Bob O’Connor / Community View

In 2009, the many locations surrounding Harpers Ferry are working to commemorate the 150th anniversary, the sesquicentennial, of the John Brown Raid, which occurred on Oct. 16, 1859.

Although I originally am from Illinois, I always was intrigued by this man, John Brown. I have read many books over a span of probably 40 years about his life, his beliefs and his actions. That interest led to the four-and-a-half year project that culminated in my writing a historical novel about the raid, trial and execution as well as the men who got away.

John Brown was before his time in many ways. He favored a formal education for all his children (he had 20), including his daughters. He frequently sat for photographs and passed them out like business cards. He was a prolific letter writer, leaving us with a paper trail of many of his ideas and ideals. Foremost among those ideas was his focused goal of ridding the country of slavery.

John Brown refused to allow his attorneys to defend him in court with the insanity plea because he needed people to hear what he was saying – and no one would listen if they thought he was crazy. He was a white man willing to give his life to free the slaves when many of the black leaders, including Frederick Douglass, were not willing to give theirs.

The raid on Harpers Ferry failed miserably, as John Brown was trapped and captured. But John Brown quickly turned the event into a public relations bonanza, hosting dozens of newspaper reporters in his jail cell in Charlestown (today called Charles Town) and giving them his views about the evils of the institution of slavery. Those views appeared in almost every newspaper in the country. Do you think a crazy man could have done that as effectively as John Brown did?

This year there are more than 60 events calling attention to many aspects of the raid, trial and execution. Those events started in April and go all the way into December. Most are in the four-state area of Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, but some are as far away as Kansas and North Elba, N.Y. I already have attended three of the events – a lecture about Dangerfield Newby, a program about John Copeland and the unveiling of a plaque honoring Albert Hazlett, all raiders of John Brown who, along with their leader, died for the cause.

While the events seem to commemorate an event so long ago, there have been interesting recent tie-ins that make the raid current. In 2006, a monument was erected by the NAACP on the campus of Storer College in Harpers Ferry. On the monument, John Brown is listed as a “heroic martyr.” In 2007, a daguerreotype (Civil War-era photograph) of John Brown was sold at auction for $97,500. In 2008, Annie Brown’s grave was found for the first time. She was John Brown’s daughter. In that same year, a 92-year-old descendant of John Brown told the family that she would like them to start recording the family’s oral history, something the family had never done.

This year’s events in the area include parades and receptions honoring the descendants of those involved with the raid, lectures, scholarly presentations, musicals, plays, a marathon (that’s 26 miles and 385 yards), interpretive walks and much more. Many of the events are free, although some require tickets and paid admissions.

This is a great opportunity to learn about the raid, which Frederick Douglass interpreted as, “If we look over the dates, places and men for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia-not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry and the arsenal-not Colonel Anderson, but John Brown, who began the war that ended American slavery.”

By this time, readers of this column are probably proudly humming “John Brown’s Body Lies a Mouldering in the Grave” without the faintest notion that the song was actually written about John Brown, a soldier from the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry from the Revolutionary War (verses were added after John Brown of the Harpers Ferry raid was hanged)!

If you and your family are interested at all in the local history that is said to have touched off the American Civil War, this is the year to find out what happened, and how the implications still are being felt today. For information about events in the four-state region, visit the Web site For information about Jefferson County events, visit the Web site

If you want to read a good book about the raid, a very informed, but unbiased, source (my mother) says the very best book ever written about John Brown was written by her son!

– Bob O’Connor lives in Jefferson County. He can be reached at [email protected].

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