John Brown’s Kansas still bleeds
I was at a party at my apartment complex near the University of Arkansas at Little Rock taking in what passed in the 1990s for hip-hop (anybody remember 3rd Bass?). The tunes and alcohol were a good way to unwind after a week of graduate school, but I was still a little nervous because I lived in a big city for the first time in my life and spoke with a nasal Kansas twang that made me stand out in a crowd.
Another man who also stood out in this crowd was a guy I’ll call Dwayne. His voice stood out as much as mine, in part because Dwayne seemed eager to pick a fight. While the alcohol and other intoxicants set a pretty mellow, genial mood that evening, Dwayne was set on confronting anyone who would listen with a question nobody felt eager to answer.
“You ain’t from Murphreesboro, are you?”
It’s a town of about 1,500 people in Pike County, 2.5 hours from where we were. Visitors can actually dig for diamonds for a small fee there, so it was hard to tell why Dwayne hated the place so much. Being more intoxicated than the rest of us prevented him from articulating his grievances, but he sure seemed eager to find anybody from the town so he could tangle with them.
By the time he got to me, I was thoroughly annoyed and didn’t care about his feuds.
“You ain’t from Murphreesboro, are you?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m from Kansas,” thinking it would shut him up.
“You ain’t one of them John Brown types, are you?”
Because John Brown had been dead for 130 years by then, I didn’t have any retorts or any other answer to give Dwayne. He then began to prove Lybarger’s Law: Every statement that begins with “I’m not a racist, but” ends as badly as any action that begins with “hold my beer.”
He made some statement about how he wasn’t bigoted, but fortunately further drinking finally silenced him. His question, however, still hasn’t left me.
It doesn’t seem to have left America, either.
In 2020 alone, there have been:
A new history book, The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom, by H.W. Brands. He holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin and has previously written biographies of Andrew Jackson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
A new movie, Emperor, which dramatizes the life of Brown’s comrade in arms, Shields “Emperor” Green. The movie is co-written and directed by veteran producer Mark Amin, who was also an executive at Lions Gate and is an alumnus of the University of Kansas.
And The Showtime/Blumhouse miniseries The Good Lord Bird, which features Ethan Hawke, who also co-wrote the pilot and produced the series, as Brown. It’s based on James McBride’s National Book Award-winning 2013 novel. Like the book, it takes a comic angle on Brown’s life.
Before that, Brown’s angry face greeted visitors to the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka on John Steuart Curry’s mural “Tragic Prelude.” That same image even graced the cover of the band Kansas’ first album. Osawatomie, which was his base of operations for a year and a half, has his image all over the town.
Both Orson Welles and Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca and Mildred Pierce, have recounted his life, and Arkansas’ Johnny Cash played him in a miniseries. As the song “John Brown’s Body” declared “his truth is marching on,” even if he isn’t.
Making Kansas Bleed
You might wonder why Dwayne dreaded John Brown while my mother was honored as a John Brown Queen in Osawatomie during their once annual John Brown Jamboree. One of my Dad’s ancestors fought for the Union in the Civil War, but some of my mother’s forebearers owned slaves and supported the Confederacy. They would have been horrified to have a descendant who knowingly or not kept a violent abolitionist’s memory alive.
Before the first shots were fired on Ft. Sumter that started the Civil War, Brown participated in a very hot war that took place before Kansas even joined the Union in 1860. Brown, who originally hailed from Connecticut and later upstate New York, moved to what’s now eastern Kansas in 1855, following five of his 20 children here. Brown had tried a series of professions: tanning leather, surveying, land speculating, farming, all of which left him cash strapped and in debt. At 42, he’d declared bankruptcy and was a party in two dozen lawsuits.
As Grady Atwater, the curator for the Adair Cabin Museum in Osawatomie explains, “His sons had come out to Kansas Territory for two reasons: to make a new start and to make sure that Kansas would come into the Union as a free state.”
U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas from Illinois had championed the cause of popular sovereignty, which meant that the people in the territories about to become states should decide for themselves whether to allow slavery on their land. The idea of settling the issue democratically sounded both practical and benign.
“It was one of those plans that sounded great in Stephen Douglas’ office,” explains Atwater. “What he didn’t count on was the reality of life on the frontier. Anybody who lived out here would have known that is not going to work out here.”
People eager to influence the outcome of Kansas’ eventual decision flooded into the territory. Brown and his party came with a rifle and pistol. When pro-slavery forces sacked the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence in May of 1856, Brown and his men drug five men out of their homes and hacked them to death near Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County.
The incident is recalled in terrifying detail in The Good Lord Bird, but Atwater points out there are crucial differences between Ethan Hawke’s attack and Brown’s. It’s important to remember that Brown and the forces he fought were not professional troops, which ironically made the violence more grotesque than what trained soldiers do.
“James McBride made a much better effort (than his predecessors) to be historically accurate. But when he did Pottawatomie, John Brown did not cut off anybody’s heads. What happened was that John Brown’s men did not know how to use swords. They threw the (pro-slavery) men to the ground, and those men did what you or I would do, they threw their arms up, which was a reflex, that’s where you got the chopped off arms,” says Atwater.
A month later, his militia fought in the Battle of Black Jack, where Brown’s forces captured pro-slavery leader Henry Pate after Pate’s men had captured two of Brown’s sons. Osawatomie itself was a battle site on August 30, when pro-slavery militia leader Rev. Martin White killed Brown’s son Frederick. Brown and 40 men managed to hold off an attack long enough to escape. When Brown’s troops left, General John Reid’s more numerous forces practically burned the town to the ground.
A park where I played as a child now sits on the site of that battle, and it includes a bronze statue of Brown that was forged in the same French foundry where the Statue of Liberty was constructed.
The territory was known as “Bleeding Kansas,” but the fight eventually went the free staters’ way. Brown and other free-staters scared off pro-slavery immigrants. In a phone conversation from Austin, Brands explains, “If John Brown committed those acts today, he’d probably be labeled a ‘terrorist.’ It’s a textbook definition of terrorism. It’s an act of violence committed against unoffending people, people who’d done John Brown no harm. They posed no threat to him to make a political statement. The statement was ‘This could happen to you, pro-slavery immigrants to Kansas, if you insist on coming.’”
That said, Brown could be surprising in his restraint. He once came upon White, who fought for both sides during Bleeding Kansas, and left him alone.
“Sometime later, John Brown and his men were in Missouri, and they came across Martin White, just sitting outside reading a book,” says Kerry Altenbernd by phone from Lawrence. He gives presentations as John Brown.
“What (Brown’s men) intended to do was kill him in revenge for Frederick, but Brown turned to them, and his son Watson who had specifically come to Kansas to kill Martin White, and said, ‘I can’t. This is not about revenge. What we do here is for a principle, and that principle is the restoration of human rights.” This incident shows up in the novel of The Good Lord Bird but not the series.
Another factor in the abolitionists’ favor was Kansas itself. Cotton, rice, and other crops that prospered on slave labor didn’t grow well here.
“Much of where slavery took hold is an artifact of the crops that slaves were used to grow,” says Brands.
“Slavery never really caught on with industrial enterprise. It’s a principal reason that the North abandoned slavery in the early 19th century. The northern economy was already evolving. In industry, you need a flexible labor force, you can’t be supporting people when business declines. You need to be able to lay people off,” says Brands.
“Tobacco was wearing out the fields of the Atlantic coast. In the 1790s, most people thought that slavery was on its way out. It was becoming unprofitable in those states.”
“He wanted to go up into the mountains of Maryland and create this army, and the army would go down and raid into the South, free Blacks, send them north on the Underground Railroad, cause enough trouble and disrupt the economy of slavery that it would be useless,” Altenbernd says.
Brown left Kansas and embarked on the act that both defined and ended his life. Because he traveled under assumed names and photographs of him were not readily available, he spoke to abolitionist groups in the North as part of a plan to take over the nation’s largest armory at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia (now West Virginia). With the rifles stored there, Brown hoped to lead a slave rebellion across the state.
In 1859, Brown’s force of 16 white and seven Black abolitionists overtook the lightly guarded armory. The legions of slaves Brown hoped to liberate didn’t arrive. Instead, state militias and federal troops led by then-Col. Robert E. Lee wounded and captured Brown.
Leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass correctly determined that the mission wouldn’t work, and it’s hard to imagine Brown and company could have notified the people they hoped to liberate that help was on the way. Instant messaging wasn’t available when the telegraph was becoming part of everyday life in America.
“He did OK in Kansas because the people he was fighting against didn’t know anything more about military affairs than he did,” says Brands.
“But anybody should have been able to see that Harper’s Ferry is really easy to get into, at least if you come in by surprise, but it’s really hard to get out of once the state militia had been alerted because it’s at the bottom of a steep canyon where the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers come together. All you have to do is block a couple of roads, and the people who are in there are stuck, and that’s exactly what happened to them.”
McBride’s comic angle makes sense in this context, but Altenbernd notes that Brown was more unlucky than crazy.
“He wanted to go up into the mountains of Maryland and create this army, and the army would go down and raid into the South, free Blacks, send them north on the Underground Railroad, cause enough trouble and disrupt the economy of slavery that it would be useless,” he says.
Brown and his men cut the telegraph lines, which slowed down reinforcements from the militia and the federal troops. A shooting before the raid on a railroad bridge ended up summoning the people Brown hoped to avoid fighting. The trains kept moving, and fresh troops eventually arrived.
“I always like to say they got in, and they got the guns,” says Mitch Brian, who teamed with Oscar-winner and fellow Kansan Kevin Willmott (BlacKkKlansman) for the screenplay Shields Green and the Gospel of John Brown, which 20th Century Fox and director Chris Columbus (Home Alone) purchased but never filmed. Brian has also written episodes of Batman: The Animated Series and currently teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“Maybe if they hadn’t shot that [porter, Hayward Shepherd], maybe they would have been able to slip in and slip out.” Sadly, Shepherd was a free Black man.
Brown ended up losing ten men including two of his sons, but his statement at his sentencing later rallied other abolitionists to treat him as a martyr after his execution on December 2.
Brown said, “Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worth of reward rather than punishment.”
“It would be in vain to kill him,” Henry David Thoreau wrote before then. “Prominent and influential editors, accustomed to deal with politicians, men of an infinitely lower grade, say, in their ignorance, that he acted ‘on the principle of revenge.’ They do not know the man. They must enlarge themselves to conceive of him. I have no doubt that the time will come when they will begin to see him as he was.”
Thoreau may have written several things that are standard coursework in English classes, but his appeal didn’t stop Brown from hanging on December 2. On the day Brown died, French novelist Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) foretold in the London News, “Viewed in a political light, the murder of Brown would be an irreparable fault. It would penetrate the Union with a gaping fissure which would lead in the end to its entire disruption.” The Civil War soon followed.
Somehow John Brown has still managed to disturb people like Dwayne and inspire people like Hugo. Perhaps the reason he’s left an impression despite his brief 59 years is because he’s not an easy person to understand.
Krewasky A. Salter, a retired United States Army Colonel, and military historian, is the Executive Director of the First Division Museum and was the Inaugural (Guest) Associate Curator of Military History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He says, “When you think about a figure and you think about race in America and people who have battled against racism and the way a particular people are treated, John Brown, I think, is still an enigma in many people’s minds. I think a lot of people are struggling with the enigma that he is. Was he misguided and reckless in the way he operated in the 1850s and certainly in Bleeding Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, or was he focused and a visionary? I think those are two of the reasons people are still writing and talking about John Brown today. As I observe the polarized political environment we live in today, it seems to me that many who have extreme opposing political (and some personal) points of view consider the others ‘reckless’ and those they agree with ‘visionary’, though many don’t say it out loud. America has experienced many polarizing periods, but the two I see at the top of my list are the 2010s and the 1850s. I think we as Americans should ponder that distinction.”
“I think he means more to Kansans than he does to people elsewhere in the country,” adds Brands. “Events proved that John Brown was on the right side of history. He got there first. If you believe, as pretty much everybody does that slavery was wrong and needed to be ended. John Brown realized that before most of the people of his time did. Not only that, but he had the courage of his convictions to take action to give his life to the cause.
“Brown is also interesting in that he’s a liar. He said that his family came over on the Mayflower. He was bullshitting everybody as well. You never knew where the performance ended and the real person began.”
“On the other hand, he’s a troubling individual because he did some things that nobody should countenance. He committed brutal acts of murder in Kansas. He tried to start a war in Virginia.”
Atwater adds that Brown sticks out because many of his abolitionist peers seemed unwilling to end the bondage of nearly four million Americans. If Harper’s Ferry didn’t lead to a massive revolt, the legislative process moved slowly and often ineffectively, too. Slavery was costly and cruel, but it was also big business.
“The British Empire had basically made it illegal. The United States was one of the few first world countries that still practiced it,” says Atwater.
“The moderates have gone kapoof and disappeared from history. There were moderates working on a way to end it. One of the great problems was that there were millions upon millions of dollars invested in slave property. I hate to talk about people as property, but that’s what they were by law. People in the government were trying to find ways to reimburse them. People were coming up with gradual emancipation, which was maybe in 25 years, so that slave holders can start hiring people.”
One question that still troubles me is that both sides of the dispute over slavery used the Bible as the basis for their views. It’s a thick book, but the certainty that both sides had seems baffling when each thinks it has the right to kill. McBride describes the dilemma eloquently when his protagonist Little Onion laments, “[Brown] was like everybody in war. He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who he’s for.”
Brian adds, “Brown is also interesting in that he’s a liar. He said that his family came over on the Mayflower. He was bullshitting everybody as well. You never knew where the performance ended and the real person began.”
By the Books
Perhaps all of these contradictions explain why the size of most books dealing with him are understandably enormous. Russel Banks’ novel Cloudsplitter runs 758 pages, and The Good Lord Bird runs 458. The historical Brown also takes up about half of The Zealot and the Emancipator’s 400-plus pages. I have a “What Would John Brown Do” T-shirt, but that’s not enough space to do justice to the questions he raises.
Maybe that’s why Hugo did more than simply pen an editorial. Atwater explains, “If you go to the back room there, we have a copper coin that was minted and given to the City of Osawatomie for its role in John Brown’s struggle by the government of France, headed by Victor Hugo. There was a gold one that they gave to the widow of John Brown with the instruction that she sell it because she was starving and didn’t have enough to eat.”
If Brown led Hugo to do worthwhile things, it’s striking how Brown has been the subject of a lot of mediocre history, literature and entertainment.
Altenbernd is not a fan of The Good Lord Bird or many of the other attempts to turn Brown’s life into films or TV shows. “I didn’t want some fictional fact to stick in my head and come out my mouth some time,” he laughs. “(Audiences) have to be careful which one they read because there’s a lot of books out there that just pillory John Brown.” He recommends John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds and “Fire From the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown by Louis De Caro, Jr..
Santa Fe Trail
Film and television have had a checkered history with depicting Brown, in part because his story is a little too demanding for a 90-minute running time. Adding commercials probably doesn’t help, either. One of the better known films is Michael Curtiz’s 1940 western Santa Fe Trail. The historians I spoke with hated the film because it plays like an episode of Drunk History that included a chaser of Ecstacy and LSD.
According to the movie, future Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) and his friend George A. Custer (Ronald Reagan, yes, that Ronald Reagan) are in a pursuit to stop Brown (Raymond Massey) from agitating slaves who’d rather be living in bondage in Texas so that a rail line can start through the mountainous Sunflower State.
While it is mildly interesting to know how the company that later became BNSF started, it seems less urgent than the war over slavery in Kansas. Brown was gone by the time the railroad was chartered in 1859, so the urgency isn’t there.
While there are some well-staged gun battles, the entertainment value in the movie is nil. Flynn leaves less of an impression as the flamboyant soldier than Wyatt Russell did in The Good Lord Bird, and he’s the lead. It’s also impossible to care if Stuart and Custer, who didn’t come to Kansas until many years later, win the heart of a fictitious woman (Olivia Da Havilland) . The comedy relief isn’t funny, and nobody in the cast knows how to pronounce “Osawatomie.” The name is derived from Osage and Pottawatomie creeks, so the “O” is rounded.
Oh, and there are lots of mountains. Massey plays Brown as a bug-eyed maniac, and strangely he’s about the only interesting thing is this misbegotten film. Hearing slaves wanting to return to bondage seems downright eerie. Willmott teaches the movie in his classes at KU but thankfully not as an example of good filmmaking.
Seven Angry Men
Massey later played Brown on stage and reprised the role in a 1955 B-movie western that gets more of the history right (that’s not saying much). Like Santa Fe Trail, it has the mountains, and it also suffers from its lower budget. Jeffrey Hunter stars as Brown’s son Owen (who’s also the protagonist in Cloudsplitter), but you’d never know he’d become a star in The Searchers from watching him here. It’s hard not to burst into laughter when he declares to his fictional girlfriend, ““I came to Kansas to fight a crusade. I didn’t expect to fall in love.”
She laments, “You’ve killed, and I love you.” These lines might have worked in a standard oater, but they sound rather silly in a historical adaptation.
Seven Angry Men had its world premiere in Osawatomie, and my relatives who saw it in the theater there still giggle when they recall Massey, after descending a high peak in his wagon, declaring, “There is, Awww-so-watomie.”
When my family saw the movie later, the entire theater roared with derisive giggles. My uncle John Craig, who grew up there says curtly, “I wasn’t happy about it.” Massey played the role three times and never learned how to say the town’s name.
To his credit, Massey played the role with far more dignity than in his previous outing, but the rest of the movie feels pedestrian and dull.
Shields Green and the Gospel of John Brown would have been told from the point of view of escaped slave Shields “Emperor” Green, who fought with Brown at Harper’s Ferry. Mark Amin’s Emperor, which opened earlier this year and is now streaming on Starz, concentrates mostly on Green’s escape.
Green is an ideal person to feature in a factionalized account because the documentation on him is relatively thin. Brian recalls that he and Willmott wanted to transcend clichés.
“We wanted to make a movie about slavery where you didn’t whip anybody and you didn’t have dogs chasing somebody in the swamps.”
If you’re worrying about missing those dogs, don’t.
Amin includes them and other familiar tropes. Thankfully, his story about Green (Dayo Okeniyi) struggling for freedom and trying to defend his son seems infinitely more gripping than the fate of a railroad that started long after Brown left Kansas. Okeniyi gives a solid performance as Green, while James Cromwell depicts Brown as warmly paternal. One wishes, however, he had not followed in Massey’s footsteps in pronouncing the name of Brown’s Kansas hometown.
That said, I was curious if Amin’s time in Kansas had any impact on the movie he made. In an e-mail, he said, “As I was researching the life of John Brown, I came across the episode in his life where he moved to eastern Kansas to campaign against the legalization of slavery in Kansas. I read about his battles in Lawrence where he fought the proslavery campaigners and forced them to flee back to the south, resulting in Kansas voting against the legalization of slavery. Having lived in Lawrence for my undergrad college years that really piqued my interest. That is why I give a shout out to Lawrence, Kansas in the film.”
The Small Screen
Some of the more interesting stuff I’ve found on Brown has been on YouTube. There are stirring clips of Orson Welles and David Strathairn reading Brown’s final statement. Welles even co-wrote a play about Brown called Marching Song before directing an all-Black cast in a production of Macbeth. The play feels a little thin, but Welles wrote better at 17 than the screenwriter of Seven Angry Men did as an adult.
Because the Civil War miniseries The Blue and the Gray (1982) isn’t available for streaming, I can’t judge how they deal with Brown in detail, but there are clips of scenes where Brown makes a cameo. Sterling Hayden plays him in a solemn manner. Considering the fact that Hayden played the mad general in Dr. Strangelove, it might have been more entertaining and relevant to see Hayden get in touch with his inner loon.
North & South (1985-1986) features Arkansas’ Johnny Cash in the role, and that’s strangely appropriate. Cash oozes gravitas from every pore, and his activism on behalf of Native Americans makes him a good spiritual successor. He doesn’t have to say or do much. The Man in Black simply has to be himself.
Because The Good Lord Bird runs seven episodes, there is time to explore the contradictions and complexities that make Brown endlessly fascinating. Hawke isn’t as physically commanding as Massey or Hayden, but he is engrossing because he can change his demeanor in milliseconds. At one moment, he’s thoughtful. In another, he’s warm and avuncular before instantly burning with rage. He also gets points for being the first actor to pronounce “Osawatomie” correctly.
The story is viewed from Henry “Little Onion” Shakleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), an orphaned slave who just happens to be wherever Brown is during the 1850s. Oh, and Brown mistakes him for a girl, so Onion has to pose as one to avoid getting into more trouble than he’s already facing. Brown traveled alone or with different groups of people. While the tone is comic, the series never loses sight of the tragedies that inspired Brown’s missions and that followed him throughout his life.
Australian Kate Woods, who directed the episode that dealt with Harper’s Ferry recalls by phone, “Ethan and I talked about some of that earlier before it got out hand and nasty. It was almost like he was the host of a party, trying to make everybody feel welcome even though he was taking hostages, even though people were terrified and no one knew what was going on. Brown was trying to be generous to all, which I felt was an interesting way of looking at the takeover of Harper’s Ferry.”
As a result, the eventual deaths of Brown’s sons and his own later hanging seem more tragic.
One other reason I had an easier time getting through Emperor and The Good Lord Bird is that neither featured Black people as bystanders in the struggle to end slavery. The latter featured Black people behind the camera as well as in front of it. As a result, the Black characters seem like three-dimensional people in a way they didn’t in the older films.
“I’m about done with the historical depiction of Black women being big, fat mommas who are saying, ‘You’re going to be special, boy,’” McBride said in a talk at Books & Books on YouTube. “Aren’t Black women shy, too? Don’t some of them read science books? Some of them are allergic to asparagus and don’t eat peanuts.”
Having spent the last few months digging through Brown’s life and the legend that has been built around it, I think I can now answer Dwayne’s question. I drink Free State beer (Brown disapproved of alcohol). My church attendance is non-existent, and I don’t keep weapons around my apartment. Nonetheless, I think I am a John Brown type because I can’t stop reading or writing about him.
Brown demonstrates that the issues that have inspired Black Lives Matter and this summer’s protests are neither new nor going away. While he might have been guided by forces other than Divine judgement, the issues he combatted still require action, and the solutions aren’t easy. One of the things that continues to make America great is that our founders understood that they wouldn’t always get things right. That’s why we can amend the Constitution, and the document itself says it was written to form a “more perfect union.”
Patriotism is an ongoing exercise and longing for a glorious past that never existed is the opposite of what Brown and the folks who wrote the Constitution wanted. I’ve reached my deadline, and I’m still devouring books on Brown, and so are Atwater and Altenbernd even though they are already experts. Brown’s truth is marching on, and so should we.