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Published: Sunday, 11/29/2009

Ashley's Account: The Execution — Interesting Particulars

Congressman James M. Ashley,
a Republican from Toledo, authored the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery Congressman James M. Ashley, a Republican from Toledo, authored the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery
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As has already been announced, Hon. J.M. Ashley, member of Congress from this district, was one of the very few Northern men who were permitted to witness the hanging of John Brown; and his presence there was entirely the result of his own perservering and inimitable will. The kind ---- which he was thus enabled to render to Mrs. Brown, were timely, and no doubt very grateful to her. In the midst of so much discouragement and gloom, a real friend was “a friend indeed.”

Mr. Ashley furnished his family with a very full and graphic account of his experiences and observations in Virginia, from which we are permitted to make the following extracts. The narrator embraces many facts of interest not before published — especially in regard to Brown's bearing and words and the treatment of Mrs. Brown.

HARPERS FERRY, Dec. 2, 1859

I have not time to give you the details of all that transpired at the execution, (the first and last execution, I trust, I shall ever witness), and if I had, they will reach you in better shape by telegraph, as soon as the agents of the Associated Press can reach some point not controlled by martial law, with some Gen'l Taliafero as commander-in-chief. I wrote you a short, but very imperfect account of the difficulty and anyone I had to encounter in getting about the country, and passing the guards to get into Charlestown, which I did, not withstanding the orders to the contrary. The whole thing appeared to me so like a farce, and was (with all) not free from danger of personal violence, that no one not on the ground would credit the statement of half the particulars.

“It is enough to say, that any Anti-Slavery man would have been safer from personal injury and insult in either Austria or Italy, countries whose language he could not speak, a stranger without a passport, during the prevalence of martial law, than in the town of Charlestown, in my own country, for the past few days. And why? For no other reason than that I was suspected of entertaining the opinion that one man may not of right enslave another. My arrival in town was heralded at once, and unfortunately for me, my crutch soon pointed me out as the “Black Republican Congressman from Ohio.” I was beset on all hands by over anxious gentlemen for my opinions, and one more excited than the rest came up to where I was in conversation in the room, and in a loud voice asked if I “was a Black Republican.” I answered, “I am, sir.” — From this time until I left, I was not only watched, but gazed at by everybody, as if I were a second JOHN BROWN.

In going from here to Charlestown, I avoided the Railroad, as I learned that persons who got off the cars at that point were immediately arrested and placed in the Guard-house until after due examination by the distinguished Gen. Taliafero, and when the person or persons, thus detained were either discharged or escorted out of town to Harper's Ferry, and seen safely on board the cars going east or west.

Mr. Edgerton, a Republican member of Congress, from Ohio, and the district in which BROWN formerly resided, and in which many of his relatives and friends now are, was escorted from Charlestown with a strong body-guard to this place the day before I got here, and seen safely on board the cars for Washington City. For this kind attendance, I suppose the Democracy of the North think he ought to be thankful. MR. EDGERTON was charged with some message to BROWN from his friends, but was not permitted to see or communicate with him.

The way I managed the matter was this: I got an old rickety horse and buggy, the best I could find, and with the son of the United States Marshall for the District, a worthy and gentlemanly young man, for a guide, went “by land,” as a waterman would say, and succeeded as I have before written you, in getting within the forbidden limits of Charlestown, without arrest or being brought before Gen. Taliafero. Marshal DONALDSON., of Kansas fame, was also behind in a buggy with a mule, and got by the sentinel by the aid of the Deputy U.S. Marshal as I did — I cannot do less than say that Mr. DONALDSON is a mild, gentlemanly man of about sixty, and has undoubtedly been greatly slandered. To him I am indebted for many acts of kindness, with which pleasure I acknowledge. He will go from here to Washington. Almost, if not quite, every Southern State had a representative on the ground to see the old Kansas hero hung, and it seemed to gratify them very much.

On my way out to Charlestown, I had pointed out to me the place on the Maryland side where BROWN rented the farm which he made his headquarters. I also saw the plantations and dwellings of Col. WASHINGTON and other leading citizens who were made prisoners, and two or three of the premises where property has since been burned.

Before I left for Charlestown yesterday, I had an interesting interview with Mrs. BROWN, two gentlemen and a lady who accompanied her here, and who expected to go with her to Charlestown on their arrival at the Ferry, notwithstanding they had letters from Gov. WISE granting the request of Mrs. BROWN to have an interview with her husband before his execution, and the privilege of taking the body and those of her sons home with her, with an order to the Sheriff to deliver the body to Mrs. BROWN or her agent at this point in “a plain substantial coffin, unmutilated,” besides letters from leading Southern men acquainted with the lady and gentleman accompanying her, commending them as the friends of Mrs. BROWN to the kind regards of all citizens. They thought best after their arrival here to consult Col. BARBOUR, who is in command of the U.S. Arsenal, and who is one of the most gentlemanly of the very few gentlemen I met since I came here. After Col. BARBOUR and other gentlemen had seen and read Gov. WISE'S letters, they were assured that they could proceed without annoyance or molestation to their destination; but in order to avoid the possibility of any unpleasant occurrences, at the suggestion of one of the gentlemen accompanying Mrs. B., General TALIAFERO was telegraphed, and he replied by telegraph, word for word as follows, as I know, for I obtained a copy of the dispatch. Read it, and then think of the chain set up by the “chivalry,” to being the only gallant and polite people among us:

“Detain Mrs. BROWN at the Ferry, and the lady and gentlemen accompanying her, until further order. WATCH THEM.”

This is the work of “Chivalry.” No language can express their feelings, when this dispatch was read to them. A poor, broken-hearted woman, with two gentlemen and a Quaker lady friend, harmless and unarmed, after having the permission of the Governor to proceed to Charlestown on their errand of love and mercy, are “detained” by order of the commander-in-chief, until “further orders,” and instructions given to “watch them.”

And this, too, when there were two or three hundred U.S. Soldiers stationed at the Arsenal-almost every citizen in the town armed, and at least three thousand persons under arms in the country. Gov. WISE was again telegraphed and late in the afternoon and some time after I had gained admission within the limits of Charlestown, a carriage and detachment of friends. What was my surprise, to find on the return of this grand cavalcade of “fuss and feathers,” that Mrs. BROWN came alone, and notwithstanding her earnest entreaties, the military hero in command would not even permit the Quaker lady to accompany Mrs. B., and she was absolutely compelled to sit in a closed carriage with some distinguished individual dressed in regimentals and thus go to Charlestown, or remain and not see her husband. Of course she chose the only alternative left to her, and went.

I assure you that her entry into the town of Charlestown beggars all description. Before the arrival of Mrs. Brown, but two brass cannon were planted in front of the prison. As soon as her approach was announced, however, three other brass pieces, making five in all, were planted in the street in front of the jail, and from eight hundred to a thousand men, with glittering bayonets, pistols and swords, stood on all sides from four to six men deep, and formed a hollow square through which the carriage passed with Mrs. Brown. Through this file of bayonets the poor woman at last entered the jail, hoping at once to see her husband, as her stay was to be short, in compliance with orders. Here again she was doomed to disappointment, for the distinguished Commander-in-Chief took it into his military head, that Mrs. BROWN might possibly give her husband some poison, and he and the chivalry might be deprived of the extreme pleasure of choking the man to death. So he had Mrs. B. stripped and her clothing all subject to a rigid scrutiny. Nothing, however, was discovered on or about her person more formidable or dangerous than ladies usually wear, and she was permitted a moment alone, although the jail was guarded by a least a thousand soldiers and five brass cannon. The pretext that Mrs. B. might, notwithstanding the search, give him something with which to commit suicide, is simply preposterous. John Brown's whole life and every act from the day of his arrest until that hour, was a guaranty against his committing self-murder. If they had feared that she might give him some terrible weapon, by which he would put to flight the gallant General and his immense body of troops, perhaps their conduct would be justifiable-certainly no other hypothesis can such a formidable military which surrounded the prison and the close inspection of Ms. B.'s clothing be accounted for. The whole conduct exhibited more fear on the part of those in charge of this manacled, unarmed old man, than ever the despots of Europe exhibited when NAPOLEON terrified the whole world with his feats of heroism and daring.

During Mrs. B.'s stay with her husband, her conversation was principally upon business matters, which I have not time to give you. After about two hours, she was compelled to leave, although she desired to remain all night. As soon as the interview terminated, she was reconducted to the carriage and escorted by the same or a similar guard back to this place, to remain until the body of her husband should be delivered to her. It is due to Gov. WISE to say, that he undoubtedly intended the friends of Mrs. BROWN to accompany her, and had he been here, everybody concedes that no such outrage would have been thought of. For, whatever may be said of Gov. WISE, his letter to Mrs. BROWN not only vindicates that his heart is right, but that he is in truth a high-toned gentleman.

Thousands all over the country will ask, and be unable to answer the question, “Why has there been so much excitement and so much fear exhibited by the Southern people at this Harper's Ferry affair?” I answer, it is inseparable from the system of slavery. A servile insurrection is always to be feared, because it is the most terrible of all the evils that can befall a people who claim to own their laborers. Men may talk as they will, but I tell you there is a smoldering volcano burning beneath the crust, ready to burst forth at any moment; and an enemy to the peace of almost every hearth-stone, is lurking in the heart of the apparently submissively lashed slave, and only those who have passed through an outbreak like this or the Southampton insurrection, can comprehend the danger and know for a certainty that it exists. Today, as the old chief was brought from the prison to be put into the wagon and taken to the place of execution, a slave woman, having perhaps heard me spoken of as an Abolitionist, said in my hearing, and I suppose so that I should hear it, just as the old man seated himself on his coffin, “God bless you, old man; if I could help you, I would; but I can't.” The countenances of all the Slaves told too plainly of their sympathy.

Although the military display may have been, as is claimed by many, too large, and has increased the excitement, a military force of some kind was not only necessary, but it was absolutely indispensable to keep the slave masters at hand, to watch their “property,” not from fear of the Northern “Abolitionist,” but simply from fear of the “property” itself.

My interview with Mrs. BROWN and her friends who were anxiously awaiting my return to communicate the conclusion of the matter, was such as cannot be put upon paper. I was undoubtedly the only one, who, among all that throng, watched sympathizing every move and sought for every word, while beholding the horrid sight, that I might truthfully report to her, who was suffering anguish worse than death, every word and action that should comfort and bind up the bleeding wounds of a heart already too deeply bruised by sorrow. When I told her how like a man he acted — and how like a hero he died — and that to the question again asked him, if he “desired the services of a clergyman,” he replied, “No. I do not desire the prayers of any minister who approves of the enslavement of one of God's children,” and added, “I want to go to the scaffold only in company with the necessary officers of the law, and if possible, some good old Slave Mother and her children, weeping and praying to the God of all to receive my soul.” — These words, with a detailed statement of every movement, and especially the words of the poor slave woman already quoted, “God bless you, old man, if I could help you, I would; but I can't,” seemed to afford Mrs. B. great comfort and consolation, and she and her friends thanked me with much feeling for the interest I, stranger that I was to them, had taken in their behalf.

Now, that the old man is gone, what will be said of him? Who shall reconcile the conflicting statements? What will be the verdict of history? All concede to him courage of the highest order, and many even here admit his honesty of purpose. That he had no desire for wealth, is evident from the fact that every dollar he could control was expended in getting Slaves to Canada. Simple in his manners, and with but few wants, he lived only to help the helpless. However much I condemn and lament, as I most sincerely do, his attack on this place, I cannot but admire his heroism, his straight-forward independence, and his undoubted courage.



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