On the run for the murders of five pro-slavery settlers in Kansas in 1856, abolitionist John Brown rented rooms in a boarding house in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania during the summer and fall of 1859 where he planned a raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. If his plan succeeded, he and his followers would collect enough guns to equip an army of slaves and incite them to rebel. If his plan failed, he would be hung.
June 2009 marks the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Who was John Brown, what did he do, why did he do it, and what was his connection to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania?
John Brown was born in 1800 to devout Calvinist parents who were vehemently opposed to slavery. A defining moment in Brown’s life came when he was twelve years old and witnessed the savage beating of a young slave. Brown married and raised a large family. In 1835, he moved his family to Hudson, Ohio so that he could be in the thick of abolitionist activity and aid fugitive slaves.
In 1837 he had a dream that he could end slavery by devoting his life to the cause. By giving speeches, gathering the support of influential blacks, and obtaining weapons for an armed revolt, he tried to accomplish his dream. In 1837, in response to the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, Brown publicly vowed: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”
Photo: PA Historic & Museum Commission
The Mary Ritner Boarding House
225 East King Street, Chambersburg
In 1854, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act put the issue of slavery in the hands of the voters of those territories. Several of Brown’s sons who had settled in the Kansas Territory worked to help defeat the “slave” vote, but in 1855 pro-slavery forces threw the vote and Kansas became a “slave” state.
Brown’s sons begged him to come to Kansas with guns, and Brown could not refuse. In May 1856, Brown, his sons, and a small band of sympathizers murdered five pro-slavery men in an event that is known as the Pottawatamie Massacre.
Brown spent the next two years on the run while gathering money and arms for his cause. In the summer of 1859, Brown came to Chambersburg. Using the assumed name of Dr. Isaac Smith, Brown occupied a bedroom in the upstairs of Mary Ritner’s Boarding House on East King Street and planned his attack on the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.
During his stay in Chambersburg, Brown met with abolitionists (shown below) including the famous anti-slavery author and lecturer Frederick Douglass. Even though Douglass was opposed to Brown’s plan to create a slave uprising, he met with Brown outside of Chambersburg in August 1859. Brown was unable to convince Douglass to join the raid on Harper’s Ferry, and Douglass fled to Canada briefly to avoid being implicated in the raid.
Brown sent the weapons that he had been stockpiling in Chambersburg to the Kennedy farm. Just over the Maryland border, the Kennedy farm was close to Harper’s Ferry and the staging point for the attack.
On Sunday evening, October 16, 1859, Brown and his supporters slipped into Harper’s Ferry. They seized the federal arsenal, killed seven men and injured about a dozen more. When news of the attack reached Richmond, the U. S. Marines rushed to Harper’s Ferry and began shooting. Brown and the few of his men who were left barricaded themselves in a small brick building and refused to surrender. Finally, a company of Marines stormed the building and captured Brown and his men.
John Brown was tried, found guilty of murder, treason and inciting a slave insurrection. He was hung, along with nine of his followers, on December 2, 1859 in Charles Town, Virginia. Church bells rang throughout the North.
John Brown’s life and death was immortalized in the song “John Brown's Body Lies A-Mouldering in the Grave.” He is buried on his farm in North Elba, New York along two of his sons who were killed at Harper’s Ferry.
Places to visit in and around Chambersburg that were associated with John Brown