Abolitionist John Brown, Charles Town, Virginia, John Thomas Lewis Preston

December 2, 1860 – The Founder Of The Virginia Military Institute Gave His Account Of The Hanging Of Abolitionist John Brown

An artist’s depiction of John Brown oh his way to the gallows in Charles Town, Virginia. (Library of Congress).

On December 2, 1860, John Thomas Lewis Preston, the founder of the Virginia Military Institute, witnessed the hanging of Abolitionist John Brown in Charles Town, Virginia.

John Thomas Lewis Preston’s account is as follows:

The execution is over, we have just returned from the field and I sit down to give you some account of it. The weather was very favorable: the sky was a little overcast, with a gentle haze in the atmosphere that softened without obscuring the magnificent prospect afforded here.

Between eight and nine o’clock, the troops began to put themselves in motion to occupy the positions assigned to them on the field, as designated on the plan I send you. Col. Smith had been assigned the superintendency of the execution, and he and his staff were the only mounted officers on the ground, until the Major-General and his staff appeared. By ten o’clock all was arranged. The general effect was most imposing, and, at the same time, picturesque.

The cadets were immediately in rear of the gallows with a howitzer on the right and left, a little behind, as to sweep the field. They were uniformed in red flannel shirts, which gave them a gay, dashing, Zouave look, and was exceedingly becoming, especially at the Battery. They were flanked obliquely by two Corps, the Richmond Grays (Greys) and Company F, which if inferior in appearance to the cadets, were superior to ant other company I ever saw outside of the regular army. Other companies were distributed over the field, amounting in all to about 800 men. The military force was about 1,500.

The whole enclosure was lined by cavalry troops posted as sentinels, with their officers — one on a peerless black horse, and another on a remarkable looking white horse, continually dashing round the enclosure. Outside rip this enclosure were other companies acting as rangers and scouts. The jail was guarded by several companies if infantry, and pieces of artillery were put into position for its defense.

Shortly before eleven o’clock the prisoner was taken from jail, and the funeral cortege was put into motion. First came three companies, then the criminal’s wagon, drawn by two large white horses. John Brown was seated on his coffin, accompanied by the sheriff and two other persons. The wagon drove to the foot of the gallows, and Brown descended with alacrity and without assistance, and ascended the steep steps to the platform. His demeanor was intrepid, without being braggart. He made no speech; whether he desired to make one or not, I do not know. He had desired it, it would not have been permitted. Any speech of his must, of necessity, have been unlawful, and as being directed against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth, and such could not be allowed by those who were then engaged in the most solemn and extreme vindication of law.

His manner was without trepidation, but his countenance was not free from concern, and it seemed to me to have a little cast of wildness. He stood upon the scaffold but a short time, giving adieus to those about him, when he was properly pinioned, the white cap drawn over his face, the noose adjusted and attached to the hook above, and he was moved blindfold a few steps forward. It was curious to note how the instincts of nature operated to make him careful in putting his feet as if afraid he would walk off the scaffold. The man who stood unbalanced on the brink of eternity was afraid of falling a few feet off the ground.

He was now all ready. The sheriff asked him if he should give him a private signal before the final moment. He replied in a voice that seemed to me unnaturally natural, so composed was its tone, and so distinct its articulation, that ‘it did not matter to him, if only they would not keep him too long waiting”. He was kept waiting, however. The troops that had formed his escort had to be put into their position, and while this was going on, he stood for some ten or fifteen minutes blindfold, the rope around his neck, and his feet on the treacherous platform, expecting instantly the fatal act. But he stood for this comparatively long time upright as a soldier in position, and motionless.

I was close to him, and watched him narrowly, to see if I could perceive any signs of shrinking or trembling in his person, but there was none. Once I thought I saw his knees tremble, but it was only the wind blowing his loose trousers. His firmness was subjected to still further trial by hearing Colonel Smith announce to the sheriff, “We are all ready, Mr. Campbell.” The sheriff did not hear, or did not comprehend; and in a louder tone the same announcement was made. But the culprit still stood ready until the sheriff, descending the flight of steps, with a well-directed blow of a sharp hatchet, severed the rope that held up the trap door, which instantly sank beneath him, and he fell about three feet; and the man of strong and bloody hand, of fierce passions, of iron will, of wonderful vicissitudes, the terrible partisan of Kansas, the capturer of the United States. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, the would-be Catiline of the South, the demi-god of the abolitionists, the man who is in his motives, his means, his plans, and his successes, must ever be a wonder, a puzzle, and a mystery — John Brown — was hanging between heaven and earth.

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 writing 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.

Author’s Note:

On December 2, 2020, Author Philip Andrew Hamilton visited the site of John Brown’s execution. The wagon that was used to take John Brown to the gallows is in the Jefferson County Musuem in West Virginia.