Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
Sampson Easton entered the State House in Hartford through a door someone had left open. He and another man carried a lantern and yards of black cloth. Easton climbed to the cupola and draped the cloth over the “madam justice” statue. The two had just finished when some men, who had seen the flicker of Easton’s light, caught sight of “a negro in the dark.” The night watchmen caught the two men and held them until the police came.
John Brown, the abolitionist who electrified the nation with his raid on the government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, was to be hanged at noon that day– December 2, 1859. Before sunrise, Sampson Easton, an African American hack driver living on Charles Street in Hartford, succeeded in finding his own way to protest the execution.
“Old Brown,” as he called himself, was born in Torrington in 1800 to a family that traced its history back to the landing of the first Europeans on Plymouth Rock. His grandfather was a hero of the Revolutionary War. Brown had been an active abolitionist for twenty years, writing and organizing against slavery and its expansion into western territories. He was a part of the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses that helped escaped slaves travel safely to the north, and had formulated plans to create a school for black children. He supported his family with a range of businesses, including wool and cattle trading, which brought him back to the Hartford area over several decades.
It was the murderous action of the “border ruffians” –Missouri slaveholders who frequently attacked anti-slavery Free State settlers in Kansas– that radicalized John Brown. The slavers killed the settlers with impunity. They overturned legal elections in the territory and installed a local legislature friendly to slave expansion. It was then that John Brown moved to Kansas, returning to Connecticut to raise money and arms.
On February 25, 1857, John Brown spoke in Hartford at the Odd Fellows Hall to a crowd who listened “with great attention,” according to one news account. Brown was by this time a nationally known figure for his activities in Kansas. Now he challenged Hartford to support his cause:
“I am trying to raise from twenty to twenty-five thousand dollars in the free states to enable me to continue my efforts in the cause of freedom. Will the people of Connecticut, my native state, afford me some aid in this undertaking? Will the gentlemen and ladies of Hartford, where I make my appeal in this state, set the example of an earnest effort?”
He raised cash which he deposited in a Hartford bank, and purchased arms in New Haven. He ordered one thousand wooden pikes with knives attached from Collinsville. Brown also recruited two Connecticut men, John E. Cook of Haddam and 28-year old Aaron Dwight Stevens of Lisbon, a federal soldier imprisoned after thrashing an officer for mistreating other soldiers. Stevens, whom Brown met in Kansas, would eventually hang with him in the public square in Charleston.
The capture and trial of John Brown was national news and further polarized the country on the question of slavery. W.E.B. DuBois, in his biography of the abolitionist, wrote, “it was the South and slavery that was on trial, not John Brown.” Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were among the many famous figures who admired Brown and came to his defense.
Hartford was sharply divided. Anti-slavery groups had been organizing in the city for years, but much of Hartford’s establishment opposed the action of abolitionists and did their best to appease the Southern states with which they had lucrative business connections. In fact, just weeks after Brown’s execution, City Hall was packed with the well-heeled of Hartford, including former governor Thomas Seymour. Speakers at the meeting excoriated Brown and pledged their support for “state’s rights,” a code term for the right to maintain the barbarous slave trade. The meeting included Samuel Colt, who had already made great profits from selling arms to both sides preparing for the impending civil war. Sixteen months after Brown’s hanging, Colt sent his last weapons shipment to Southern forces just after Fort Sumter was being attacked.
Local support for John Brown was reported favorably in the Republican newspapers of the day, including the Hartford Courant, the Evening Post, and especially the Hartford Press, a local Black paper. The Press described Brown’s walk to the gallows:
“On leaving the jail, John Brown had on his face an expression of calmness and serenity characteristic of the patriot who is about to die with a living consciousness that he is laying down his life for the good of his fellow creatures. His face was even joyous, and a forgiving smile rested upon his lips.”
In Middletown, Willimantic, and towns and cities across the country, church bells rang out when John Brown was executed. Like Sam Easton, men and women found their own ways to mourn Old Brown. Within a year, Union soldiers preparing for the coming war were singing “John Brown’s Body” while they marched.