Tuesday, September 30, 2014

For sale: Hanging site of John Brown in Charles Town, W.Va.

John Brown was hanged in what now is the yard of this Victorian mansion in Charles Town, W.Va.
                Click on image for full-screen interactive panorama of Brown hanging site.

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The sky was overcast and a "gentle haze" hung in the air as an impressive trio of characters gathered in a large vacant field at high noon on a late fall day in Charles Town, Va.

Professor Thomas J. Jackson, who two years later would be better known as Confederate General "Stonewall" Jackson, was among the crowd of 1,500, mostly military men and cadets. So, too, was a famous actor, John Wilkes Booth, who would become infamous six years later for shooting the President of the United States in the back of the head with a Deringer pistol. John Brown, the fiery 59-year-old abolitionist leader, also was in attendance on Dec. 2, 1859, but not of his own volition.

John Brown, about 1856.
One month after he was convicted for treason for an ill-fated raid on the Federal arsensal at Harpers Ferry, Va., Brown was there for only one reason: his execution by hanging.

Jackson wrote that Brown, who wore carpet slippers, white socks, black pants, a black frock coat and vest and a black slouch hat, "behaved with unflinching firmness." His hands tied behind him, Brown ascended the gallows with "apparent cheerfulness," according to the professor, who was "much impressed with the thought that before me stood a man, in the full vigor of health, who must in a few minutes be in eternity." Another witness, John L. Preston, a founder of Virginia Military Institute, described the somber scene as well as the final moments of the Connecticut-born Brown's life after his body dropped from the gallows:

"There was profound stillness during the time his struggles continued, growing feebler and feebler at each abortive attempt to breathe. He knees were scarcely bent, his arms were drawn up to a right angle at the elbow, with the hands clenched; but there was no writhing of the body, no violent heaving of the chest. At each feebler effort at respiration his arms sank lower, and his legs hung more relaxed, until at last, straight and lank he dangled, swayed to and fro by the wind.
"It was a moment of deep solemnity, and suggestive of thoughts that make the bosom swell. The field of execution was a rising ground, and commanded the outstretching valley from mountain to mountain, and their still grandeur gave sublimity to the outline, while it so chanced that white clouds resting upon them, gave them the appearance that reminded more than one of us of the snow peaks of the Alps."
Today, the vacant field where Brown was hanged has changed greatly. Large, old impressive houses dominate the tree-lined street, just blocks from the still-active Jefferson County Courthouse where Brown was convicted. The site of the gallows where Booth and Jackson watched Brown stand "upright as a soldier in position" before his execution is in the yard of a 7,000-square foot Victorian mansion that's now on the market. Asking price: $749,000.

The five-bedroom, 6 1/2-bath home at 515 South Samuel was built in 1891 by John Gibson, who 32 years earlier had commanded troops who battled Brown and his band of escaped slaves and renegades at Harpers Ferry. On the National Register of Historic Places, the red-brick house features Tiffany windows, Waterford chandeliers, French-laid fireplaces, a gourmet kitchen, a roof deck, a 9-foot claw foot tub and rooms with 19-foot ceilings, according to a real estate flyer. The one-acre property also includes an ornamental wrought-iron fence, a barn, in-ground pool and a gazebo.

There's no mention if the ghost of John Brown, whose body the wind blew to and fro after his hanging, lingers on the property.

A section of  the ornamental fence that surrounds the area where Brown was hanged.
Abolitionist leader John Brown was convicted of treason at Jefferson County Courthouse in
Charles Town, Va.  (now West Virginia) on Nov. 2, 1859. The courthouse is still in use.

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  1. I found this very interesting, thanks for posting about it.

  2. I lived in Charles own for 2 years, 1967 and 1968, went to Charles Town Jr. High School where my classmates would tell me they didn't hang him from the gallows but right in the court house. Of course, back then there was a whole lot of prejudice and there were eventful times, especially after MLK was assassinated. A lot of istory there though and it was a beautiful town.

  3. Seems to me unjust when none of the Rebel leaders hung for the same crime