WASHINGTON | He had a safe house, weapons and a mole planted among his unsuspecting victims.
He had wealthy backers, a juicy military target outside Washington and fanatical followers ready to die for their cause.
He was a religious zealot who hated what he saw as an evil and corrupt system. And 150 years ago last week, in what is now the tourist town of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., he fueled the smoldering fires of the Civil War, helped doom slavery in America and prepared the way for the civil rights movement and beyond.
He was John Brown, a 59-year-old abolitionist patriarch who sired 20 children, directed his share of the bloodletting in “Bleeding Kansas,” and hoped to start a slave insurrection that would spread from the mountains of Virginia to the plantations of the deep South.
On the drizzly Sunday night of Oct. 16, 1859, Brown led 19 armed soldiers of his “Provisional Army” from their rented farmhouse in Maryland across the covered bridge over the Potomac River to seize the huge federal arsenal and armory in Harpers Ferry, where 100,000 guns were stored.
The gang, helped by a member who had lived in the town for a year, cut telegraph wires, took hostages, seized the government complex and waited for the revolution to begin.
But militias rather than legions of fleeing slaves poured into town. Brown was surrounded in a brick firehouse, and after a 36-hour standoff, he and his men were captured.
Ten of them were killed, including two of his sons and a former slave, Dangerfield Newby, who had joined Brown to free his wife and six children from a Virginia farm 50 miles away, according to historians.
Four civilians also died. One of them, a free black railroad baggage handler named Heyward Shepherd, is thought to have been inadvertently shot by Brown’s men.
Brown’s subsequent trial was a sensation — he was a saint in the North, a demon in the South. He wrote more than a hundred letters from jail, sometimes three a day, arguing his cause. And his hanging less than two months after the standoff was one of the most celebrated executions in American history.
Before he left jail for the gallows in Charles Town, W.Va., the morning of Dec. 2, 1859, he passed a note to an attendant that read: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
The war began 17 months later.
Today, in the post-Sept. 11 world, Brown feels coldly modern, some experts say, with much of the hell-bent method and fanaticism of a 21st-century terrorist.
In 1856, he had led his fighters in an attack at Pottawatomie, Kan., in which they killed six pro-slavery men with broadswords, hacking off fingers and arms. In the South of 1859, Brown “was viewed almost the same way we would view (Osama) bin Laden,” said Brown biographer David Reynolds.
In addition, Brown was eager to be a martyr in what has been called his holy war.
“There’s no question John Brown’s meaning and reputation changed after 9/11,” said Yale historian David Blight.
Yet Brown was also a man of his own tortured time, experts say. His aim at Harpers Ferry, said National Park Service ranger Marsha Wassel, was not necessarily to spread terror but to damage slavery as part of the great moral crusade of 19th-century America.
“There are so many John Browns,” Blight said. “There are those who see John Brown as a true saint: the individual, romantic Christian hero who would risk all to destroy an evil institution and hang on the gallows for it.
“Then there are those ... who (see him as) the archvillain of American history ... the worst possible thing that can happen in a society, a person that takes all law and morality in his own hands. And his life is all wrapped around this deepest, biggest, most divisive issue we’ve ever had: slavery and race.”
John Brown was executed on Dec. 2, 1859.
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