John Brown was charged with treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, multiple first-degree murders, and inciting an insurrection among Virginia slaves.
The trial took just over a week, starting on Tuesday, October 25, 1859 and concluding on Wednesday, November 2, 1859.
Despite Brown’s offenses having occurred on Federal property, he was brought to trial in the nearby Virginia State Circuit Courthouse.
The trial took place in Charles Town, the county seat of Jefferson County, Virginia (located around seven miles west of Harpers Ferry). Charles Town is now located in the extreme north-eastern panhandle of West Virginia (not to be confused with Charleston, West Virginia, the State Capitol).
John Brown was convicted of all the charges on November 2, 1859 after the jury deliberated for only 45 minutes. He was executed within one month of conviction.
John Brown was allowed to stand up from his cot, supported by three courtroom officers because of his still-weakened condition of recovering from his wounds during the Harper’s Ferry raid weeks earlier, where he made a speech to the court after his conviction.
“I have, may it please the court, a few words to say.”
“In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.”
“I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”
“This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!”
“Let me say one word further.”
“I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances and animosity toward me, it has been fair and more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated from the first [day] what was my intention and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.”
“Let me say, also, a word in regard to the statements made by some of those connected with me. I hear it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.
Now I have done.“
John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, shortly before noon in a vacant field several blocks away from the county jail where he was incarcerated. John Wilkes Booth and the future Stonewall Jackson were present among the 2,000 Federal troops and militia for the proceeding. His final words, a note passed to a supporter on his way out to the heavily protected field gallows, read:
- Charlestown, Va. 2nd December, 1859. I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.
Haki Kweli Shakur August Third Collective NAPLA NAIM 11-2-51ADM 1859
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