‘Bright Radical Star’: When John Brown came to Iowa

John Brown in an 1859 portrait by Martin M. Lawrence. Background: the William Maxon home outside Springdale in 1890. Courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa — Illustration by Jordan Sellergren

Halfway to Springdale, Iowa — a town about 15 miles east of Iowa City — on a snow-laden December evening in 1857, Owen Brown decided to journal. “Very cold night,” he wrote, “prairie wolves howl nobly.” He recounted the “hot discussion” had on the road that day: about the Bible, war, racial prejudice and abolition and a debate over who was the greater general, Washington or Napoleon.

Owen and his small band of men would not complete the 280-mile hike to Springdale for several more weeks. There, a community of Quakers (and one stalwart adherent of Spiritualism) waited upon the arrival of the men — and their guns.

In his poetic temperament as in most other things, Owen was his father’s son. His father, John Brown, was the famous, and famously violent, abolitionist who by the end of the 1850s would swing, adored and loathed, dead from the gallows.

It was the consequence of Brown and his men raiding the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (what is today West Virginia). Leading up to 1859 and that ill-fated scheme, Brown and his fellow insurgents spent several months preparing in a modest Iowa community, even recruiting some soldiers from its ranks. It’s a story that speaks to America’s complicated relationship with religion and violence, and Iowa’s unsung radical history.

Sackings and Skirmishes

John Brown in 1846 or 1847 — the earliest known likeness of Brown — taken by black daguerreotypist and abolitionist Augustus Washington. Brown is holding what is thought to be the flag of the Subterranean Pass Way, the militant alternative to the Underground Railroad. — National Portrait Gallery

John Brown’s fiercely anti-slavery views were rooted partly in his devout Calvinist upbringing. Calvinism taught of the fearful trembling of the soul before the prospect of damnation to eternal fires, while also acknowledging the basic equality of all souls before those fires, and as such was intimately connected with the abolitionist cause.

Brown’s own Calvinism seems to have been lax on the Sixth Commandment. In late May 1856, Brown and his supporters — including Owen and several of the men who would later travel to Springdale — dragged five men from their beds alongside Kansas’ Pottawatomie Creek and killed them in cold blood. The men were “border ruffians,” militant supporters of slavery patrolling the territory of Kansas in an attempt to terrorize anti-slavery residents and ensure Kansas’ slave-holding status upon statehood.

The so-called Pottawatomie massacre sent chills through the territory and initiated a new wave of violence in an already violent part of the nation. Brown and his men took frequent part in the ensuing series of sackings, near-battles and skirmishes of the next two years.

The men who joined Brown during this period and followed him to Springdale were a panoply of eccentric figures, among them: Owen, sharing in his father’s spiritual heights and complicit in his (legal if not moral) crimes; Aaron D. Stevens, a disgraced former dragoon who was court-martialed for assaulting an officer and was now using the alias Colonel Charles Whipple, and who became Brown’s drill instructor in Springdale in preparation for the raid; and Richard Realf, a handsome and arrogant poet-soldier who claimed to have studied under the roof of Lady Byron, the beleaguered wife of the equally handsome, equally arrogant poet-soldier Lord Byron.

(Realf did not ultimately participate in the Harpers Ferry raid. He instead poisoned himself to death in 1878, writing on that same day a poetic suicide note which read in part: “Nor did he wait till Freedom had come / The popular shibboleth of courier’s lips: / He smote for her when God himself seemed dumb / And all His arching skies were in eclipse.”)

A Militia in Quaker-town

In October 1856, arms and resources depleted and bigger plans on the eastern horizon, Brown’s band fled Kansas for Iowa. Iowa’s progressive politics and high concentration of socialist, utopian and religious communes — the Quakers of Springdale included — made it a bastion of the abolitionist movement. (In an interview with the Iowa State Weekly Register in 1868, presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant called the state a “bright Radical star.”)

Dodging Kansas authorities, the men first returned to Tabor in western Iowa, named after the Biblical mountain in Galilee at which Jesus is said to have transfigured. The town of Tabor was five years old, founded by abolitionist clergymen for the purpose of sheltering other abolitionists from the conflict in Kansas. In Tabor, John Brown had stored a large stockpile of Sharps rifles, which the men took with them when they left, eastward, on Dec. 4, 1857.

Brown wasn’t a stranger to eastern Iowa. In November 1856, an ill and weary Brown arrived at Traveler’s Rest in the largely Quaker village of West Branch. He was greeted at the door by the inn’s genial and plump owner, James Townsend, who asked the visitor his name.

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“Have you ever heard of John Brown of Kansas?” Brown replied.

Townsend immediately told Brown he would always be welcome at the Traveler’s Rest, and his room and board would always be free. Brown never forgot Townsend’s help, and one of the final letters Brown wrote while he was awaiting execution was to Townsend, expressing his gratitude.

But in December 1857, Brown and his men skipped the Traveler’s Rest and headed to Springdale. There, the men lodged in the modest home of William Maxson, a Spiritualist who technically lived just outside the limits of Springdale.

Spiritualism, an international 19th-century religious movement that preached the ability to contact the dead through the powers of mediums, had far fewer qualms regarding the use of violence than the Springdale Quakers. The Quakers, more formally known as the Society of Friends, had always been (and continue to be) among the most staunchly pacifist of faith traditions. George Fox, an early and influential Quaker, wrote movingly that Quakers must “deny and bear our testimony against all strife, and wars, and contentions that come from the lusts that war in the members, that war against the soul.”

The very fact of Brown’s housing in Springdale, although provided by Maxson, is therefore remarkable. Even more remarkable is the extent to which Brown’s men were welcomed by and integrated into the Quaker community. To be sure, the Quakers took none too kindly to “Colonel Whipple’s” daily parading of the men across Maxson’s yard, their Sharps rifles raised high.

Top row, left to right: Samuel Kirkwood, Aaron Stevens (a.k.a. Colonel Whipple), Richard Realf. Bottom row: Barclay and Edwin Coppoc, Owen Brown, William Maxon

They took even less kindly to the men’s sometimes improper relations — dancing, kissing — with the “fair young Friends” of the town, for which the men were repeatedly reprimanded in the minutes of the town Meeting-House (the Quaker equivalent of a church). And yet Frederick Lloyd, an early historian of John Brown’s time in Iowa, is still able to tell us that “many friendships were formed between Brown’s men and the young people of the surrounding countryside.” And when the men left in the spring, Lloyd reports that “scarcely a dry eye could be seen.”

Prepping for Rebellion

Shortly after arriving in Springdale, the elder Brown left Owen in charge of the men and sped ahead on his own for the eastern seaboard. There he would schmooze with financiers and intellectuals and round up cash for his planned abolitionist magnum opus: the seizure of the many (many) weapons contained in the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry — ushering in through righteous violence, or so Brown prayed, slavery’s long-awaited End of Days.

Meantime, Owen was left behind with the men, to train those already with them for the raid, but also, perhaps more importantly, to recruit new Christian soldiers from the ranks of the Quakers. Obviously, given Brown’s reputation and intentions in Virginia, Owen had his work cut out for him. Still, in three cases, he succeeded.

George B. Gill of Springdale would travel to Virginia when summoned by Brown, although he would not ultimately participate in the raid. Gill and Brown seemed an unlikely pair. Brown was known for his stern religious views, while the 20-something Gill described himself as a “free thinker,” a 19th-century term for an agnostic or atheist. Brown had no problem with a free thinker, provided he was committed to ending slavery, and in 1893, an aged Gill would write to Richard Hinton, likely John Brown’s most favorable biographer: “My intimate acquaintance with Brown demonstrated to me that he was very human. The angel wings were so dim and shadowy as to be almost unseen.”

But the far more impressive catches (and ones who would follow through with the raid) are Edwin and Barclay Coppoc, the 22- and 19-year-old sons of Ann Coppoc Raley. These men were Quakers, and Ann was among “the most respected and devout residents” of her town; again, seemingly unlikely candidates for violent revolt.

When Brown and company left Springdale on April 24, 1858, it was with the promise of further communication. This came 15 months later — in July of 1859, a letter (sadly no longer extant) arrived at the Coppoc residence, summoning Edwin and Barclay to Pennsylvania. Gill told historian Irving Richman that the brothers were vague to their mother about their intentions in going, and that Raley replied: “I believe you are going with old Brown. When you get the halters around your necks, will you think of me?”

In Edwin’s unfortunate case, Ann’s gallows humor would prove prophetic. The raid on Harpers Ferry on Oct. 29, 1859 was a failure of historic proportions, resulting in the capture of John Brown along with a majority of the men present, including Edwin. He would be hanged in Virginia with Brown and the others in December 1859.

What is fascinating about Edwin’s case is his steadfast non-repentance. In a letter written to his uncle from prison, he writes, “I never committed murder. When I escaped to the engine house and found the captain and his prisoners surrounded there, I saw no way of deliverance but by fighting a little. If anyone was killed on that occasion it was in a fair fight.”

Barclay, who was present at the raid but refused on principle and at the last second to participate violently, was luckier: He escaped and made his way back west via the Underground Railroad, eventually returning to Springdale, sick with consumption but miraculously alive. When Virginia Gov. John Letcher attempted to extradite Barclay to Virginia to face charges of treason, Gov. Samuel Kirkwood of Iowa (for whom Kirkwood Community College was named) delayed the proceeding by publicly declaring the Virginia summons “deficient in certain technical matters,” demanding that the summons be rewritten in a more legally stringent manner. This gave Barclay time to make his escape, which — after much prodding by his mother — he did.

A Time to Kill, a Time to Heal

A monument marks the former location of William Maxon’s home in Springdale, Iowa. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

What is perhaps most surprising about the affair is the Quakers’ acceptance of Edwin and Barclay’s choice to go with Brown. The Springdale Meeting-House gave the brothers only the faintest of reprimands, stating their “desire to establish a forgiving feeling towards those who may have been overtaken in weekness, & would tenderly admonish all to an increased watchfulness in the precepts of our Redeamer. [sic]”

And here is their mother writing to Gov. Letcher: “At first, our sympathies were enlisted on your side, feeling that your rights had been invaded … But since you have suffered yourselves to run wild with rage and insane revenge, the tide has turned against you, so that John Brown’s highest aims may yet be attained.” One would expect a mother, no matter how devout, to come to the aid of her erring sons, but in doing so she does not necessarily need to endorse their actions. And yet she does, on nearly every occasion she is given in print.

Historical figures do not act with the intent of producing moral parables for future generations, but from the Browns, the Coppocs and the Quakers at large, a few things may be gleaned. One is the necessary remembrance of Iowa’s history of leftist radicalism, easy to forget in the era of Steve King and Kim Reynolds.

Another is the malleability of political and religious conviction. Whether from personal predisposition or from sheer boredom, Edwin Coppoc demonstrates that militiamen may be made from the most unlikely of molds; Barclay, that doctrines taught from childhood hold powerful sway, even if one is brought to the brink of belief before their impact is felt.

A third message to be gleaned is the uncertainty of the relationship between peacekeepers and radicals. Though the Quaker himself shalt not kill, he recognizes the reliance of his continued safety on violent means to the extent that he aids and abets the violent in their mission, as Springdale did the Brown militia.

John Brown died with this conclusion in mind. The night before his execution after the failed Harpers Ferry raid, on Dec. 2, 1859, he wrote: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.”

The “very much bloodshed” came, starting with the battle at Fort Sumter, 15 months later. Whether it is finished flowing yet is unclear.

Nicholas Dolan is an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa studying English literature. He graduates this spring, after which he will teach and pursue graduate study in literature. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 256.