When John Brown’s body dropped through the gallows’ trap door in a field outside Charlestown, Virginia, at approximately 11 a.m. on December 2, 1859, only about 1,500 Virginia militia, Virginia Military Institute Cadets, and a handful of United States soldiers witnessed Brown’s last breath escape his body. Virginia Governor Henry Wise made it so. In fact, he wanted it that way. No civilians, just the military. (Wise was worried about rumored abolitionists who might try to free Brown at the last minute so he banned any civilians from attending the execution.)
Though most Americans did not see Brown’s final moments in person, they did not pass the time idly by. Bells echoed across the North at the hanging hour. Businesses closed. Churches held prayer services. Brown might have died in a field guarded by armed militia but more than 1,500 eyes were focused on the Charlestown gallows at the time of his execution. The North observed his death with solemnity while Southerners observed Brown’s hanging with one eye and kept the other watching the reactions of the North. Brown’s trial, not his raid, made him a martyr in the eyes of some Northerners, a sizable enough portion to make Southerners weary of Brown’s increasing popularity.
“I have always been a fervid Union man,” said one North Carolinian, “but I confess the endorsement of the Harper’s [sic] Ferry outrage…has shaken my fidelity and…I am willing to take the chances of every possible evil that may arise from disunion, sooner than submit any longer to Northern insolence.”
Frederick Douglass offered a different reaction: “When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone, the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union, and the clash of arms was at hand.”
Indeed, John Brown’s body may have been in the grave. But his soul was still very much alive after December 2, 1859.