For the fear of John Brown

John Brown

Jason Brown blundered into a posse out to arrest him on his way to Lawrence. He meant to stop at Ottawa Jones’ and then proceed to surrender himself in friendly circumstances. That would, he must have hoped, spare him the fate of Reese Brown. Instead, he walked right up to a group of armed Missourians. Expecting that they wouldn’t know him, he asked directions and got what may have been the final surprise of his life in learning that they did. Some quick questioning confirmed it, at which point they collected his money and a revolver before ordering him out in front of the group for a clear shot.

With nothing left to lose, and probably more than a little of his father’s forthrightness, John Brown’s second son declared himself an abolitionist, bared his breast, and dared them to shoot. That took things too far for some of the Missourians, who put their guns down. Others would have gone ahead, but their leader called it off and took Jason prisoner instead. The combination of bravery and a revulsion toward killing unresisting white men likely did the trick.

The Missourians marched Jason off toward Sterling Cato’s court at Paola. He had more rest than his elder brother had the night before, but after several days with the Pottawatomie Rifles on little sleep, then the stress of learning what his father and brothers had done, proved too much for Jason’s body. During a rest, he sat down and fell dead asleep. That prompted a new round of threats on his life after the Missourians roused Jason, but he kept on making antislavery speeches and it seemed to have an effect on a few of them. They saw to it that Jason had a good bed and gave back his money and gun once the group arrived in town.

At Paola, Jason found his older brother, John. He also got to see firsthand the fear that his father’s murders had spread among the proslavery party. The day after he and John got put into a room with two guards, after spending some time playing cards, Jason hit the hay. John remained up a little longer, then climbed in with him. John Junior woke to

the sudden opening of the outside door and the rushing in of a number of men with drawn bowie-knives. Seizing the candle, and saying, ‘Which are they?’ they crowded around our bed with uplifted knives.

Telling the story afterward, Junior has Jason still dead asleep. Confronted with murderous men and fearing a torturous death for his brother, Junior opted for a novel solution:

I opened the bosom of his shirt, and pointing to the region of his heart, said, ‘Strike here!’

Maybe Junior meant it just as he said; others have made such terrible calculations. His fragile mental state must have played a part too. Either way, he dared them to do it quickly. Such challenges rely on people not ready to do what they propose, a dangerous gamble given the circumstances and the stakes. The presence of testimony from Jason tells us that he survived the night, but it may have come down to fear rather than an attack of conscience:

At this moment the sudden and loud barking of dogs outside and a hurrying of steps on the porch caused a most lively stampede of our assailants within, and this attack was ended without a blow.

The proslavery men had a note from the boys’ father, or at least what purported to be one. It came to them from the hands of one of their own and therein Brown declared that he knew they had Junior and Jason. When the dogs raised the alarm, they believed John Brown had come and raced to defend themselves. They left the brothers in peace for the rest of the night.

 

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