John Brown's Letters to His Wife, Mary Day Brown, from the Charlestown Prison

Mary Day Brown and two children
Letter dated October 31,1859
Letter dated November 8, 1859

Letter dated November 16, 1859
Letter dated November 21, 1859

Letter dated November 26, 1859
Letter dated November 30, 1859

Letter dated October 31, 1859

     My dear Wife, and Children Every one,

I suppose you have learned before this by the newspapers that two weeks ago today we were fighting for our lives at Harpers Ferry: that during the fight Watson was mortally wounded; Oliver killed, Wm Thompson killed, & Dauphin slightly wounded. That on the following day I was taken prisoner immediately after which I received several Sabre cuts in my head; & Bayonet stabs in my body. As nearly as I can learn Watson died of his wound on Wednesday the 2d or on Thursday the 3d day after I was taken. Dauphin was killed when I was taken; & Anderson I suppose also. I have since been tried, & found guilty of treason, &c; and of murder in the first degree. I have not yet received my sentence. No others of the company with who you were acquainted were so far as I can learn either killed or taken. Under all these terrible calamities; I feel quite cheerful in the assurance that God reigns; & will overrule all for his glory; & the best possible good. I feel no con [s] ciou [s] ness of guilt in the matter: or even mortification on account of my imprisonment; & irons; & I feel perfectly assured that very soon no member of my family will feel any possible disposition to "blush on my account." Already dear friends at a distance with kindest sympathy are cheering me with the assurance that posterity at least: will do me justice. I shall commend you all together with my beloved; but bereaved daughters in law to their sympathies which I have no doubt will soon reach you. I also commend you all to him "whose mercy endureth for­ever": to the God of my fathers "whose I am; & whom I serve." "He will never leave you or forsake you" unless you forsake him. Finally my dearly beloved be of good comfort. Be as it has been consistent with the holy religion of Jesus Christ in which I remain a most firm, & humble believer. Never forget the poor nor think any thing you bestow on them to be lost to you even though they may be as black as Ebedmelch, the Ethiopian eunuch one to whom Phillip preached Christ. Be sure to entertain strangers. . . "Remember them that are in bonds as bound with them." I am in charge of a jailor like the one who took charge of "Paul & Silas;" & you may rest assured that both kind hearts and kind faces are more or less about me: whilst thousands are thirsting for my blood. "These light allocations which are but for a moment shall work out for us a far more exceeding & eternal weight of glory." I hope to be able to write you again. My wounds are doing well. Copy this & send it to your sorrow stricken brothers, Ruth; to comfort them. Write me a few words in regard to the welfare of all. God Almighty bless you all: & make you "joyful in the midst of all your tribulations." Write to John Brown, Charlestown, Jefferson Co, Va, care of Capt John Avis

Your Affectionate Husband & Father. John Brown


Nov. 3d 1859

     P.S. Yesterday Nov 2d I was sentenced to be hanged on 2 Decem next. Do not grieve on my account. I am still quite cheerful.

                God bless you all Your Ever J Brown

Letter dated November 8, 1859

Dear Wife and Children, Every One,

I will begin by saying that I have in some degree recovered from my wounds, but that I am quite weak in my back and sore about my left kidney. My appetite has been quite good for most of the time since I was hurt. I am supplied with almost everything I could desire to make me comfortable, and the little I do lack (some articles of clothing which I lost) I may perhaps soon get again. I am, besides, quite cheerful, having (as I trust) "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding," to "rule in my heart," and the testimony (in some degree) of a good conscience that I have not lived altogether in vain. I can trust God with both the time and the manner of my death, believing, as I now do, that for me at this time to seal my testimony for God and humanity with my blood will do vastly more toward advancing the cause I have earnestly endeavored to promote, than all I have done in my life before. I beg of you all meekly and quietly to submit to this, not feeling yourselves in the least de­graded on the account. Remember, dear wife and children all, that Jesus of Nazareth suffered a most excruciating death on the cross as a felon, under the most aggravating circumstances. Think also of the prophets and apostles and Christians of former days, who went through greater tribulations than you or I, and try to be reconciled. May God Almighty comfort all your hearts, and soon wipe away all tears from your eyes! To him be endless praise! Think, too, of the crushed millions who "have no comforter." I charge you all never in your trials to forget the griefs "of the poor that cry, and of those that have none to help them." I wrote most earnestly to my dear and afflicted wife not to come on for the present, at any rate. I will now give her reasons for doing so. First, it would use up all the scanty means she has, or is at all likely to have, to make herself and children comfortable hereafter. For let me tell you that the sympathy that is now aroused in your behalf may not always follow you. There is but little more of the romantic about helping poor widows and their children than there is about trying to relieve poor "niggers." Again, the little comfort it might afford us to meet again would be dearly bought by the pains of a final separation. We must part; and I feel assured for us to meet under such dreadful circumstances would only add to our distress. If she comes on here, she must be only a gazing-stock throughout the whole journey, to be remarked upon in every look, word, and action, and by all sorts of creatures, and by all sorts of papers, throughout the whole country. Again, it is my most decided judgment that in quietly and submissively staying at home vastly more of generous sympathy will reach her, without such dreadful sacrifice of feel­ing as she must put up with if she comes on. The visits of one or two female friends that have come on her have produced great excitement, which is very annoying; and they cannot possibly do me any good. Oh, Mary! do not come, but patiently wait for the meeting of those who love God and their fellow-men, where no separation must follow. "They shall go no more out forever." I greatly long to hear from some one of you, and to learn anything that in any way affects your welfare. I sent you ten dollars the other day; did you get it? I have also endeavored to stir up Christian friends to visit and write to you in your deep affliction. I have no doubt that some of them, at least, will heed the call. Write to me, care of Captain John Avis, Charlestown, Jefferson County, Virginia.

"Finally, my beloved, be of good comfort." May all your names be ''written in the Lamb's book of life!"-May you all have the purifying and sustaining influence of the Christian religion!-is the earnest prayer of your affectionate husband and father, John Brown

P.S.-I cannot remember a night so dark as to have hindered the coming day, nor a storm so furious and dreadful as to prevent the return of warm sunshine and a cloudless sky. But, beloved ones do remember that this is not your rest,-that in this world you have no abiding place or continuing city. To God and his infinite mercy I always commend

Letter dated November 16, 1859

My Dear Wife:

I write you in answer to a most kind letter, of Nov. 13, from dear Mrs. Spring. I owe her ten thousand thanks; for her kindness to you par­ticularly and more especially than for what she has done, and is doing, in a more direct way for me personally. Although I feel grateful for every expression of kindness or sympathy towards me, yet nothing can so effectually minister to my comfort as acts of kindness done to relieve the wants, or mitigate the sufferings of my poor distressed family. May God Almighty and their own consciousness be their eternal rewarders. I am exceedingly rejoiced to have you make the acquaintance and be surrounded by such choice friends, as I have long known some of those to be, with whom you are staying, by reputation. I am most glad to have you meet with one of a family (or I would rather say of two families) most beloved and never to be forgotten by me. I mean dear gentle Sarah Wattles. Many and many a time has she, her father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncle and aunt, (like angels of mercy) ministered to the wants of myself and of my poor sons, both in sickness and in health. Only last year I lay sick for quite a number of weeks with them, and was cared for by all, as though I had been a most affectionate brother or father. Tell her that I ask God to bless and reward them all forever. "I was a stranger, and they took me in." It may possibly be that Sarah would like to copy this letter, and send it to her home. If so, by all means, let her do so. I would write them if I had the power.


Now let me say a word about the effort to educate our daughters. I am no longer able to provide means to help towards that object, and it therefore becomes me not to dictate in the matter. I shall gratefully submit the direction of the whole thing to those whose generosity may lead them to undertake in their behalf, while I give anew a little expression of my own choice respecting it. You, my wife, perfectly well know that I have always expressed a decided preference for a very plain but perfectly practical education for both sons and daughters. I do not mean an education so very miserable as that you and I received in early life; nor as some of our children enjoyed. When I say plain but practical, I mean enough of the learning of the schools to enable them to transact the common business of life, comfortably and respectably, together with that thorough training to good business habits which prepares both men and women to be useful though poor, and to meet the stern Realities of life with a good grace. You well know that I always claimed that the music of the broom, washtub, needle, spindle, loom, axe, scythe, hoe, flail, etc., Afterwards. I put them in that order as most conducive to health of body and mind; and for the obvious reason, that after a life of some experience and of much observation, I have found ten women as well as ten men who have made their mark in life Right, whose early training was of that plain, practical kind, to one who had a more popular and fashionable early training. But enough of that.


Now, in regard to your coming here; If you feel sure that you can endure the trials and the shock, which will be unavoidable (if you come), I should be most glad to see you once more; but when I think of your being insulted on the road, and perhaps while here, and of only seeing your wretchedness made complete, I shrink from it. Your composure and fortitude of mind may be quite equal to it all; but I am in dreadful doubt of it. If you do come, defer your journey till about the 27th or 28t of this month. The scenes which you will have to pass through on coming here will be anything but those you now pass, with tender, kind-hearted friends, and kind faces to meet you everywhere. Do consider the matter well before you make the plunge. I think I had better say no more on this most painful subject. My health improves a little; my mind is very tranquil, I may say joyous, and I continue to receive every kind attention that I have any possible need of. I wish you to send copies of all my letters to all our poor children. What I write to one must answer for all, till I have more strength. I get numerous kind letters from friends in almost all directions, to encourage me to "be of good cheer," and I still have, as I trust, "the peace of God to rule in my heart." May God, for Christ's sake, ever make his face to shine on you all.

Your affectionate husband, John Brown

* * * *

Letter dated November 21, 1859

My Dear Wife,

Your most welcome letter of the 13th instant I got yesterday. I am very glad to learn from yourself that you feel so much resigned to your circumstances, so much confidence in a wise and good Providence and such composure of mind in the midst of all your deep afflictions. This is just as it should be; and let me still say, "Be of good cheer," for we shall soon "come out of all our great tribulations;" and very soon, if we trust in him, "God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes." Soon "we shall be satisfied when we are awake in His likeness." There is now here a source of disquietude to me,-namely, the fires which are almost of daily and nightly occurrence in this immediate neighborhood. While I well know that no one of them is the work of our friends, I know at the same time that by more or less of the inhabitants we shall be charged with them,-the same as with the ominous and threatening letters to Governor Wise. In the existing state of public feeling I can easily see a fur­ther objection to your coming here at present; but I did not intend saying an­other word to you on that subject

Why will you not say to me whether you had any crops mature this sea­son? If so, what ones? Although I may nevermore intermeddle with your worldly affairs, I have not yet lost all interest in them. A little history of your failures I should very much prize; and I would gratify you and other mends some way were it in my power. I am still quite cheerful, and by no means cast down. I "remember that the time is short." The little trunk and all its contents, so far as I can judge, reached me safe. May God reward all the contributors! I wrote you under cover to our excellent friend Mrs. Spring on the 16th instant. I presume you have it before now. When you return, it is most likely the lake will not be open; so you must get your ticket at Troy for Moreau Station or Glens Falls (for Glens Falls, if you can get one), or get one for Ver­gennes in Vermont, and take your chance of crossing over on the ice to Westport. If you go soon, the route by Glens Falls to Elizabethtown will probably be the best.

I have just learned that our poor Watson lingered until Wednesday about noon of the 19th of October. Oliver died near my side in a few moments after he was shot. Dauphin died the next morning after Oliver and William were killed,-namely, Monday. He died almost instantly; was by my side. William was shot by several persons. Anderson was killed with Dauphin. Keep this letter to refer to. God Almighty Bless and keep you all!

Your affectionate husband, John Brown

Letter dated November 26, 1859

My Dear Wife,

I wrote our dear friend McKim a few lines yesterday saying I had got his kind letter informing me of where you then were; & how to direct to you while in his neighborhood. I also said to him that I would be glad to have you remain about there; until I was disposed of ; or until/; I could send you a few little articles by Express: & also write you further; if that ( could be) without your becoming burdensome to friends. Our friend McKim wrote me you had gone; or was going to stay a while with Lucretia Mott. I remember the faithful old Lady well; but presume she has no recollection of me. I once set myself to oppose a mob at Boston; where she was. After I interfered the police immediately took up the matter; & soon put a stop to mob proceedings. The meeting was I think in Marlboro Street Church or Hotel perhaps. I am glad to have you make the acquaintance of such old "Pioneers" in the cause. I have just received from Mr. John Jay of New York a draft for $50, Fifty Dollars for the benefit of my family; & will enclose it; made payable to your order. I have also $15, Fifteen Dollars to send our crippled, & destitute unmarried son; when I can I intend to send you by Express Care of Mr. McKim Two or Three little articles to carry home. Should you happen to meet with Mr. Jay say to him that I fully appreciate his great kindness both to me; & my family. God bless all such friends. It is out of my power to reply to all the kind, & en­couraging letters I get; Wish I could do so. I have been so much relieved from my lameness for the last Three or Four days as to be able to sit up to read; & write pretty much all day: as well as part of the Night; & I do assure you & all other friends that I am quite busy; & none the less happy on that ac­count. The time passes quite pleasantly; & the near approach of my great change is not the occasion of any particular dread. I trust that God who has sustained me so long; will not forsake me when I most feel my need of Fatherly aid; & support. Should he hide his face; my spirit will droop, & die: but not otherwise: be assured. My only anxiety is to be properly assured of my fitness for the company of those who are "washed from all filthiness:" & for the presence of Him who is infinitely pure. I certainly think I do have some "hunger, & thirst after righteousness." If it be only genuine I make no doubt I "shall be filled.” Please let all our friends read my letters when you can; & ask them to accept of it as in part for them. I am inclined to think you will not be likely to succeed well about getting away the bodies of your family; but should that be so: do not let that grieve you. It can make but little difference what is done with them. I would advise that you take any little funds you may have to carry home in Gold (smallish sized) in good part; which some kind friend will ob­tain at a Bank for you. You can continue to carry (the most of it) about your person in some safe way: & it will not be best for me to advise you about making the little you now get; reach as far as you consistently can. You can well remember the changes you have passed through. Life is made up of a se­ries of changes: & let us try to meet them in the best manner possible. You will not wish to make yourself & children any more burdensome to friends than you are really compelled to do. I would not.


I will close this by saying that if you now feel that you are equal to the un­dertaking do exactly as you FEEL disposed to do about coming to see me before I suffer. I am entirely willing.

Your Affectionate Husband, John Brown

Letter dated November 30, 1859

My Dearly Beloved Wife, Sons and Daughters, Everyone--

As I now begin what is probably the last letter I shall ever write to any of you, I conclude to write to all at same time. I will mention some little matters particularly applicable to little property concerns in another place.

I recently received a letter from my wife, from near Philadelphia, dated November 22, by which it would seem that she was about giving up the idea of seeing me again. I had written her to come on if she felt equal to the undertaking, but I do not know that she will get my letter in time. It was on her own account chiefly that I asked her to stay back. At first I had a most strong desire to see her again, but there appeared to be very serious objections; and should we never meet in this life, I trust that she will in the end be satisfied it was for the best at least, if not most for her comfort. I inclosed in my last letter to her a draft of fifty dollars from John Jay, made payable to her order. I have now another to send her, from my excellent old, friend Edward Harris, of Woonsocket, R. L, for one hundred dollars, which I shall also make payable to her order.

I am waiting the hour of my public murder with great composure of mind and cheerfulness, feeling the strong assurance that in no other possible way could I be used to so much advantage to the cause of good and of humanity, and that nothing that either I or all my family have sacrificed or suffered will be lost. The reflection that a wise and merciful, as well as just and Holy God, rules not only the affairs of this world, but of all worlds, is a rock to set our feet upon under all circumstances--even those more severely trying ones into which our own feelings and wrongs have placed us. I have now no doubt but that our seeming disaster will ultimately result in the most glorious success; so, my dear shattered and broken family, be of good cheer, and believe and trust in God with all your heart, and with all your soul; for He doeth all things well. Do not feel ashamed on my account, nor for one moment despair of the cause or grow weary of well doing. I bless God I never felt stronger confidence in the certain and near approach of a bright morning and a glorious day than I have felt, and do now feel, since my confinement here. I am endeavoring to return, like a poor prodigal as I am, to my Father, against whom I have always sinned, in the hope that he may kindly and forgivingly meet me, though a very great way off.

Oh! my dear wife and children, would to God you could know how I have been travailing in birth for you all, that no one of you may fail of the grace of God.

Through Jesus Christ--that no one of you may be blind to the truth and glorious light of his Word, in which life and immortalty are brought to light, I beseech you every one, to make the Bible your daily and nightly study, with a childlike, honest, candid, teachable spirit of love and respect for your husband and father.

And I beseech the God of my fathers to open all your eyes to the discovery of the truth. You cannot imagine how much you may soon need the consolations of the Christian religion. Circumstances like my own for more than a month past have convinced me beyond all doubt, of our great need of some theories treasured up when our prejudices are excited, our vanity worked up to the highest pitch. Oh! do not trust your eternal all upon the boisterous ocean without even a helm or compass to aid you in steering. I do not ask any of you to throw away your reason; I only ask you to make a candid, sober use of your reason.

My dear younger children, will you listen to this last poor admonition of one who can only love you? Oh! be determined at once to give your whole heart to God, and let nothing shake or alter that resolution. You need have no fears of regretting it. Do not be vain and thoughtless, but sober minded; and let me entreat you all to love the whole remnant of our once great family. Try and build up again your broken walls, and to make the utmost of every stone that is left. Nothing can so tend to make life a blessing as the consciousness that your life and example bless and leave you the stronger. Still, it is ground of the utmost comfort to my mind to know that so many of you as have had the opportunity have given some proof of your fidelity to the great family of men. Be faithful unto death; from the exercise of habitual love to man it cannot be very hard to learn to love his Maker.

I must yet insert the reason for my firm belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible, notwithstanding I am perhaps naturally skeptical, certainly not credulous. I wish all to consider it most thoroughly when you read that blessed book, and see whether you cannot discover such evidence yourselves. It is the purity of heart filling our minds as well as work and actions, which is everywhere insisted on, that distinguishes it from all the other teachings, that commends it to my conscience. Whether my heart be willing and obedient or not, the inducement that it hold. out is another reason of my convictions of its truth and genuineness; but I do not here omit this my last argument on the Bible that eternal life is what my soul is punting after this moment. I mention this as a reason for endeavoring to leave a valuable copy of the Bible to be carefully preserved in remembrance of me, to see many of my posterity, instead of some other book equal cost.

I beseech you all to live in habitual contentment with moderate circumstances and gains of worldly store, and earnestly to teach this to your children and children's children after you, by example as well as precept. Be determined to know by experience, as soon as may be, whether Bible instruction is of divine origin or not. Be sure to owe no man anything, but to love one another. John Rogers wrote to his children, "Abhor that arrant whore of Rome." John Brown writes to his children to abhor, with undying hatred also, that sum of all villainies--Slavery. Remember, he that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth in spirit than he that taketh a city. Remember, also, that they, being wise, shall shine, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever.

And now, dearly beloved family, to God and the work of His Grace I commend you all.

Your affectionate husband and father,
John Brown

Trial of John Brown