John Brown Bell

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Created by Marlborough Historical Society member Joan Abshire after months of exhaustive research in Massachusetts and West Virginia.More background information is here:


The John Brown BellThe journey of the second-most important bell in American history, from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to Marlborough Massachusetts

researched by Joan Abshire

Copyright 2008 Joan Abshire


The John Brown Bell

PrefaceThis story is from a presentation given at the Marlborough Historical Society on 26 February 2008. In the course of my research, I had accumulated quite a bit of information from many sources: people, books, magazines, newspapers, and the Internet there is a bibliography at the end. But I thought it would be helpful to visit the place where the bell came from, so I took a trip to Harpers Ferry and Charleston, WV, and on the way back stopped in Williamsport, MD. In the end I had much more information than I could possibly use in one evening, so I put together as much as I could of what I felt was the most interesting, or necessary to fully understand the story. I saw it in my mind as a spider web, with people and events scattered about, some connected to each other here and there, but all leading to the bell at the center. If anyone who reads this narrative has any information about the bell that they would like to share I would be very glad to have it. You are welcome to copy any portion of the story, including photos. I only ask that if you use a photo that isnt one of mine, please provide credit information. A few photos have unidentified sources. In those cases, either there were none available, or I could not remember where they came from. I welcome all questions, comments, photos and information. Joan Hartley Abshire 12 March 2008

from a Middlesex News article dated October 22, The John Brown Bell iii



his story begins with the inventor, Eli Whitney. He was born in Westborough, MA in 1765 and graduated from Yale University in 1792. But he couldnt seem to find a job which suited his particular talents, so he journeyed to South Carolina to fill a position as a tutor. When that didnt work out for him, he was befriended by Mrs. Nathaniel Greene, widow of the Revolutionary General. She had met Eli on his trip south. He was invited to her plantation in Georgia to read law and assist her manager, Phineas Miller, who later became his friend and partner. The only type of cotton that would grow in that area had sticky green seeds that were difficult and time consuming to remove by hand. I did a search online for green seed cotton and came up with this photo. Whether it was Elis own idea, or someone elses suggestion, he decided to make a machine that would remove the seeds, and in a very short time had a working model. I wont go into the troubles he had with his design being pirated before it was even patented, etc., as thats a whole story in itself. I only mention the cotton engine, or gin, as it was called, because it set the stage for what was to come later. The cotton gin was successful beyond anyones imagining and had a tremendous impact on the course of American history. In the 1790s, before its invention, slavery had actually started to decline. Tobacco had depleted the soil, and the green seed cotton wasnt profitable. Without a

Eli Whitney Museum

Eli Whitney


cotton - before and after


The John Brown Bell

cash crop large numbers of slaves were no longer necessary, or economical, and some farmers actually began freeing them. But the advent of the cotton gin changed everything. Instead of needing fewer slaves, now they needed more. From 1790 until 1808, when

the importation of slaves was banned, 80,000 Africans were imported. By 1860, the south was growing three quarters of the worlds supply of cotton, and the number of slave states had increased from six to sixteen.

Kean Collection/Getty Images

Cotton Gin

The John Brown Bell




he expansion of slave states eventually led to the trouble in Kansas where John Brown, later known as Osawatomie Brown, came to prominence. John Brown, son of Owen & Ruth Mills Brown, was born in 1800, in Torrington, a little town in western Connecticut, about midway between Hartford and the New York border. His ancestors in this country go back to Peter Brown, who was among the pilgrims who came on the Mayflower, and both of his grandfathers served in the Revolution. When he was five, the family moved to what is now northeastern Ohio, but was then a wilderness filled with wild animals and Indians. Once there, he adapted quickly to his new life and by the time he was twelve he thought nothing of being sent off alone, at times more than a hundred miles, with cattle which his father was furnishing for the troops, because we were at war with England. On one of these trips he stayed for a short time with a U.S. Marshall who had a slave boy about his age who had been kind to him. The Marshall was very good to John. He had him to dinner with his friends and praised him for bringing the cattle such a distance by himself; while the negro boy was badly clothed, poorly fed, lodged in cold weather, and beaten with iron shovels or whatever came to hand.

Unidentified Source

John Brown

Unidentified Source

Birthplace of John Brown


The John Brown Bell

Johns father was a Calvinist and a dedicated abolitionist, so its probably safe to assume that he was raised in an atmosphere that promoted equality among the races. But theres a big difference between being taught that slavery is wrong and actually witnessing first hand the cruelty of it. This experience planted the seeds of his life-long commitment to end it. John, over the course of his lifetime, was a tanner, surveyor, sheep drover, wool merchant, farmer and land speculator. Some of these occupations seemed to work well for a while, but, whether because of the circumstances of the time or his own miscalculations, he never acquired the fortune he was seeking. Its believed that he would have used this fortune to finance his fight against slavery. In 1820 he married Dianthe Lusk, who bore him seven children before her death in 1832. The following year he married Mary Ann Day, who gave him 13 more. The family moved quite often until 1849, when they settled on a farm in North Elba, NY, near Lake Placid. Gerrit Smith, a millionaire abolitionist and member of The Secret Six, had established a black community in the area. John Brown and his family moved there to help them acclimatize and to be their advocate with the whites in the region, some of whom were taking advantage of them. But the blacks were unaccustomed to the cold and did not succeed well as farmers. Only a very few families stayed to make it their home.

Joyce M. Ranieri

John Brown monument, North Elba, NY

Library of Congress

Mary Ann Brown with two daughters

New York History Website

John Brown Farm, Historic State The John Brown Bell 5

I should explain that The Secret Six were men who supported John Brown in his efforts to abolish slavery by providing him with money and arms. Gerrit Smith, whom IveJohn Brown 1800-1859 Villard

already mentioned, was from New York, but the other five were all from Massachusetts. In 1855 John Brown joined his sons in Kansas to try to stop it from becoming another slave state. He took part in several skirmishes with pro-slavers, but his fighting was mostly defensive until May 26, 1856. On that night he led seven men, including four of his sons, to Pottawatamie Creek where they murdered five pro-slavers. The victims have been described as pro-slavery thugs who had been routinely beating, intimidating, and even killing anti-slavery activists. Why did they suddenly resort to such violence? There are several theories, but the one I believe is closest to the truth is in Evan Cartons book, Patriotic Treason. He states that Brown felt that, a few .. terrible deaths, would suffice to demonstrate to every border ruffian and pro-slavery agitator that the idol he served could not protect him and that the threats he made against others would be visited upon himself. One incident that may have helped precipitate the massacre had happened in the U.S. Senate just three days before. Senator Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery advocate from Massachusetts, was beaten severely with a cane by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks because of a speech Sumner had delivered a few days earlier as to whether Kansas should be admitted as a slave, or free, state. In that speech he had some harsh words to say about Brooks uncle. Both men were treated as heroes by their constituencies.

The Secret SixNew York Public Library

Caning in the U.S. Senate6 The John Brown Bell

was censured, resigned, and immediately re-elected. Sumner also was re-elected, although three years would pass before he was able to return to his Senate seat. John Brown may have felt that he was justified in what he did, but I just cant accept it. And its sad because there is so much about him that I admire. He believed in the equality of the whole human race. He was a religious man who lived what he preached and taught his family to do the same. He was friends with many of the black leaders of the day, including Frederick Douglass, from whom he sought advice and counsel, although he didnt always heed it, and blacks were often present at his dinner table. He was a member of the Underground Railroad for years, helping slaves escape to Canada and personally freeing and leading some of them himself. He was not some madman or wild-eyed fanatic as he h