The Tie That Bound Us

The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown's Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism

Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 288
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Tie That Bound Us
    Book Description:

    John Brown was fiercely committed to the militant abolitionist cause, a crusade that culminated in Brown's raid on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and his subsequent execution. Less well known is his devotion to his family, and they to him. Two of Brown's sons were killed at Harpers Ferry, but the commitment of his wife and daughters often goes unacknowledged. In The Tie That Bound Us, Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz reveals for the first time the depth of the Brown women's involvement in his cause and their crucial roles in preserving and transforming his legacy after his death.

    As detailed by Laughlin-Schultz, Brown's second wife Mary Ann Day Brown and his daughters Ruth Brown Thompson, Annie Brown Adams, Sarah Brown, and Ellen Brown Fablinger were in many ways the most ordinary of women, contending with chronic poverty and lives that were quite typical for poor, rural nineteenth-century women. However, they also lived extraordinary lives, crossing paths with such figures as Frederick Douglass and Lydia Maria Child and embracing an abolitionist moral code that sanctioned antislavery violence in place of the more typical female world of petitioning and pamphleteering.

    In the aftermath of John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, the women of his family experienced a particular kind of celebrity among abolitionists and the American public. In their roles as what daughter Annie called "relics" of Brown's raid, they tested the limits of American memory of the Civil War, especially the war's most radical aim: securing racial equality. Because of their longevity (Annie, the last of Brown's daughters, died in 1926) and their position as symbols of the most radical form of abolitionist agitation, the story of the Brown women illuminates the changing nature of how Americans remembered Brown's raid, radical antislavery, and the causes and consequences of the Civil War.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6944-2
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Searching for the Brown Women
    (pp. 1-10)

    Traditional accounts of American abolitionist John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry highlight one particular scene: Brown holed up in the engine house while two of his sons, Oliver and Watson, lay dying, a testament to Brown’s sacrifice on behalf of the antislavery cause. But it was another scene that mesmerized many Americans in 1859: that of Brown’s wife, four daughters, and two daughters-in-law awaiting and receiving word of the outcome of Brown’s raid, an audacious gamble for which they had labored for more than a decade. Brown’s wife, Mary, daughters Ruth, Annie, Sarah, and Ellen, and daughters-in-law Bell and Martha...

  5. Chapter 1 The Brown Family’s Antislavery Culture, 1831–49
    (pp. 11-29)

    Decades after its occurrence, John Brown Jr. recounted an important incident from his family’s past. His father had asked him, his stepmother Mary, and the eldest Brown siblings to “make common cause with him in doing all in our power to ‘break the jaws of the wicked and pluck the spoil out of his teeth.’ ” Reared to hate slavery and extol self-sacrifice, the Browns quickly agreed. “After prayer,” John Jr. continued, “he asked us to raise our right hands, and he then administered to us an oath, … in substance it bound us to secrecy and devotion to the...

  6. Chapter 2 North Elba, Kansas, and Violent Antislavery
    (pp. 30-50)

    Mary Brown returned from the water cure and rejoined a family that was putting its long-nurtured antislavery sentiment into action, first by moving to the African American settlement at North Elba and then by becoming increasingly militant in antislavery practice. As ever, ordinary life continued alongside this extraordinary trajectory. Mary and soon Ruth were preoccupied by childbearing, illness, and the day-to-day routine. Brown’s absences—for work and his antislavery mission—became more frequent, and Mary and Ruth were left to maintain the antislavery family base at North Elba and endure the continuing repercussions of the family’s poverty. In doing so...

  7. Chapter 3 Annie Brown, Soldier
    (pp. 51-67)

    One day in the summer of 1859 Annie Brown was hard at work sewing at the hideout for Brown’s raiders. Out of the blue, two small wrens flew all over and “appeared to be in great distress.” “We went out,” Annie recollected, and “found that a snake had crawled up the post and was just ready to devour the little ones in the nest.” John Brown quickly killed the snake. Then he turned to his daughter and said that he thought it “very strange the way the birds asked him to help them, and asked if I thought it an...

  8. Chapter 4 Newfound Celebrity in the John Brown Year
    (pp. 68-90)

    A few weeks after Brown’s capture the Brown women received an unexpected visitor. Thomas Wentworth Higginson appeared as emissary for a group of abolitionists who hoped that an appeal from his wife would persuade John Brown to agree to a rescue plot.¹ After his few days in their Adirondack home, Higginson declared the Brown women to possess the “same simple, upright character” as Brown himself.² Though he had lived in the “good society” of abolitionists throughout his life, Higginson proclaimed, “never did I see such perfect simplicity & absolute disinterestedness.”³ Mary Brown, eager to see her husband, made the long trek...

  9. Chapter 5 The Search for a New Life
    (pp. 91-113)

    As the Civil War raged, Mary gathered her youngest daughter and meager belongings. Despite Brown’s final wish that she would always live in Essex County, she intended to leave their Adirondack home and Brown’s grave behind. She left North Elba in a wagon driven by Lyman Epps, longtime family friend and one of the few remaining African American settlers from Gerrit Smith’s land-grant settlement. Mary, nine-year-old Ellen, and Salmon’s family first went to Iowa. They were soon joined by Sarah, now seventeen, and Annie, who had just returned from a second mission into the South. From Iowa they would travel...

  10. Chapter 6 Mary Brown’s 1882 Tour and the Memory of Militant Abolitionism
    (pp. 114-133)

    Mary Brown received a surprise invitation to participate in a celebration of John Brown in Chicago in the summer of 1882. She made plans to travel there and beyond with her daughter Sarah’s help.¹ Now in her mid-sixties, Mary saw this opportunity as fulfillment of her longtime wish to return east to see friends and family and to visit the graves of her lost ones. Newspapers took notice of her plans; Sarah’s letter relaying Mary’s acceptance of W.J.W.W. Washington’s offer was reprinted in the Chicago Tribune and a number of other papers under the headline “John Brown’s Widow to Come...

  11. Chapter 7 Annie Brown Adams, the Last Survivor
    (pp. 134-153)

    In 1892 Franklin Sanborn wrote to enlist onetime Kennedy farm housekeeper Annie’s aid. Annie now lived in a remote area along northern California’s coast, raising a family and struggling to get by. Sanborn had been in frequent contact with her, always seeking to acquire new Brown-related information while offering occasional assistance. Now, he turned to Annie for help. A schemer named Richard Howard had recently claimed celebrity as the sole survivor of Brown’s raid. In reality, the few raiders who had escaped were by this point dead; Howard’s boast was an utter fabrication. Sanborn knew this. More important, he knew...

  12. Epilogue: The Last Echo from John Brown’s Grave
    (pp. 154-158)

    A piece in the Hartford Courant a few weeks after Annie’s death reveals Americans’ continued fascination with John Brown and their resulting interest in his kin. The article opened by stating that Annie, the “only surviving child of John Brown,” had died. Her death, it continued, “recalls the colorful career of the Torrington-born abolitionist whose ill-fated Ferry adventure hurried on the Civil War and caused him to be immortalized in song, legend and history.”¹ Its headline is striking, given the place of Brown’s family in post–Civil War America: “Last Echo from John Brown’s Grave: Death of Daughter, Who Guarded...

  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 159-164)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 165-246)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-266)
  16. Index
    (pp. 267-276)