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Secession Era Editorials Project

Furman University Department of History

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John Brown's Insanity.

New York, New York, New York Tribune [Republican]

(25 November 1859)

It seems that by the law of Virginia, even after trial and conviction, upon a suggestion made of insanity, a prisoner may have that point tried by a Jury. To give the counsel of John Brown an opportunity to have such an issue framed and tried an application has been made to Gov. Wise to postpone the execution of the sentence; and as a basis for his action in the premises a collection of affidavits taken in Ohio among the relatives and early acquaintances of Brown has been submitted to him. We have had an opportunity of examining these affidavits. It appears from them that Brown had resided the greater part of his life in Hudson, Summit County, Ohio, of which his father was one of the original settlers. Brown was absent many years since, for a few years, in Pennsylvania, but returned again to Ohio, whence he removed some four or five years ago to Essex County New-York.

It is abundantly shown by these affidavits that on the mother's side Brown belonged to a family in which insanity was hereditary. His maternal grandmother was insane for six years and died insane. Three of her children, a brother and two sisters of Brown's mother, suffered from the same disorder, and another brother who himself escaped, had three insane children, cousins of John Brown. The only sister of John Brown was also liable to attacks of insanity, as were a child of hers, and two children of John Brown himself.

a brother of John Brown's first wife states that at the time of her death, some twenty-four or five years ago, the conversation and conduct of Brown strongly impressed his relatives with the idea of insanity on his part; and it is the opinion of this brother-in-law that ever since, at intervals, the mind of Brown has been more of less disordered. An uncle of Brown's, who might be supposed to have some knowledge of the symptoms of insanity, as his own mother and three of his children were the victims of that disorder, states that he has regarded Brown, for twenty years, as subject to periods of insanity, not of a very marked type, but partaking of the character of monomania. Similar testimony is given by several persons who describe themselves as acquainted with John Brown from early childhood. A physician of Hudson, who has known Brown since 1812, has esteemed him subject to attacks of insanity, and has at times been fully convinced that such was his condition. A lawyer whom Brown was in the habit of consulting about his business affairs, considered him of a very excitable temperament and as constitutionally predisposed to insanity. Several of his old acquaintances, who say him after his return from Kansas, state that there was something in his manner and conversation, and especially, the idea with which he seemed to be impressed, and of which he often spoke, that he was an instrument, in the hand of God for the overthrow of Slavery, which strongly impressed them with the idea that his mind was disordered.

The whole history of John Brown for the last two years, so far as it has come to light, and all the incidents of his famous foray upon Harper's Ferry, have never appeared to us, from the first, as consistent with soundness of mind. we have no doubt that, if the issue could be tried, a very strong case might be made out. it would, however, be too mortifying to the pride of the Virginians to admit that they had been so frightened by a crazy man, and Gov. Wise will no doubt dispose of this application as summarily as the Court of Appeals did of the application for a new trial.

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