“It is rumored that the body of one of John Brown’s sons, killed at Harper’s Ferry, is at Martinsville. Investigate and report.”
It started in 1882 with a telegram from the editor of the Indianapolis Journal. A.W. Macy, used to writing articles about the mud baths and mineral springs in southern Indiana, happily jumped at the chance to chase down a real mystery. Not only was it a mystery with a real-life dead body, but it involved the son of John Brown, the impassioned abolitionist who helped ignite the Civil War. In 1882, the saga of John Brown and his raid at Harpers Ferry was an American legend.
The Tale of John Brown
In October of 1859, abolitionist John Brown and a group of 22 men invaded Harpers Ferry, a town in then northern Virginia (now West Virginia). Intent on capturing the arsenal there, Brown hoped to arm and inspire the thousands of nearby slaves into overpowering their white owners. However, Brown was a better fighter than a planner. Although he captured the arsenal as hoped, Brown could not muster volunteers from the nearby slaves for a simple reason: they had no idea who this crazed man was, but they knew his mission was damn suicidal.
Brown and his men took several hostages and hunkered down in the arsenal’s engine house. US Marines soon laid siege to the engine house and eventually assaulted it. Three minutes after the assault, most of Brown’s men were dead, and he was seriously wounded. Among the dead were his sons Owen and Watson.
Watson’s death was particularly horrid. He had emerged from the engine house hunched over and waving a white flag in hopes of mercy, only to be answered by a volley of rifle fire. A musket ball skewered him just below his stomach, and Watson staggered back into the engine house, blood spilling from his mouth in a dark curtain. Although mortally wounded, Watson sat near a window and shouldered his rifle, fighting a few more minutes before weaknesses and pain overtook him. John Brown could do nothing but give his dying son a drink of water.
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Was it Watson?
After his death, the story of Watson Brown grew vague. A.W. Macy’s first step was in seeing the remains for himself. He arrived at a house in Martinsville belonging to Dr. Jarvis Jackson Johnson, a Hoosier doctor who served with the 27th Indiana Infantry during the Civi War. Sure enough, A.W. Macy found a partially-muscled skeleton boxed away in a storage closet.
“… well-preserved skeleton, fully six feet in length. The bones were clothed In the remnants of the muscular system, the latter having the appearance of fibres of wood. The arteries, which had been injected with red chemicals in the preparation of the body, were plainly visible. The absence of several fingers and toes were suggestive of relic hunters.”
~A.W. Macy, Indianapolis Journal. 6/23/1895
At the time, there as no DNA or blood testing of any kind, and dental records were nonexistent. A positive identification could only come from John Brown’s eldest son. His father’s clandestine activities during the war were no secret; Brown Jr. had acted as a liaison between his father and other abolitionists. In essence, he had been his father’s lieutenant.
While Brown Jr. had not taken part in the violence of Harper’s Ferry, he had scouted out the location and had even stashed the weapons used. After the raid, the commission considered arresting or at least detaining Brown Jr. for testimony. Worried it would lead to even more violence, they let him be.
A Reunion of Sorts
A.W. Macy was startled at the difference between father and son. While John Brown’s fiery temperament had been obvious even in daguerrotype, his eldest son’s manner was calm, courteous, and reserved. His physical resemblance to his famous father was obvious, but in temperament the two were worlds apart.
The doctors and assistants lifted the box and angled it upright against the wall of Dr. Jarvis Jackson Johnson’s office. Upon seeing the body, John Brown Jr. stated there was no doubt it was either Owen or Watson, although he wasn’t sure which yet. He pointed to the nose of the corpse, well-preserved after 20 years and then his own nose. “There is but one family in the world having that nose,” Brown Jr. said, “and that is the Brown family.”
On a small table next to the body, Brown Jr. carefully laid photos of both Owen and Watson. He methodically examined the body, lifting up each photo in careful comparison. His worry, Brown Jr. told them, was not that he could satisfy only himself in identifying the body, but that he would satisfy the public and posterity. He had to be sure.
In the end, what determined Brown Jr.’s decision wasn’t the physical features of his deceased brother, but the method of his death. Although withered, the body still possessed most of its muscle fibers. On the back of the body, a hole the size of a musket ball had pierced through these muscles, just a hair away from the spinal column. The wound didn’t pierce the body in the perpendicular, but at a slight angle, as thought the person had been bent slightly. When shot, this Brown brother had been standing hunched over.
Several sources reported that when shot, Watson had been hunched down in front of the engine house, desperately waving that white flag. Although weakened by the shot, Watson had not died quickly, and his last few hours must have been agony. Had the shot traveled just an inch or two to the side, Watson would have lost feeling in his lower body, and his suffering might not have been so terrible.
Whether choked up from emotion or deciding to give the identification some thought in private, Brown Jr. stated he believed this was Watson, but didn’t know if his personal certainty would satisfy the public. In fact, he made no official declaration at all. His decision was made the next day in his simple written request to ship the remains of his brother Watson Brown to New York, where he could be buried in the family plot.
From Virginia Corpse to Indiana Closet?
The final piece in this mystery was in the acquisition of the body. How did the son of the most famous abolitionist in the country end of up dried like an applehead doll in an Indiana doctor’s closet?
In the 1860s, medical schools frequently needed bodies for dissection and study, but the work was considered repulsive by some and downright sacrilegious by most. Some men, often medical students, made a business snatching bodies under cover of night from graveyards and cemeteries. These “resurrection men” made a substantial income from the ghoulish practice. A fresh body could sell for more than most men make in two weeks.
One class of corpse was fair game: the bodies of executed criminals. The public saw the dissection of criminals as a continuation of punishment after death. In the aftermath of the raid on Harper’s Ferry, the body of Watson Brown would have been readily available. Since he did not die immediately, but lingered for hours after the raid’s defeat, Watson wasn’t buried in the common grave with his compatriots.
It was then medical students must have come upon his body. Later on, doctors from the nearby Winchester Medical College described Watson’s body as a “fine physical specimen”—a young man in good health and standing six feet tall.
Although the body’s rumored history included it being skeletonized in a vat of acid and rescued from a college fire, the body’s final discovery and condition say otherwise. The simpler story is much more likely.
In 1862, just after West Virginia became the 35th state in the Union, Dr. Johnson’s Indiana regiment swooped into Harpers Ferry and took control of the town. Dr. Johnson saw Watson’s body hanging up in the college and decided to have it sent to his home in Indiana (a slightly morbid practice but typical in the 1800s and early 1900s). It was there Watson stayed, eventually demoted from the office to a box in a storage closet, until A.W. Macy received the telegram from his editor in 1882.
A Funeral at Long Last
23 years after his death in Virginia, Watson Brown joined his brother and father at the family cemetery in North Elba, New York, on a picturesque stretch of land that had been the family farm. In 1899, the remains of others that fought alongside John Brown at Harpers Ferry were also interred there. Today, the site is now preserved as the John Brown Farm State Historic Site.
Then and even now, John Brown’s actions at Harpers Ferry are controversial. Most see him as an early martyr in the fight to end slavery. A few see him as an example of a delusion domestic terrorist. John Brown and his sons may have been blinded by their hatred of slavery. Even Fredrick Douglass thought so. But if there were ever anything in history to justify hatred, it would be the institution of slavery.
Slavery was an unequivocal wrong. In that context, the sacrifice of John Brown and his sons Owen and Watson cannot be seen as anything less than righteous. Violent and possibly misguided, yes. But righteous nonetheless.