John Wilkes Booth Witnesses the Hanging of John Brown

John Brown in 1859

On November 2nd, 1859, abolitionist John Brown was sentenced to be hanged for treason, murder, and fomenting insurrection for leading a small band of men in an attempt in October to seize the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) , arm nearby slaves, and lead a slave rebellion. In the wake of the incident, emotions were running high throughout the nation. Brown was a well known, controversial figure both north and south. While he had support from many northern abolitionists, some did not agree with his use of violence. He was generally reviled in the south for his support of slave insurrections against the slave owners.

Brown had been imprisoned and tried in nearby Charles Town following his capture. He was sentenced to be hanged on December 2nd, and it was thought that large numbers of supporters might descend on Charles Town and free Brown before he was executed. In an effort to prevent this, a large military force was assembled and deployed in the Charles Town area. This force included both U.S. troops and members of various local Virginia militias.

One of the Virginia militias called up for this was the Richmond Grays, based in Virginia’s capitol city. In late November, the Grays were preparing to take the train to Charles Town, when an interested onlooker asked if he could join them. John Wilkes Booth, a popular actor who was rehearsing for a play in a

The Last Moments of John Brown by Thomas Hovenden

Richmond theater, happened to see the Grays while he took a break from rehearsals. A uniform was found for Booth, and he became a short term member of the militia, departing for Charles Town with the rest of the Grays.

On December 2nd, Booth was in the crowd of soldiers who watched as Brown was led to the gallows and hanged. No masses of supporters arrived to save him, and Brown himself believed his death would aid the cause of freeing the slaves. Though he was ardently pro slavery, Booth still had admiration for John Brown, later telling his sister Asia Booth Clarke that Brown was a “brave old man” and that “his heart must have been broken when he felt himself deserted” and no one had come to rescue him.

John Brown on his way to be executed by hanging

Following the execution of Brown, the Grays returned to Richmond. Booth’s brief military career, such as it was, ended and he returned to the theater and his profession as an actor. But Brown’s raid further polarized a nation split on the issue of slavery, and helped propel it toward secession by the slave states beginning a year later, and Civil War in April 1861. For his part, John Wilkes Booth would remain a civilian and acclaimed actor, and become a strong, supporter of the Confederacy culminating with his assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Sources:

American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family: Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth by Gene Smith

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson

John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir by Asia Booth Clarke

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