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John Brown's Holy War | Article

The Hanging

At the appointed hour, on the morning of December 2, 1859, John Avis went for John Brown. For seven weeks, from the time of Brown’s capture at Harpers Ferry through the subsequent trial and sentencing, he had been responsible for Brown’s incarceration in the Charlestown jail. Avis had grown to like Brown; he admired his courage. Now he was to escort the old man to the gallows and watch him hang. When Brown emerged from his cell he presented Avis with his silver watch, a token of appreciation for the care he had received. Brown also left a note, his final written words:

"I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood. I had...vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done." — John Brown. 

Outside the jail, Brown was led to the back of a wagon where he took a seat on a long wooden box — his coffin. A column of soldiers stood ready to escort Brown to a field just outside of town. 

Admittance to John Brown’s execution was severely restricted. Virginia governor Henry A. Wise, fearing a last minute attempt to free Brown, had ordered 1,500 soldiers to Charlestown. Suspicious characters and loiterers were to be arrested. The hanging site would be free of all civilians. No person was allowed within hearing distance of the gallows; if Brown presented memorable last words, they would go unheard. 

One of the few civilians to witness the hanging was journalist David Strother, better known by his pen name, Porte Crayon. He had covered "John Brown’s war" from the first shots at Harpers Ferry. Strother’s reporting and sketches were hot items for "Harper’s Weekly," enabling the paper to go head-to-head with its rival "Leslie’s Illustrated." Strother used a family connection to gain access to the hanging; his uncle was the personal representative of Governor Wise. 

Strother was a Unionist, but he was not sympathetic to the abolition cause nor to the immediate emancipation of slaves, including his own. This was not an uncommon position, but in the aftermath of John Brown’s raid, it had become increasingly difficult to stay on the fence. "Harper’s Weekly" received fire from both antislavery and proslavery sympathizers in response to Strother’s reporting; it was either too critical or not critical enough. Rather than offend readers, "Harper’s Weekly" dropped their star reporter. However, the paper neglected to inform Strother, who continued to file stories on Brown. His vivid description of the hanging would not be printed until 95 years later in "American Heritage" (Feb, 1955). 

"I stood with a group of half dozen gentlemen near the steps of the scaffold when the Prisoner was driven up.… He stepped from the wagon with surprising agility and walked hastily toward the scaffold, pausing a moment as he passed our group to wave his pinioned arm and bid us good morning. I thought I could observe in this a trace of bravado — but perhaps I was mistaken." 

Brown mounted the steps to the gallows. He held his head to one side to accommodate the noose, which Avis placed around his neck. No preacher was present, as Brown had declined the services of any minister who approved of, or even consented to, the enslavement of human beings.

From his position on the scaffold, he would have had a grand view of the countryside. "The view was of surpassing beauty," wrote Strother "Broad and fertile fields dotted with corn stocks and white farm houses glimmering through the leafless trees - emblems of prosperity and peace." Brown himself would comment: "This is a beautiful country. I did not have the chance to see it before." 

The elaborate security precautions Governor Wise requested proved unnecessary. Those present had come to watch John Brown die, not to rescue him. 

Professor Thomas J. Jackson, later to be immortalized by the nickname "Stonewall" in the first Battle of Bull Run, stood with the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute. He saw only "unflinching firmness" in Brown’s actions. 

Edmund Ruffin, the fire-breathing secessionist, stood behind Jackson, having borrowed a cadet’s uniform so he could get a closer view. "He is as thorough a fanatic as ever suffered martyrdom and a very brave and able man...It is impossible for me not to respect his thorough devotion to his bad cause." 

Also watching in the crowd was the actor John Wilkes Booth, who had joined the Richmond Grays in order to view the execution. "I looked at the traitor and terrorizer with unlimited, undeniable contempt." 

A white linen hood was placed over Brown’s head. Strother wrote, "I stood within a few paces of him and watched narrowly during these trying moments to see if there was any indication of his giving way. I detected nothing of the sort. He had stiffened himself for the drop and waited motionless ‘till it came." 

The sheriff cut the rope with a single blow; there was a crash as the platform fell and Brown dropped through. A spectator recalled, "There was very little motion of his person for several moments, and soon the wind blew his lifeless body to and fro. 

A Virginia Colonel then chanted: "So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such foes of the human race!" 

The South rejoiced in the execution. But throughout the North, church bells tolled for John Brown. In Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau proclaimed, "This morning, Captain Brown was hung. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light."

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