. Missouri, to the south, was a slave state. But as Lane points out, a vote was impossible. There were two governments, in effect, a pro-slavery one, and an abolitionist one, each with law enforcement officers. The abolitionist government set up their capital in Lawrence (KS), current home of U of K. Pro-slavery raiders burned the capital in May 1856. In retaliation for the lives lost in the raid (6), on May 24, 1856, Brown murdered five people in one night, hacking them to death with swords. He went on to lead raids throughout the summer and fall, evading capture, and engaging in pitched battles with posses of up to 100 persons (see newspaper article "The Making of Black Jack"). Lane suggests about 200 lives were lost before the group was disarmed. At this time you also had border groups operating in the southern part of the state, including later outlaws like Jesse James, keeping out abolitionists and weapons.
     In an article entitled "The Making of Black Jack" (Staunton Spectator, November 1, 1859), Captain Olay Peterson (sp?) recounts his efforts to capture Brown immediately after the Potowatomi massacre ("murders done in cold blood"). You have the text in a handout. After the raid a "deputy" and some 25 men went to Brown's house. He was not there but they found "arms, and evidence of lawlessness." Some scouts in the posse got drunk at one point when Brown was surrounded, and he escaped. Later in a larger battle between two militias of about 100 each, Brown through "treachery" forced the Peterson group to surrender.
     After the raid on Harper's Ferry led by Brown in October 16, 1859 - he hoped to take the armory there and start a slave rebellion in northern Virginia -- he got a LOT of media attention. His speech at trial was quite stirring to many, apparently. Here is an excerpt

[John Brown's Speech before the court]

Brown was convicted and hung on December 2, 1859.
     The poet Stephen Vincent Benet wrote an epic poem about the Civil War generally, published as a book in 1928, entitled John Brown's Body. It won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1929. The poem, running about 300 pages, is generally viewed as a non-partisan work. Here's an excerpt:

Listen now,
Listen, the bearded lips are speaking now,
There are no more guerilla-raids to plan,
There are no more hard questions to be solved
Of right or wrong, no need to beg for peace,
Here is the peace unbegged, here is the end,
Here is the insolence of the sun cast off,
Here is the voice already fixed with night.

     Words about John Brown were adapted to a popular tune, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the Union Army's theme song later during the Civil War. I am not clear when this adaptation came about. The adapted tune was called "John Brown's Body." See: ; different songbooks list different words to the song; I presume there are lots of verses, and different songbooks just pick and choose among them. Again, I am not sure on this one. I have attached the words and music to both tunes in the handout
     As you can tell from the words of the song, in the eyes of northern abolitionists, he was a martyr. One theme in his martyrdom was that he had been driven "mad" by the losses he had suffered in Kansas. He lost at least one son in the fighting in Kansas. There were some jailhouse interviews with him after his capture at Harpers Ferry. Here is part of the interchange with the PA reporter

Q: "When did you first conceive this move?" [the raid]
A (JB): "While in Kansas. After my property was destroyed, one of my sons killed, and my happiness destroyed by the slave party of Kansas, I determined to be revenged. I also was moved in this matter by a hope to benefit the negroes." (Chambersburg Valley Spirit; October 26, 1859; online; retrieved 9/2/99

     The southern paper derided this idea, pointing out that he had set out for Kansas with weapons, intent on countering the pro-slavery gangs operating along the southern border with Missouri. Here is an excerpt.

     The southern paper also ran articles about correspondence that took place between the conspirators (see article entitled "Correspondence of the Conspirators"). "The documents show that the conspiracy extended throughout portions of Ohio, New York, New England and some towns in Pennsylvania."

Some questions

I see numerous parallels with current right-wing extremist violence. I want to "plant" these ideas now, so that when we get to the end of the course we can examine them more thoroughly. I am not asking you to agree with me, just to think about this stuff. (1) The question of sanity/insanity. Was a John Brown or a religion-crazed nut or a dedicated social activist? Would any sane person go out and cut down five people, including one old man and his two sons? Would any sane person bomb a federal building with a day care center in it? And if these people are sane, how are we to understand it? (2) Race issues were obviously central to his concerns. When we talk about Smith and Furlong and others we will see that race is also important. Timothy McVeigh, the convicted Oklahoma City bomber, had read and promoted copies of William Pierce's The Turner Diaries, a novel of racist revolution. He sent clippings of sections of the book to relatives. ( Even more so, I will connect the racial concerns, and the locations of extremist groups more generally, with unemployment problems linked to nonwhite migration patterns.The extremist violence appeared at a time when the social order was in flux, and many feared the social order they had known was going down the tube. (3) Conspiracy and communication. Many thought there was a "vast conspiracy" out there. This is one of Dees' major themes. Here we see a parallel concern, that what was witnessed was just the tip of the iceberg; there were co-conspirators even in "some towns in Pennsylvania." (4) There is the question of their success economically. In what ways did the job experiences of a John Brown and a Buford Furrow "prepare" them for their later exploits? (5) And, quite obviously, there is the religious theme that is in common. Dees talks extensively about the Christian Identity church. Matt Hale, who inspired Ben Smith, runs a "church:" World Church of the Creator. Brown said God told him to do it. Buford O'Neal Furrow may have been trying to qualify for the"Phineas Priesthood." (6) And here's a rather obvious point: these are all white males.

(John Brown picture courtesy of the Bettman archives. Cover of John Brown's body courtesy of the UnderGround Railroad Research project; Carrasco and Solberg

Another connection you might want to pursue on your own: from John Brown to the bombing of abortion clinics, and the shootings of abortion clinic doctors.


     Carrasco, H., Solberg, O. Stephen Vincent Benet [online] (retrieved 9/2/99). (part of Underground Railroad Research Project).
     Lane, R. (1997). Murder in America. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
     Stewart, J.B. (1997). John Brown. 1997 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.