How John Brown’s wife Mary ended up living in California and buried at Madronia Cemetery in Saratoga, Part II

Mary Day Brown’s Headstone at Madronia Cemetery in Saratoga, CA
(Photo by Tonya McQuade)

What’s a wife to do after her husband is hanged for treason? 

In Part I of this post, I provided some background information about Mary Day Brown, the widowed wife of famed abolitionist John Brown, and what prompted her move to California with her surviving family members in September 1864. Here, I pick up the tale of her life after she settled in Saratoga, California – a small town with a population at the time of about 300 on the western edge of Santa Clara County, about fifty miles south of San Francisco. It was in Saratoga that she lived the final years of her life and was buried at Madronia Cemetery, thousands of miles from where her husband lay buried in North Elba, New York.

Mary Brown left Rohnerville in Humboldt County, California, joined by her daughter Sarah, daughter Ellen, and Ellen’s husband James Fablinger and their three daughters. Sarah had made an earlier visit to Saratoga to purchase a mountain cabin, sitting high above town on 160 acres of land, from a well-respected Santa Clara Valley realtor named R.L. Higgins. James had wanted a mountain ranch, and Mary wanted a house ready for occupancy: this purchase provided both (1). Mary’s daughter Annie and son Salmon chose to stay behind in Humboldt County with their families.

Before the Browns and Fablingers arrived on January 31, 1881, word spread that members of John Brown’s family were planning to set up residence in Saratoga. They were met by a group of southern sympathizers who intended to hang them. However, as the would-be lynch mob watched the group disembark, “they looked at three tired girls, three women, and one tall, slightly built man. Compassion reigned. Too late to ascend the mountain, the family spent the night in the residence of John C. Hutchison, a person who was said to have shown sympathy for the Confederacy. The next morning he assisted them in the move up the mountain” (2).

Getting to the house on Bohlman Road was a challenge and required “proceed[ing] in horse and buggy up Lumber Street [now Big Basin Road], cutting over to Oak, and then ascending the muddy unimproved road round hairpin curves and dangerous drops … [to a] destination approximately three miles above the town of Saratoga at an elevation of nineteen hundred feet” (3). 

The property, however, offered dazzling views of Santa Clara Valley and San Francisco Bay, which Sarah – an artist – was anxious to paint. The ranch “contained a small fruit orchard, and bushes of wild strawberries and blackberries were plentiful. Quail, rabbits, squirrels, and deer roamed the area. Mountain springs provided water, and the creeks teemed with trout. Wood was readily available near the small cabin. The smell of sage and bay leaf and laurel trees permeated the air…. French, Swiss, and Italians had settled in the 1870s and planted the mountain in vineyards” (4).

Map of Brown Property in Saratoga (5)

Another reason this property appealed to the Browns was its isolation. They “knew that the long trek up the mountain ensured that few visitors would find them, and they could be distanced from the notoriety that followed them” (6). Nevertheless, within two months, they found themselves in the news. 

On April 6, 1881, San Francisco’s Daily Alta California reported: “The San Jose Mercury says that the widow and daughter of Old John Brown live on a small farm in the foothills near Saratoga, in Santa Clara County. The old lady is about 70, and the burden of her support falls upon her daughter, who, though ill fitted for the rough farm work which she has to do, does it cheerfully. Their little house is burdened with a mortgage of $1,000, and the efforts they have to make to meet the monthly interest thereon shadow the degree of contentment which they otherwise feel. They ought to be relieved of the task. Certain citizens of San Jose propose giving a public entertainment to raise the nucleus of a fund for the payment of the debt” (7).

Mary was, in fact, only 65 at the time, and Sarah was certainly not frail nor “ill-fitted” to farm work. She regularly walked the difficult three miles back and forth to town to teach music lessons. James made the same trek each day to teach at Saratoga School on Oak Street – but the news post ignored the fact that Ellen, James, and three granddaughters also lived at the house. 

On April 8, two reporters from the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle visited Mary at her home. Upon their arrival, they reported, “Mrs. Brown … received us kindly and entertained us pleasantly for an hour. She is in comparatively robust health, tall and straight as an Indian, hair tinged with gray and face furrowed with lines of sorrow and care.” During the interview, she said of her new house, “I like the mountain air, the grand view, and even the isolation. We can raise enough on this place to support us comfortably, and I think I could pass the rest of my days here pleasantly with my children and grandchildren” (8).

The news of “John Brown’s Widow … [being] discovered in California in Destitute Circumstances” was printed in newspapers across the country. As explained in one such article: “This discovery was made by J. J. Owen, the editor of the San Jose Mercury, who at once instituted a movement for the widow’s relief. The San Francisco Chronicle quickly seconded the movement, and this effort resulted in a few weeks in the procurement of a fund which will place the widow and her family beyond want” (9).

Mary Brown as she appeared in 1882 – Photograph courtesy of the John Brown/Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia, State Archives, Charleston (10)

According to the article,  “Mrs. Brown sensibly appreciates the delayed acknowledgement by the patriotic citizens of the country of her husband’s services in the cause of freedom, and accepts it only as such and not as a gift to her individually” (11). 

Thus it was that, by May 1881, Mary acquired full title to the mountain property, and she immediately deeded one third to Ellen and one third to Sarah (12). The following year, in August 1882, Mary left Saratoga to travel east to visit family and make appearances in support of her husband’s legacy at celebrations in Chicago, Boston, and Topeka. Newspapers reported on her travels, and “everywhere her presence was used to support particular narratives about John Brown, the Civil War, and the meaning of the antebellum antislavery fight” (13). 

Something else significant happened on this trip: Mary was finally able to bury the body of her son Watson next to his father in North Elba, twenty-three years after his death at Harpers Ferry. This had not been possible earlier because Watson’s body had been snatched by students from Winchester Medical College (WMC) to be used for medical research. 

As early as December 6, 1859, four days after John Brown’s execution, newspapers reported that the body of one of his sons had been turned into a medical exhibit: “[T]he students at the Winchester Medical College … have skinned the body of one of Brown’s sons, separated the nervous and muscular and venous systems, dried and varnished them, and have the whole hung up as a nice anatomical illustration. Some of the students wished to stuff the skin, others to make it into game pouches” (14). His skin was also used to make saddle seats and moccasins, with some pieces given away as souvenirs, along with some of his fingers and toes (15).

After Union troops took over the college in March 1862, they found the body “stand[ing] at full length in one corner of the Museum, and labeled ‘John Brown’s son – thus always with abolitionists.” This was a play on Virginia’s state motto Sic semper tyrannis, which translates “Thus always to tyrants” – the same words John Wilkes Booth later shouted when he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln (16).

Report in The Liberator of the discovery of Watson Brown’s body, turned into a medical exhibit at Winchester Medical College, after Union troops took over the college in March 1862 (17)

Largely in retaliation for his treatment, Union troops under Gen. Nathaniel Banks burned down Winchester Medical College in May 1862 before retreating from the city as Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s army approached. However, Watson’s body was rescued by Dr. Jarvis J. Johnson, who was with Banks when the Union troops arrived in Winchester. 

The WMC professor who had helped prepare Watson’s body as an anatomical specimen, Dr. Hugh Holmes McGuire, strongly appealed to [Johnson] in the name of [his] profession, and in the interest of the same, and as a friend of science to return to him the said body” (18). Johnson refused, instead transporting it to his home in Indiana, preserving it for years, and eventually – after John Brown, Jr. confirmed it was his brother Watson – returning it to Mary for burial upon learning she would be visiting Chicago. 

Here, I have to wonder about Mary’s thoughts and emotions upon finally taking possession of her son’s body. Did she experience deep sorrow and grief all over again? How did it feel for her to finally see her son buried beside his father? Did she wonder again about what had become of her son Oliver, the location of whose body at the time remained a mystery? She died before his body was exhumed from an unmarked grave along the Shenandoah River in 1898 and returned to the family to be buried in North Elba.

It’s hard to guess at her thoughts – and she left very little written to offer hints. As she attended events to commemorate her husband, she did not speak to the crowds or use her trip “as any kind of public stage from which to claim her own interpretation of John Brown … [or] publicly advocate for post–Civil War African American rights or assert Brown’s radical ideas…. To have her husband vaguely honored and tied to the end of slavery was enough in light of the continued maligning of Brown’s name in certain quarters” (19). 

Mary did, however, donate many of her husband’s personal papers, letters, and relics to the Kansas State Historical Society – including a piece of wood from his gallows, a piece of rock from near his grave, and a gold Medal of Honor given to her by France honoring John Brown. All were displayed during her visit, where her presence “was used to recall and celebrate the abolitionist past and to claim an important place in it for Kansas. Her husband’s radical stance on race and embrace of violent means were muted in order to convince more people that Mary and John Brown were Kansas folk heroes of a sort” (20).  

During Mary’s absence from Saratoga, her daughter Sarah moved to San Francisco after receiving a political appointment for a job at the U.S. Mint. Upon her return, Mary began experiencing problems with her health and was soon diagnosed with cancer. James Fablinger, too, was having his own health issues. 

Since being so isolated on the mountain made getting medical help difficult, in July 1883, the family sold their mountain property and purchased thirteen acres near Saratoga and Fruitvale Avenues. Today this land is the site of Sacred Heart Church and School and Saratoga Civic Theater – where, as it turns out, I have volunteered many times for the South Bay Musical Theater without realizing it was sitting on the land where the Browns had lived! Since no house yet existed, the Fablingers moved into a rented home on Saratoga Avenue, and Mary joined Sarah in San Francisco, where she could more easily access medical treatment.

Though her health initially improved, Mary died in San Francisco on February 29, 1884 and was buried at Madronia Cemetery in Saratoga. Her headstone describes her as “Wife of John Brown of Harpers Ferry,” but local historians knew she was much more than that and worked to get her the recognition she deserved. In 2011, Mary’s burial site was added to the “Network to Freedom” listings on the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad site after being nominated by the Saratoga Cemetery District Board of Trustees. The Network lists 750 locations nationwide with a verifiable connection to the Underground Railroad. 

Tonya McQuade standing at the entrance to Madronia Cemetery, where Mary’s burial site is now a location on the NPS’s “Network to Freedom” (Photo by her daughter, Anna Silva)

As the website notes, Mary Brown “was more than a 19th century farmer’s wife; she was freedom fighter John Brown’s partner and confidant in direct action toward the abolition of slavery…. [and] should be remembered for her personal sacrifices and contributions to the Underground Railroad movement and the abolition of slavery in the United States. The Brown family homes in Springfield, Massachusetts and North Elba, New York were used to shelter freedom seekers. Those who heard of John Brown’ support found direct, practical and sympathetic assistance, whether he was at home or away. Mary was active in assisting freedom seekers who were directed to her home, sharing limited family resources, and the risk of possible persecution and prosecution for involvement with her husband’s illegal activities. Mary and her family suffered poverty and hardship as a result of John Brown’s frequent absences from home. Food and money were in short supply and sickness and death were a part of her life…. But in nothing she ever said or in any of her actions is there any criticism expressed about her husband for the privations suffered by her and her family” (21).



  1. “John Brown’s Widow, Visit to Her Mountain Home Near San Jose,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10 April 1881.
  2. Miller Chiao, Mary. Miss Sarah Brown. Mary Miller Chiao, 2022, p. 17-18.
  3. Ibid, pg. 2.
  4. Ibid, pg. 18.
  5. Map
  6. Ibid, pg. 2.
  7. Conaway, Peggy. “Los Gatos History Timeline.” San Jose Mercury News, quoting from Daily Alta California, 6 Apr 1881,
  8. “John Brown’s Widow, Visit to Her Mountain Home Near San Jose,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10 April 1881.
  9. “John Brown’s Widow.” The Boston Globe, 30 May 1881,
  10. Laughlin-Schultz, Bonnie. “The noble wife of the late champion of freedom: Mary Brown’s 1882 Visit to Topeka and John Brown’s Enduring Legacy.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 35 (Winter 2012–2013),  218–33,
  11. “John Brown’s Widow.” The Boston Globe, 30 May 1881,
  12. Santa Clara County Deeds, 64:256, 258.
  13. Laughlin-Schultz, Bonnie. “The noble wife of the late champion of freedom: Mary Brown’s 1882 Visit to Topeka and John Brown’s Enduring Legacy.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 35 (Winter 2012–2013),  218–33,
  14.  “John Brown’s invasion. Further interesting incidents of the execution.” New-York Tribune, 6 Dec 1859,
  15.  “Burning of Winchester Medical College.” Wikipedia,
  16.  “Rebel Malignity.” Delphi Journal, Delphi, Indiana, 2 Apr 1862,,
  17. “The Body of John Brown’s Son.” The Liberator, Boston, Massachusetts, 28 Mar 1862,,
  18. Johnson, Jarvis J., M.D. “Affidavit of Dr. Johnson.” Martinsville Republican, 14 Sept. 1882,
  19. Laughlin-Schultz, Bonnie. “The noble wife of the late champion of freedom: Mary Brown’s 1882 Visit to Topeka and John Brown’s Enduring Legacy.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 35 (Winter 2012–2013),  218–33,
  20. Ibid.
  21. “National Park Service – National Trails.” com.arcgis.maps.nps,

2 Responses to How John Brown’s wife Mary ended up living in California and buried at Madronia Cemetery in Saratoga, Part II

  1. Thank you for this blog post. I had never thought about Brown’s wife and family, so it was an interesting read. I just wish there was more evidence about how she felt and what she thought of her husband’s actions. Maybe, unlike people today, she just had the good sense to keep her mouth shut.

  2. Thanks for both these posts … everytime I am in Harpers Ferry (not far from where I live), I imagine Brown and his three sons locked in the armory, and how two of the three died with him … but I have never given the rest of his family a thought … thanks telling the rest of the Brown family story.

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