John Brown's Interview in the Charlestown (or Charles Town) Prison
October 18, 1859
Senator Mason. Can you tell us who furnished money for your expedition?
John Brown: I furnished most of it myself: I cannot implicate others. It is by my own folly that I have been taken. I could easily have saved myself from it, had I exercised my own better judgment rather than yielded to my feelings.
Mason. You mean if you had escaped immediately?
Brown: No. I had the means to make myself secure without any escape; but I allowed myself to be surrounded by a force by being too tardy. I should have gone away; but I had thirty odd prisoners, whose wives and daughters were in tears for their safety, and I felt for them. Besides, I wanted to allay the fears of those who believed we came here to burn and kill. For this reason I allowed the train to cross the bridge, and gave them full liberty to pass on. I did it only to spare the feelings of those passengers and their families, and to allay the apprehensions that you had got here in your vicinity a band of men who had no regard for life and property, nor any feelings of humanity.
Mason. But you killed some people passing along the streets quietly.
Brown: Well, sir, if there was anything of that kind done, it was without my knowledge. Your own citizens who where my prisoners will tell you that every possible means was taken to prevent it. I did not allow my men to fire when there was danger of killing those we regarded as innocent persons, if I could help it. They will tell you that we allowed ourselves to be fired at repeatedly, and did not return it.
A Bystander: That is not so. You killed an unarmed man at the comer of the house over there at the water-tank, and another besides.
Brown: See here, my friend; it is useless to dispute or contradict the report of your own neighbors who were my prisoners.
Mason. If you would tell us who sent you here,-who provided the means, that would be information of some value.
Brown: I will answer freely and faithfully about what concerns myself,-I will answer anything I can with honor,-but not about others.
Mr. Vallandigham :( who had just entered). Mr. Brown, who sent you here?
Brown: No man sent me here; it was my own prompting and that of my Maker, or that of the Devil,-whichever you please to ascribe it to. I acknowledge no master in human form.
Vallandigham: Did you get up the expedition yourself?
Brown: I did.
Vallandigham: Did you get up this document that is called a Constitution?
Brown: I did. They are a constitution and ordinances of my own contriving and getting up.
Vallandigham: How long have you been engaged in this business?
Brown: From the breaking out of the difficulties in Kansas. Four of my sons had gone there to settle, but because of the difficulties.
Mason. How many are there engaged with you in this movement?
Brown: Any questions that I can honorably answer I will,-not otherwise. So far as I am myself concerned, I have told everything truthfully. I value my word, sir.
Mason. What was your object in coming?
Brown: We came to free the slaves, and only that.
A Volunteer: How many men, in all, had you?
Brown: I came to Virginia with eighteen men only, besides myself.
Volunteer. What in the world did you suppose you could do here in Virginia with that amount of men?
Brown: Young man, I do not wish to discuss that question here.
Volunteer. You could not do anything.
Brown: Well, perhaps your ideas and mine on military subjects would differ materially.
Mason. How do you justify your acts?
Brown: I think, my friend, you are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity,-I say it without wishing to be offensive,-and it would be perfectly right for anyone to interfere with you so far as to free those you wilfully and wickedly hold in bondage. I do not say this insultingly.
Mason. I understand that.
Brown: I think I did right, and that others will do right who interfere with you at any time and at all times. I hold that the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as ye would that others should do unto you," applies to all who would help others to gain their liberty.
Lieutenant Stuart. But don't you believe in the Bible?
Brown: Certainly I do.
Mason. Did you consider this a military organization in this Constitution? I have not yet read it.
Brown: I did, in some sense. I wish you would give that paper close attention.
Mason. You consider yourself the commander-in-chief of these "provisional" military forces?
Brown: I was chosen, agreeably to the ordinance of a certain document, commander-in-chief of that force.
Mason. What wages did you offer?
Stuart. "The wages of sin is death."
Brown: I would not have made such a remark to you if you had been a prisoner, and wounded, in my hands.
A Bystande:. Did you not promise a Negro in Gettysburg twenty dollars a month?
Brown: I did not.
Mason. Does this talking annoy you?
Brown: Not in the least.
Vallandigham: Have you lived long in Ohio?
Brown: I went there in 1805. I lived in Summit County, which was then Portage County. My native place is Connecticut; my father lived there till 1805.
Vallandigham: Have you been in Portage County lately?
Brown: I was there in June last.
Vallandingham: When in Cleveland, did you attend the Fugitive Slave Law Convention there?
Brown: No. I was there about the time of the sitting of the court to try the Oberlin rescuers. I spoke there publicly on that subject; on the Fugitive Slave Law and my own rescue. Of course, so far as I had any influence at all, I was supposed to justify the Oberlin people for rescuing a slave, because I have myself forcibly taken slaves from bondage. I was concerned in taking eleven slaves from Missouri to Canada last winter. I think I spoke in Cleveland before the Convention. I do not know that I had conversation with any of the Oberlin rescuers. I was sick part of the time I was in Ohio with the ague, in Ashtuba County.
Vallandigham: Did you see anything of Joshua R. Giddings there?
Brown: I did meet him.
Vallandigham: Did you converse with him?
Brown: I did. I would not tell you, of course, anything that would implicate Mr. Giddings; but I certainly met with him and had conversations with him.
Vallandigham: About that rescue case?
Brown: Yes; I heard him express his opinions upon it very freely and frankly.
Vallandigham: Justifying it?
Brown: Yes, sir; I do not compromise him, certainly, in saying that.
Vallandigham: Will you answer this; did you talk with Giddings about your expedition here?
Brown: No, I won't answer that; because a denial of it I would not make, and to make any affirmation of it I should be a great dunce.
Vallandigham: Have you had correspondence with parties at the North on the subject of this movement?
Brown: I have had correspondence.
A Bystander: Do you consider this a religious movement?
Brown: It is, in my opinion, the greatest service man can render to God.
Bystander: Do you consider yourself an instrument in the hands of Providence?
Brown: I do.
Bystander: Upon what principle do you justify your acts?
Brown: Upon the Golden Rule. I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them: that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge, or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God.
Bystander: Certainly. But why take the slaves against their will?
Brown: I never did.
Bystander: You did in one instance, at least. [Stephens, the other wounded prisoner, here said, "You are right. In one case I know the Negro wanted to go back."]
Bystander: Where did you come from?
Stephens. I lived in Ashtabula County, Ohio.
Vallandigham: How recently did you leave Ashtabula County?
Stephens. Some months ago. I never resided there any length of time; have been through there.
Vallandigham: How far did you live from Jefferson?
Brown: Be cautious, Stephens, about any answers that would commit any friend. I would not answer that. [Stephens turned partially over with a groan of pain, and was silent.]
Vallandigham: Who are your advisors in this movement?
Brown: I cannot answer that. I have numerous sympathizers throughout the entire North.
Vallandigham: In northern Ohio?
Brown: No more than anywhere else; in all the Free states.
Vallandigham: But you are not personally acquainted in southern Ohio?
Brown: Not very much.
A Bystander. Did you ever live in Washington City?
Brown: I did not. I want you to understand, gentlemen, and [to the reporter of the "Herald"] you may report that,-I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. This is the idea that has moved me, and that alone. We expected no reward except the satisfaction of endeavoring to do for those in distress and greatly oppressed as we would be done by. The cry of distress of the oppressed is my reason, and the only thing that prompted me to come here.
Bystander: Why did you do it secretly?
Brown: Because I thought that necessary to success; no other reason.
Bystander: Have you read Gerrit Smith's last letter?
Brown: What letter do you mean?
Bystander: The "New York Herald" of yesterday, in speaking of this affair, mentions a letter in this way: "Apropos of this exciting news, we recollect a very significant passage in one of Gerrit Smith's letters, published a month or two ago, in which he speaks of the folly of attempting to strike the shackles off the slaves by the force of moral suasion or legal agitation, and predicts that the next movement made in the direction of negro emancipation would be an insurrection in the South."
Brown: I have not seen the "New York Herald" for some days past; but I presume, from your remark about the gist of the letter, that I should concur with it. I agree with Mr. Smith that moral suasion is hopeless. I don't think the people of the slave States will ever consider the subject of slavery in its true light till some other argument is resorted to than moral suasion.
Vallandigham: Did you expect a general rising of the slaves in case of your success?
Brown: No, sir; nor did I wish it. I expected to gather them up from time to time, and set them free.
Vallandigham: Did you expect to hold possession here till then?
Brown: Well, probably I had quite a different idea. I do not know that I ought to reveal my plans. I am here a prisoner and wounded, because I foolishly allowed myself to be so. You overrate your strength in supposing I could have been taken if I had not allowed it. I was too tardy after commencing the open attack-in delaying my movements through Monday night, and up to the time I was attacked by the government troops. It was all occasioned by my desire to spare the feelings of my prisoners and their families and the community at large. I had no knowledge of the shooting of the Negro Heywood.
Vallandigham: What time did you commence your organization in Canada?
Brown: That occurred about two years ago; in 1858.
Vallandigham: Who was the secretary?
Brown: That I would not tell if I recollected; but I do not recollect. I think the officers were elected in May, 1858. I may answer incorrectly, but not intentionally. My head is a little confused by wounds and my memory obscure on dates, etc.
Dr. Biggs. Were you in the party at Dr. Kennedy's house?
Brown: I was the head of that party. I occupied the house to mature my plan. I have not been in Baltimore to purchase caps.
Dr. Biggs. What was the number of men at Kennedy's?
Brown: I decline to answer that.
Dr. Biggs. Who lanced that woman's neck on the hill?
Brown: I did. I have sometimes practiced in surgery when I thought it a matter of humanity and necessity, and there was no one else to do it; but I have not studied surgery.
Dr. Biggs. It was done very well and scientifically. They have been very clever to the neighbors, I have been told, and we had not reason to suspect them, except that we could not understand their movements. They were represented as eight or nine persons; on Friday there were thirteen.
Brown: There were more than that.
Q. Where did you get arms?
A. I bought them.
Q. In what State?
A. That I will not state.
Q. How many guns?
A. Two hundred Sharpe's rifles and two hundred revolvers, a little under navy Size.
Q. Why did you not take that swivel you left in the house?
A. I had no occasion for it. It was given to me a year or two ago.
Q. In Kansas?
A. No, I had nothing given to me in Kansas.
Q. By whom, and in what State?
A. I decline to answer. It is not properly a swivel; it is a very large rifle with a pivot. The ball is larger than a musket ball; it is intended for a slug.
Reporte: I do not wish to annoy you; but if you have anything further you would like to say, I will report it.
Brown: I have nothing to say, only that I claim to be here in carrying out a measure I believe perfectly justifiable, and not to act the part of an incendiary or ruffian, but to aid those suffering great wrong. I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better-all you people at the South-prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question, that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily,-I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still [to] be settled,-this negro question I mean; the end of that is not yet. These wounds were inflicted upon me-both saber cuts on my head and bayonet stabs in different parts of my body-some minutes after I had ceased fighting and had consented to surrender, for the benefit of others, not for my own. I believe the Major would not have been alive; I could have killed him just as easy as a mosquito when he came in, but I supposed he only came in to receive our surrender. There had been loud and long calls of "surrender" from us,-as loud as men could yell: but in the confusion and excitement I suppose we were not heard. I do not think the Major, or anyone, meant to butcher us after we had surrendered.
An Officer: Why did you not surrender before the attack?
Brown: I did not think it was my duty or my interest to do so. We assured the prisoners that we did not wish to harm them, and they should be set at liberty. I exercised my best judgment, not believing the people would wantonly sacrifice their own fellow-citizens, when we offered, to let them go on condition of being allowed to change our position about a quarter of a mile. The prisoners agreed by a vote among themselves to pass across the bridge with us. We wanted them only as a sort of guarantee of our safety,-that we should not be fired into. We took them, in the first place, as hostages and to keep them from doing any harm. We did kill some men in defending ourselves, but I saw no one fire except directly in self-defense. Our orders were strict not to harm anyone not in arms against us.
Q. Brown, suppose you had every nigger in the United States, what would you do with them?
A. Set them free.
Q. Your intention was to carry them off and free them?
A. Not at all.
A Bystander: To set them free would sacrifice the life of every man in this community.
Brown: I do not think so.
Bystander. I know it. I think you are fanatical.
Brown: And I think you are fanatical. "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad," and you are mad.
Q. Was it your only object to free the Negroes?
A. Absolutely our only object.
Q. But you demanded and took Colonel Washington's silver and watch?
A. Yes; we intended freely to appropriate the property of the slaveholders to carry out our object. It was for that, and only that, and with no design to enrich ourselves with any plunder whatever.
Bystander: Did you know Sherrod in Kansas? I understand you killed him.
Brown: I killed no man except in fair fight. I fought at Black Jack Point and at Osawatomie; and if I killed anybody, it was at one of these places.
[The New York Herald reported on November 1 that the following exchange also took place during the interview:]
Governor Wise. Mr. Brown, the silver of your hair is reddened by the blood of crime, and it is meet that you should eschew these hard allusions and think upon eternity.
Brown: Governor, I have, from all appearances, not more than fifteen or twenty years the start of you in the journey to that eternity of which you kindly warn me; and whether my tenure here shall be fifteen months, or fifteen days, or fifteen hours, I am equally prepared to go. There is an eternity behind and an eternity before, and the little speck in the centre, however long, is but comparatively a minute. The difference between your tenure and mine is trifling and I want to therefore tell you to be prepared; I am prepared. You all have a heavy responsibility, and it behoves you to prepare more than it does me.