Digital History>eXplorations>John Brown: Hero or Terrorist?> Interrogation of John Brown>Interrogation

Interrogation of John Brown

Source: The Life, Trial, and Execution of John Brown (New York: Robert W. DeWitt, 1859), pp. 44 49.

"Old Brown," or "Ossawatomie Brown," as he is often called, the hero of a dozen flights or so with the "border ruffians" of Missouri, in the days of "bleeding Kansas," is the head and front of this offending the commander of the filibuster army. His wounds, which at first were supposed to be mortal, turn out to be mere fleshwounds and scratches, not dangerous in their character. He has been removed, together with Stephens, the other wounded prisoner, from the engine room to the office of the Armory, and they now lie on the floor, upon miserable shake downs, covered with some old bedding.

Brown is fifty five years of age, rather small sized, with keen and restless grey eyes, and a grizzly beard and hair. He is a wiry, active man, and, should the slightest chance for an escape be afforded, there is no doubt that he will yet give his captors much trouble. His hair is matted and tangled, and his face, hands, and clothes, all smouched and smeared with blood. Colonel Lee stated that he would exclude all visitors from the room if the wounded men were annoyed or pained by them, but Brown said he was by no means annoyed; on the contrary, he was glad to be able to make himself and his motives clearly understood. He converses freely, fluently and cheerfully, without the slightest manifestation of fear or uneasiness, evidently weighing well his words, and possessing a good command of language. His manner is courteous and affable, and he appears to make a favorable impression upon his auditory, which, during most of the day yesterday, averaged about ten or a dozen men.

When I arrived in the Armory, shortly after two o'clock in the afternoon, Brown was answering questions put to him by Senator Mason, who had just arrived from his residence at Winchester, thirty miles distant, Col. Faulkner, member of Congress, who lives but a few miles off, Mr. Vallandigham, member of Congress of Ohio, and several other distinguished gentlemen. The following is a verbatim report of the conversation:

Mr. Mason: Can you tell us, at least who furnished money for your expedition?

Mr. Brown: I furnished most of it myself. I cannot implicate others. It is by my own folly that I have been taken. I could easily have saved myself from it had I exercised my own better judgment, rather than yielded to my feelings.

Mr. Mason: You mean if you had escaped immediately?

Mr. Brown: No; I had the means to make myself secure without any escape, but I allowed myself to be surrounded by a force by being too tardy.

Mr. Mason: Tardy in getting away?

Mr. Brown: I should have gone away, but I had thirty odd prisoners, whose wives and daughters were in tears for their safety, and I felt for them. Besides, I wanted to allay the fears of those who believed we came here to burn and kill. For this reason I allowed the train to cross the bridge, and gave them full liberty to pass on. I did it only to spare the feelings of those passengers and their families, and to allay the apprehensions that you had got here in your vicinity a band of men who had no regard for life and property, nor any feeling of humanity.

Mr. Mason: But you killed some people passing along the streets quietly.

Mr. Brown: Well, sir, if there was anything of that kind done, it was without my knowledge. Your own citizens, who were my prisoners, will tell you that every possible means were taken to prevent it. I did not allow my men to fire, nor even to return a fire, when there was danger of killing those we regarded as innocent persons, if I could help it. They will tell you that we allowed ourselves to be fired at repeatedly and did not return it.

A Bystander: That is not so. You killed an unarmed man at the corner of the house over there [at the water tank] and another besides.

Mr. Brown: See here, my friend, it is useless to dispute or contradict the report of your own neighbors who were my prisoners.

Mr. Mason: If you would tell us who sent you here who provided the means that would be information of some value.

Mr. Brown: I will answer freely and faithfully about what concerns myself I will answer anything I can with honor, but not about others.

Mr. Vallandigham (member of Congress from Ohio, who had just entered): Mr. Brown, who sent you here?

Mr. Brown: No man sent me here; it was my own prompting and that of my Maker, or that of the devil, whichever you please to ascribe it to. I acknowledge no man in human form.

Mr. Vallandigham: Did you get up the expedition yourself?

Mr. Brown: I did.

Mr. Vallandigham: Did you get up this document that is called a constitution?

Mr. Brown: I did. They are a constitution and ordinances of my own contriving and getting up.

Mr. Vallandigham: How long have you been engaged in this business?

Mr. Brown: From the breaking of the difficulties in Kansas. Four of my sons had gone there to settle, and they induced me to go. I did not go there to settle, but because of the difficulties.

Mr. Mason: How many are engaged with you in this movement? I ask those questions for our own safety.

Mr. Brown: Any questions that I can honorably answer I will, not otherwise. So far as I am myself concerned I have told everything truthfully. I value my word, sir.

Mr. Mason: What was your object in coming?

Mr. Brown: We came to free the slaves, and only that.

A Young Man (in the uniform of a volunteer company): How many men in all had you?

Mr. Brown: I came to Virginia with eighteen men only, besides myself.

Volunteer: What in the world did you suppose you could do here in Virginia with that amount of men?

Mr. Brown: Young man, I don't wish to discuss that question here.

Volunteer: You could not do anything.

Mr. Brown: Well, perhaps your ideas and mine on military subjects would differ materially.

Mr. Mason: How do you justify your acts?

Mr. Brown: I think, my friend, you are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity I say it without wishing to be offensive and it would be perfectly right in any one to interfere with you so far as to free those you wilfully and wickedly hold in bondage. I do not say this insultingly.

Mr. Mason: I understand that.

Mr. Brown: I think I did right, and that others will do right who interfere with you at any time and all times. I hold that the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you," applies to all who would help others to gain their liberty.

Lieut. Stuart: But you don't believe in the Bible.

Mr. Brown: Certainly I do.

Mr. Vallandigham: Where did your men come from? Did some of them come from Ohio?

Mr. Brown: Some of them.

Mr. Vallandigham: From the Western Reserve? None came from Southern Ohio?

Mr. Brown: Yes, I believe one came from below Steubenville, down not far from Wheeling.

Mr. Yallandigham: Have you been in Ohio this summer?

Mr. Brown: Yes, sir.

Mr. Vallandigham: How lately?

Mr. Brown: I passed through to Pittsburg on my way in June.

Mr. Vallandigham: Were you at any county or State fair there?

Mr. Brown: I was not not since June.

Mr. Mason: Did you consider this a military organization, in this paper the Constitution? I have not yet read it.

Mr. Brown: I did in some sense. I wish you would give that paper close attention.

Mr. Mason: You considered yourself the Commander in Chief of these "provisional" military forces.

Mr. Brown: I was chosen agreeably to the ordinance of a certain document, commander in chief of that force.

Mr. Mason: What wages did you offer?

Mr. Brown: None.

Lieut. Stuart: "The wages of sin is death."

Mr. Brown: I would not have made such a remark to you, if you had been a prisoner and wounded in my hands . . . .

Mr. Vallandigham: Have you been in Portage County lately?

Mr. Brown: I was there in June last.

Mr. Vallandigham: When in Cleveland, did you attend the Fugitive Slave Law Convention there?

Mr. Brown: No. I was there about the time of the sitting of the court to try the Oberlin rescuers. I spoke there publicly on that subject. I spoke on the Fugitive Slave Law and my own rescue. Of course, so far as I had any influence at all, I was disposed to justify the Oberlin people for rescuing the slave, because I have myself forcibly taken slaves from bondage. I was concerned in taking eleven slaves from Missouri to Canada last winter. I think I spoke in Cleveland before the Convention. I do not know that I had any conversation with any of the Oberlin rescuers. I was sick part of the time I was in Ohio, with the ague. I was part of the time in Ashtabula County.

Mr. Vallandigham: Did you see anything of Joshua R. Giddings there?

Mr. Brown: I did meet him.

Mr. Vallandigham: Did you converse with him?

Mr. Brown: I did. I would not tell you, of course, anything that would implicate Mr. Giddings; but I certainly met with him and had conversations with him.

Mr. Vallandigham: About that rescue case?

Mr. Brown: Yes, I did; I heard him express his opinions upon it very freely and frankly.

Mr. Vallandigham: Justifying it?

Mr. Brown: Yes, sir; I do not compromise him certainly in saying that.

A Bystander: Did you go out to Kansas under the auspices of the Emigrant Aid Society?

Mr. Brown: No, sir; I went out under the auspices of John Brown and nobody else.

Mr. Vallandigham: Will you answer this: Did you talk with Giddings about your expedition here?

Mr. Brown: No, I won't answer that; because a denial of it I would not make, and to make any affirmation of it I should be a great dunce.

Mr. Vallandigham: Have you had any correspondence with parties at the North on the subject of this movement?

Mr. Brown: I have had correspondence.

A Bystander: Do you consider this a religious movement?

Mr. Brown: It is, in my opinion, the greatest service a man can render to God.

Bystander: Do you consider yourself an instrument in the hands of Providence?

Mr. Brown: I do.

Bystander: Upon what principle do you justify your acts?

Mr. Brown: Upon the golden rule. I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged, that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God.

Bystander: Certainly. But why take the slaves against their will?

Mr. Brown: I never did.

Bystander: You did in one instance, at least.

Stephens, the other wounded prisoner, here said, in a firm, clear voice- "You are right. In one case, I know the negro wanted to go back."

A Bystander: Where did you come from?

Mr. Stephens: I lived in Ashtabula county, Ohio.

Mr. Vallandigham: How recently did you leave Ashtabula county?

Mr. Stephens: Some months ago. I never resided there any length of time; have been through there.

Mr. Vallandigham: How far did you live from Jefferson?

Mr. Brown: Be cautious, Stephens, about any answers that would commit any friend. I would not answer that.

Stephens turned partially over with a groan of pain, and was silent.

Mr. Vallandigham (to Mr. Brown): Who are your advisers in this movement?

Mr. Brown: I cannot answer that. I have numerous sympathizers throughout the entire North.

Mr. Yallandigham: In northern Ohio?

Mr. Brown: No more there than anywhere else; in all the free States.

Mr. Vallandigham: But you are not personally acquainted in southern Ohio?

Mr. Brown: Not very much.

Mr. Vallandigham (to Stephens): Were you at the Convention last June?

Stephens: I was.

Mr. Yallandigham (to Brown): You made a speech there?

Mr. Brown: I did.

A Bystander: Did you ever live in Washington City?

Mr. Brown: I did not. I want you to understand, gentlemen and, to the reporter of the "Herald"] you may report that I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. That is the idea that has moved me, and that alone. We expect no reward, except the satisfaction of endeavoring to do for those in distress and greatly oppressed, as we would be done by. The cry of distress of the oppressed is my reason, and the only thing that prompted me to come here.

A Bystander: Why did you do it secretly?

Mr. Brown: Because I thought that necessary to success; no other

Bystander: And you think that honorable? Have you read Gerritt Smith's last letter?

Mr. Brown: What letter do you mean?

Bystander: The "New York Herald" of yesterday, in speaking of this affair, mentions a letter in this way:='Apropos of this exciting news, we recollect a very significant passage in one of Gerrit Smith's letters, published a month or two ago, in which he speaks of the folly of attempting to strike the shackles off the slaves by the force of moral suasion or legal agitation, and predicts that the next movement made in the direction of negro emancipation would be an insurrection in the South."

Mr. Brown: I have not seen the "New York Herald" for some days past; but I presume, from your remark about the gist of the letter, that I should concur with it. I agree with Mr. Smith that moral suasion is hopeless. I don't think the people of the slave States will ever consider the subject of slavery in its true light till some other argument is resorted to than moral suasion.

Mr. Vallandigham: Did you expect a general rising of the slaves in case of your success?

Mr. Brown: No, sir; nor did I wish it. I expected to gather them up from time to time and set them free.

Mr. Vallandigham: Did you expect to hold possession here till then?

Mr. Brown: Well, probably I had quite a different idea. I do not know that I ought to reveal my plans. I am here a prisoner and wounded, because I foolishly allowed myself to be so. You overrate your strength in supposing I could have been taken if I had not allowed it. I was too tardy after commencing the open attack in delaying my movements through Monday night, and up to the time I was attacked by the government troops. It was all occasioned by my desire to spare the feelings of my prisoners and their families and the community at large. I had no knowledge of the shooting of the negro [Hayward].

Mr. Vallandigham: What time did you commence your organization in Canada?

Mr. Brown: That occurred about two years ago, if I remember right. It was, I think, in 1858.

Mr. Vallandigham: Who was the Secretary?

Mr. Brown: That I would not tell if I recollected, but I do not recollect. I think the officers were elected in May, 1858. I may answer incorrectly, but not intentionally. My head is a little confused by wounds, and my memory obscure on dates, etc.
Dr. Biggs: Were you in the party at Dr. Kennedy's house?

Mr. Brown: I was at the head of that party. I occupied the house to mature my plans. I have not been in Baltimore to purchase caps.

Dr. Biggs: What was the number of men at Kennedy's?

Mr. Brown: I decline to answer that.

Dr. Biggs: Who lanced that woman's neck on the hill?

Mr. Brown: I did. I have sometimes practised in surgery when I thought it a matter of humanity and necessity, and there was no one else to do it, but have not studied surgery.

Dr. Biggs: It was done very well and scientifically. They have been very clever to the neighbors, I have been told, and we had no reason to suspect them except that we could not understand their movements. They were represented as eight or nine persons; on Friday there were thirteen.

Mr. Brown: There were more than that.

Q.: Where did you get arms to obtain possession of the Armory?

A.: I bought them.

Q.: In what State?

A.: That I would not state.

Q.: How many guns?

A.: Two hundred Sharpe's rifles and two hundred revolverswhat is called the Massachusetts Arms Company's revolvers, a little under the navy size.

Q.: Why did you not take that swivel you left in the house?

A.: I had no occasion for it. It was given to me a year or two ago.

Q.: In Kansas?

A.: No; I had nothing given me in Kansas.

Q.: By whom; and in what State?

A.: I decline to answer. It is not properly a swivel; it is a very large rifle with a pivot. The ball is larger than a musket ball; it is intended for a slug.

Reporter of the Herald: I do not wish to annoy you; but if you have anything further you would like to say I will report it.

Mr. Brown: I have nothing to say, only that I claim to be here in carrying out a measure I believe perfectly justifiab, and not ot act the part of an incendiary or ruffian, but to aid those suffering great wrong. I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better—all you people at the South—prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily; I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled—this Negro question I mean—the end of that is not yet. These wounds were inflicted upon me -both sabre cuts on my
head and bayonet stabs in different parts of my body some minutes after I had ceased fighting and had consented to a surrender, for the benefit of others, not for my own. [This statement was vehemently denied by all around.] I believe the major [meaning Lieut. J. B. Stuart, of the United States cavalry, would not have been alive; I could have killed him just as easy as a mosquito when he came in, but I supposed he came in only to receive our surrender. There had been loud and long calls of "surrender" from us as loud as men could yell but in the confusion and excitement I suppose we were not heard. I do not think the major, or any one, meant to butcher us after we had surrendered.

An Officer here stated that the order to the marines were not to shoot anybody; but when they were fired upon by Brown's men and one of them killed, they were obliged to return the compliment.

Mr. Brown insisted that the marines fired first.

An Officer: Why did not you surrender before the attack?

Mr. Brown: I did not think it was my duty or interest to do so. We assured the prisoners that we did not wish to harm them, and they should be set at liberty. I exercised my best judgment, not believing the people would wantonly sacrifice their own fellow citizens, when vat offered to let them go on condition of being allowed to change our position about a quarter of a mile. The prisoners agreed by vote among themselves to pass across the bridge with us. We wanted them only as a sort of guaranty of our own safety; that we should not be fired into. We took them in the first place as hostages and to keep them from doing any harm. We did kill some men in defending ourselves, but I saw no one fire except directly in selfdefense. Our orders were strict not to harm any one not in arms against us.

Q.: Brown, suppose you had every nigger in the United States, what would you do with them?

A.: Set them free.

Q.: Your intention was to carry them off and free them?

A.: Not at all.

A Bystander: To set them free would sacrifice the life of every man in this community.

Mr. Brown: I do not think so.

Bystander: I know it. I think you are fanatical.

Mr. Brown: And I think you are fanatical. "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad," and you are mad.

Q.: Was it your only object to free the negroes?

A.: Absolutely our only object.

Q.: But you demanded and took Col. Washington's silver and watch?

A.: Yes; we intended freely to appropriate the property of slaveholders to carry out our object. It was for that, and only that, and with no design to enrich ourselves with any plunder whatever.

Q.: Did you know Sherrod in Kansas? I understand you killed him.

A.: I killed no man except in fair fight; I fought at Black Jack Point and Ossawatomie, and if I killed anybody it was at one of those places.

Copyright Digital History 2021