The Other John Brown

ECW welcomes back guest author Max Longley…

In the latter half of 1863, Republican Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania was busy with a re-election campaign against a Democrat who appealed to public war-weariness. Curtin was also campaigning to establish a Union cemetery on the site of the Gettysburg battlefield. He won re-election in October, but continued working hard on the cemetery. When the famous ceremony consecrating the cemetery was held on November 19, Curtin was there with President Lincoln.[1]

Also keeping Curtin busy were the pardon applications with which he was inundated, keeping him preoccupied as he tried to balance sternness with mercy.[2] Only a few days after the Gettysburg dedication, on November 25, Curtin signed pardons for two men serving terms for a crime which went to the core issue of the war: seizing a free black Pennsylvanian and trying to sell him into slavery. Edwin Mackay and Gilmor Hull had already been behind bars for three years, including in Mackay’s case a year and a half awaiting trial. Curiously, the wartime clemency campaign for Mackay and Hill emanated from the Republican, antislavery Quaker communities in southeastern Pennsylvania – the area where the kidnapping had occurred. And those seeking clemency for the two convicted kidnappers were in some instances the same people who had helped catch the kidnappers in the first place.

John Brown was a free black laborer who lived in the easternmost part of Lancaster County, PA. On March 2, 1860, two white men met Brown on the way home from work and attempted various ruses against him – first seeking to lure him to a pretended game, then coming to his home and claiming they’d heard there would be a party there. Finally, with the assistance of a phony cop, they pretended to arrest Brown for robbery.[3]

Putting Brown into a carriage, the kidnappers headed south, pursued unavailingly by local black residents. At one point the carriage stopped and another white man got in, pretending to be Brown’s master from Virginia.[4]

slavers

1834 woodcut of slavers kidnapping a free African American (Wikimedia)

The villains stopped at a tavern, where they held Brown in a garret room overnight. Despite efforts to ply him with liquor, Brown remained sober, letting the booze flow down onto his chest.[5]

Though Brown was in fact free, the kidnappers brought him to Baltimore to be sold in one of the city’s slave pens. Back in Pennsylvania, on the other side of the Mason/Dixon line in Lancaster and Chester counties, the locals organized to discover Brown’s whereabouts and arrest the culprits. Brown’s neighborhood supporters sent a white emissary who located Joseph Donovan’s Baltimore slave pen, in which Brown was being held, and obtained Brown’s release.[6]

Authorities in Lancaster County arrested five men in connection with the kidnapping: Frank Wilson, Gilmor Hull, Edwin Mackay, Sylvester Gordon and Franklin Bostick. The latter two jumped bail.[7]

J. Williams Thorne, Brown’s landlord and a prominent local Quaker abolitionist and Underground Railroad operator who had helped arouse the community against Brown’s kidnapping, felt the force of retaliation from the kidnappers. Thorne’s barn burned down, and Thorne took out an arrest warrant against Wilson for the arson.[8]

Wilson and Hull went on trial on the kidnapping charges in November 1860. John Brown and his wife testified that the defendants were the ones who came to the Brown house for the kidnapping. Local white residents testified that Brown was a free man. The defendants found numerous character witnesses and questioned the identifications. The jury convicted each defendant, though eleven jurors recommended leniency. The judge imposed five-year sentences.[9]

Some community members got together a clemency petition to Democratic governor William F. Packer, who did not act before he left office in January 1861.[10]

In August, 1861, Edwin Mackay, who had been waiting in prison since his arrest, came to trial before a Lancaster County jury. Brown repeated the story he’d told the previous year, identifying Mackay as the one who falsely claimed to be Brown’s master.[11]

The jury found Mackay guilty. Mackay “asked permission of the Court to make some revelations relative to the stealing of this negro, but as [Mackay] had offered nothing in extenuation of the offence during the progress of the trial, the Court refused to hear him.”[12]

Curtin

Statue of Governor Curtin (left) on the Pennsylvania Memorial at Gettysburg (Wikimedia)

A new clemency petition seems to have started up as Governor Curtin’s term began, prompting Judge Long, who had presided at Hull’s trial, to write for Curtin’s benefit in November 1861. Judge Long saw no injustice in Hull’s conviction.[13]

Mackay, Hull and Wilson were from respectable families, who helped persuade people in the community to intercede for their prodigal sons.[14] One recruit to the cause of mercy was J. Williams Thorne, the Underground Railroad operator who had lost his barn because of his assistance to the prosecution. On New Year’s Day, 1862, Thorne wrote to Curtin on Hull’s behalf, with a note from Judge Long attesting to Thorne’s good character. Identifying himself as “one of the principal prosecutors in the case,” Thorne claimed that Hull had been “seduced by the more guilty parties” to take part in the crime, “only a few hours before” the kidnapping. In the year preceding the crime, wrote Thorne, the formerly “inoffensive, honest and industrious” Hull had taken to drink, and was drunk at the time of the kidnapping. Hull’s letters to his family showed “sincere repentance,” and none of his neighbors had “a single objection to his liberation.” Thorne emphasized that he (Thorne) “would be the last man to recommend a pardon if the interest or safety of the humblest individual were impaired thereby.”[15]

A clemency campaign was begun for Mackay as well as Hull. The warden of the Lancaster County prison gave Mackay a very good recommendation, saying that Mackay was comparable to “Any Free Citizen” in “moral excellence.” More cautiously, the warden commended Hull’s “industry and obedience to prison discipline.” A. H. Hood, one of Mackay’s prosecutors, wrote Curtin that Mackey was “more the dupe of the others than an intelligent participant,” and that Mackey had information about barn burnings and attempted barn burnings near “the Gap, in Lancaster County.”[16] This was probably a reference to the “Gap Gang,” a group of desperados named after their hangout at the Gap Tavern. The Gap Gang’s villainies included kidnapping free blacks into slavery, as well as counterfeiting, horse theft, and receipt of stolen goods.[17]

Curtin soon had several petitions in hand on behalf of Hull and Mackey with plenty of signatures. The petitioners on Mackey’s behalf focused on Mackey’s youth, his alleged manipulation by criminals more guilty than himself, his respectable family, and the need for him to support his sick mother. A petition for Hull was signed by Thorne and others in Thorne’s neighborhood who professed that the signers had been “the most active to have [Hull] convicted.” This petition claimed Hull was “the dupe” of other more guilty parties, some of whom had been caught and some not.[18]

One John Quigley, who delivered to Curtin the petitions on Mackey’s behalf, added some additional pleas for Mackey, mentioning the year and a half he had spent in prison before conviction, and the claim that Mackey was “drawn into evil by others.” Quigley invoked Mackey’s widowed mother, who was just scraping by on what little she could make as “a female in these troublous times.” Mackey, said Quigley, “cannot possibly live out his [prison] term.”[19]

Judge Long apparently grew frustrated by the constant applications to him on behalf of the prisoners – including by Thorne on behalf of Hull. Long wrote Thorne that he (Long) would recommend pardons for Wilson, Mackey and Hull on condition they joined the Union Army.[20] This was a potentially provocative gesture, since the local Quaker community – so active in putting the kidnappers in prison and trying to get them out again – was sharply divided over the war. Some Quakers held to their traditional pacifism while others (probably including Thorne) supported a war of liberation to free the slaves.[21] Long’s attempt to recruit the jailbirds into the Union forces does not seem to have persuaded Curtin.

Thorne met Curtin around this time, and the governor said he would need a satisfactory reason for pardoning Hull.[22]

Thorne obtained a letter from former prosecutor Hood which Thorne presented to Curtin around New Year’s 1863. Hood’s letter said that a pardon could induce Hull to disclose the identities of people guilty of “similar and other offenses.” Hood said that Thorne could provide “the required information” in person.[23] When Thorne visited Curtin with letters from Hood and others, the governor was too sick to hear Thorne’s reasons, so Thorne wrote to say that Hull could provide information about kidnappers and arsonists still at large.[24]

In early 1863, authorities located a bail-jumping defendant, Sylvester Gordon, who had allegedly impersonated a policeman as part of the ruse to seize Brown.[25]

Thorne wrote to Curtin again, claiming that “all right minded, unprejudiced men, who fully understand the case,” supported pardons for Hull and Mackey and opposed clemency for Wilson. Unlike Wilson, Thorne explained, Hull and Mackey were willing to give information which could lead to catching more kidnappers and arsonists. If Wilson was willing “to come out of the Gap gang” and share what he knew about the crimes of others, a pardon would then be appropriate for Wilson, too, Thorne believed.[26]

As for Gordon, the jury acquitted him in April.[27]

By late November 1863, the Lancaster County District Attorney, Livingston, wrote Curtin to support pardons for Hull and Mackey, believing that “they have been sufficiently punished.”[28] Judges Long and Hayes, supported limiting the prisoners terms to three years, which had “now elapsed.” Wilson died in prison on July 7, 1863 (Wilson’s widow later married Oliver Clemson, son of the late Gap Gang leader Amos Clemson).[29]

On November 25, Curtin issued pardon proclamations for Mackie and Hull. Each proclamation cited the clemency pleas of the judges, the District Attorney, and “good and respectable citizens” of the community – a category which in the Mackey proclamation specifically included Thorne. Each proclamation also claimed that prosecution testimony “is not free from doubt.”[30]

If John Brown was involved in the dispute over clemency for his kidnappers, the clemency file does not record it. Gilmore Hull joined the Union army in early 1864 and after the war he worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Columbia, PA.[31]

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Max Longley is the author of Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician (McFarland, 2020), For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War (McFarland, 2015), and many articles.

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[1] Jared Frederick, “For the Hope of Humanity: Gov. Andrew G. Curtin & the Union’s Civil War” (2012). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 4854. https://researchrepository.wvu.edu/etd/4854, 72-84.
[2] William H. Armstrong, “Curtin as a Civil Administrator,” in William Henry Egle, Life and Times of Andrew Gregg Curtin (Philadelphia: Thompson Publishing Co., 1896), 451-72, at 459-62.
[3] Max Longley, Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2020), 54
[4] Longley, 54;
[5] Longley, 54.
[6] Longley, 54-55.
[7] Longley, 54, 57.
[8] Longley, 56-57.
[9] Longley, 57.
[10] Clemency petition to governor Packer, Record of the Department of State, Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Clemency File, 1790-1973, November 1863, Series #26.3, Commonwealth vs. Frances [sic] Wilson, Gilmore Hull, Sylvester Gordon, Edward Mackey, and Edward Bostick (hereafter Clemency File).
[11] “Com. v. Edward Mackay,” Lancaster Examiner and Herald, August 28, 1861, p. 3, column 2.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Long to Samuel B. Thomas, Esq., November 20, 1861, Clemency File.
[14] See J. B. Livingston (counsel for Wilson and Hull) to Curtin, March 5, 1862, Clemency File.
[15] Thorne to Curtin, January 1, 1862, Clemency File.
[16] Warden, Lancaster Prison, to Curtin, July 31, 1862; warden to Curtin, September 2, 2862, Hood to Curtin, September 1, 1862 – Clemency File.
[17] “Bill Bear,” The Horse Thief Gang,” “Gap Thefts,” all in Cecil Whig (Elkton, MD), July 19, 1856, p. 1, column 5; “Thieves Caught,” May 19, 1860, p. 2, column 5; “Wm. Good Alias Daniel Good,” Daily National Republican (Washington, D.C.), July 28, 1864, p. 2, column 3; Julius F. Sachse, The Wayside Inns on the Lancaster Roadside Between Philadelphia and Lancaster (Lancaster, PA: 1912 and 1915), 26; Charles Israel Landis, “The first long turnpike in the United States. Part III. The Places Along the Way,” Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society, v. 20, no. 9 (1916), 235-58.
[18] Petitions in Clemency File.
[19] Quigley to Curtin, September 3, 1862, Clemency File. Quigley called himself “a disinterested person” acting “only through motives of charity.”
[20] Long to Thorne (and Curtin?), September 16, 1862, Clemency File.
[21] Longley, 58, 60-61.
[22] Thorne to Curtin, January 8, 1863 , Clemency File.
[23] Hood to Curtin, January 1, 1863 , Clemency File.
[24] Thorne to Curtin, January 8, 1863 , Clemency File.
[25] Quarter Sessions Dockets, Commonwealth vs. Sylvester Gordon, April sessions 1863, #477, Lancaster County Archives, Lancaster, PA.
[26] Thorne to Curtin, March 23, 1863; Clemency File.
[27] Quarter Sessions Dockets, Commonwealth vs. Sylvester Gordon, April sessions 1863, #477, Lancaster County Archives, Lancaster, PA.
[28] Livingston to Curtin, November 23, 1863, Clemency File.
[29] Long and Hayes to Curtin, November 23, 1863, Clemency File; email from Nancy Plumley (descendant of J. Williams Thorne), February 11, 2021.
[30] Pardon proclamations, each dated Nov. 25, 1863, Clemency File.
[31] Email from Nancy Plumley, February 27, 2021.

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3 Responses to The Other John Brown

  1. Rod says:

    These men were kidnappers and not terrorists. Their crime was not an act intended to promote a cause nor intended to cause mass innocent deaths. Theirs were acts of pecuniary interest. John Brown sought to cause mass deaths for a political cause in violation of multiple Constitutional mandates. The kidnappers were individuals committing a crime that held no support nor was condoned by any State government. They were not even a part of the Confederate Army as their crime was prior to secession. Those who aided and abetted John Brown were illegally harbored by State governments. John Brown and his cohorts were America’s first Bin Laden. It can be argued that Brown’s motives were noble, but his method was an act of genuine terrorism and immoral. The same can be said of those who bomb abortion clinics. We must use our terms such as “terrorist” with historical accuracy.

  2. A fascinating and intriguing look into the legal system of the day. I’m surprised John Brown and his wife were able to give testimony, despite their race. One consolation may be that one of the criminals followed through and joined the Union Army in the end.
    Thank you for sharing, Max!

  3. Ski says:

    Interesting read. I am familiar with locations that are mentioned. One wonders what was John Brown ‘s thoughts about his kidnappers clemency? Sadly, not every account of these sort of events turned out the same as it did for Mr. Brown.

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