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In the ground 150 years, but still alive and kicking

November 28, 2009
By NATHAN BROWN, Enterprise Staff Writer

LAKE PLACID - John Brown's body lies a'mouldering in the grave, but not everybody knows he's a'mouldering in North Elba.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the radical abolitionist's raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, W. Va. (then part of Virginia; at the corner of Maryland, Virginia and what is now West Virginia) and his subsequent hanging. The raid, which Brown led as an attempt to get arms to incite a slave insurrection, is widely seen as a catalyst for the Civil War that came less than two years later.

Brown first moved to North Elba in 1849, when he heard Gerrit Smith was giving land here to poor black men. For a time he rented a farm called the Flanders place, and he bought the farm beneath which he moulders - now a state historic site - in 1855.

Article Photos

This painting of John Brown’s trial in Harpers Ferry hangs in the Old Essex County Courthouse in Elizabethtown. Essex County commissioned the painting, which was unveiled in the courthouse on Dec. 11, 1923.
(Painting by David C. Lithgow, image courtesy of Margaret Gibbs, Essex County Historical Society)

He never spent much time there, as soon afterward he left for Kansas to take part in the fight between pro- and anti-slavery forces. However, Brown and what are believed to be 11 of his followers are buried in three graves on the farm, and a number of the 21 men who participated in the raid were from the community now more commonly known as Lake Placid.

Brown has been getting national media attention lately because of the major anniversary. Numerous print media outlets, including the New York Times and Associated Press, have run "major pieces on John Brown that never once mentioned Lake Placid," said Naj Wikoff, who grew up in Lake Placid, lives in Keene Valley and has been involved in many local cultural groups.

"This is something that came from Lake Placid," Wikoff said. "He went down there (to Harpers Ferry) and came back."

Fact Box



Raiders who were captured and hanged at Harper's Ferry and buried in North Elba:

John Brown

Aaron Dwight Stevens, captain

Albert Hazlett, lieutenant


Raiders who were killed at Harper's Ferry and buried in North Elba:

Oliver Brown (son of John Brown), of North Elba

Watson Brown (son of John Brown), of North Elba

William Thompson, of North Elba

Dauphin Adolphus Thompson, of North Elba

John Henri Kagi, adjutant

Steward Taylor

William H. Leeman, lieutenant

Dangerfield Newby (the only black raider buried there; he was fighting to free his wife and six children, who were slaves in Virginia)

Lewis Leary

According to the plaque in the graveyard, Jeremiah C. Anderson, lieutenant, is also buried there; however, his body was used for anatomical study, and his final resting place is unknown.

Wikoff is head of John Brown Coming Home, a coalition of cultural, educational and historic organizations presenting a series of activities to commemorate John Brown's legacy that will culminate in a series of events on Dec. 4 through 8, including a reenactment of Brown's coffin lying in state in the Essex County Courthouse in Elizabethtown and the procession bringing the coffin along what is now called Old John Brown Farm Road to the farmhouse.

Robert Bullock, executive director of the New York State Archives Partnership Trust, one of the partner organizations, said this is an opportunity "to make a national claim over John Brown."

As well as claiming Brown's legacy for this area, Wikoff said they want "to really get people talking about the issues and about how relevant John Brown is today." Many of the issues related to Brown, such as the justifiability of using violence to advance a cause, still come up, Wikoff said. On that note, one of the participants in a panel on Saturday, Dec. 5 discussing Brown's legacy will be Bernardine Dohrn, a former Weather Underground leader who was on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 10 Most Wanted List for over a decade. The Weather Underground was a violent revolutionary group active in the U.S. during the 1970s.

"We're not trying to glorify John Brown, not trying to turn him into a hero, but to humanize him," Wikoff said.

Some events commemorating Brown have already been held. Last week, actor Fred Morsell started his Artist Residencies-in-Schools program. Morsell will portray abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery, in a one-man performance, based on Douglass' writings, at schools throughout Essex County, including excerpts from Douglass' homage to John Brown as the man who "began the war that ended American slavery, and made this a free republic."

Students, working with various artists, will create personal works in response to their examination of Brown's legacy, presented in a culminating event at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts at 5 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 4. This will be followed with a showing of "Slavery: An Exploration through Contemporary Film" at 7:30 p.m. at the LPCA. This is a presentation of clips from different filmmakers meant to show the context of racism in Brown's time.

The events of Saturday, Dec. 5 at the High Peaks Resort in downtown Lake Placid start with registration, coffee and tea at 7:45 a.m. Keynote speaker, Margaret Washington, a Cornell University professor, will start the day at 8:30 a.m. speaking to the black experience as slave and freedom fighter leading up to the Civil War and on the racist Jim Crow laws that followed. She will be followed by the Rev. Dr. Louis DeCaro Jr., who has written essays and books about John Brown and will discuss Brown in his historic context.


Slavery in our time

The federal government estimates that 27 million people are currently held in slavery worldwide and that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into this country every year. Experts say the U.S. is the world's No. 1 destination for trafficked humans, who are used for labor, sexual slavery or both.

"We want to bring that home," Wikoff said. "It didn't end with the Civil War, even in our own country."

Accordingly, at 11:15 a.m. on Saturday, there will be a presentation, "Slavery in our Time," with Kevin Bales, president and co-founder of the group Free the Slaves, and Maria Suarez, who came to California from Mexico as a teenager more than 30 years ago. A woman who told Suarez she could find her a job sold her for $200 to an old man who beat, raped and terrorized her regularly for five years, until a neighbor murdered her captor. Suarez was wrongfully convicted of the murder and spent more than 22 years in prison until she was pardoned.


John Brown's legacy

A panel on Brown's legacy will start at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Among others, Washington, Bales and Dohrn will be on the panel, as will novelist and Keene resident Russell Banks. One of Banks' numerous books is "Cloudsplitter," a 1998 historical fiction novel about Brown that Wikoff said did a lot to explain what motivated Brown, such as his life experiences and his religious faith.

"Russell Banks made him human," Wikoff said. "Through doing that, he stimulated a tremendous amount of new research into John Brown by historians."

Brown divided people from the beginning. Southern whites, terrified that his plan to incite a slave rebellion could have worked, started to arm themselves. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him a "new saint" whose hanging would "make the gallows glorious like the cross." Abraham Lincoln, the president who would end up ending slavery, called Brown a "misguided fanatic."

Wikoff said that when he was growing up, Placidians were very aware of Brown's connection to the area and also knew of Timbuctoo, the black settlement in North Elba that Gerrit Smith founded in the mid-1800s. Wikoff said local social studies classes visited the farm in May, around the time of Brown's May 9 birthday. He said Brown was viewed as "a very important part of our history, and he had done something very significant."

Brown was always viewed positively by many in the national black community. Wikoff's parents owned the Sun and Ski Lodge, a hotel on state Route 86. He said he remembers, when he was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, busloads of black people would come to Lake Placid around John Brown's birthday and visit his grave, filling his parents' hotel and others. They were sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"That was my first introduction to black people," Wikoff said, "and they were all talking about John Brown!"


John Brown Coming Home

Saturday's events will move to the John Brown Farm starting at 4 p.m., with a walk to his grave and a wreath-laying ceremony. Then, at 7:30 p.m., Banks will receive the first Adirondack Arts and Humanities award at the Adirondack Community Church in downtown Lake Placid, followed by a gospel concert.

Brown's funeral cortege will arrive at the Westport Marina at noon on Sunday, Dec. 6, and the casket will be brought to the Westport Heritage Center. Banks will give a reading from "Cloudsplitter" at the Heritage Center at 1 p.m., followed by a lecture by social historian Don Papson on Underground Railroad escaped-slave smuggling activity in North Elba, which, according to Papson, may have been more widespread than originally thought.

The casket will arrive at the United Church of Christ in Elizabethtown at 3 p.m. Sunday, and a candlelit procession will bring the casket to the Essex County Courthouse at 4:30 p.m., where the coffin will lie in state with an honor guard.

The county Board of Supervisors will meet on Monday, Dec. 7, and the coffin will be moved out of the courthouse during the meeting, said county Historian Margaret Gibbs. The full board will pass a resolution commemorating Brown that has already been passed in committee, and a new Underground Railroad Heritage Trail sign being put up outside the courthouse will be dedicated that morning.

Later that day, the casket will be brought home with a horse-and-wagon procession, with re-enactors playing his wife Mary Brown and members of the Anti-Slavery Society, starting at 3 p.m. on state Route 73 and continuing along Old Military and John Brown roads. It will arrive at the farmhouse at 4 p.m., and the folk duo Magpie will perform at 6 p.m.

On Tuesday, Dec. 8, a memorial service with re-enactors will be held at 11 a.m. at Brown's graveside. The service will end 45 minutes later with bells ringing in churches throughout the region, followed by an invitation-only reception at the Uihlein farm.


Contact Nathan Brown at (518) 891-2600 ext. 26 or



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