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  • John Brown's Body
  • Paul Theerman

John Brown, the great nineteenth-century abolitionist, remains a divisive figure in American history. To this day, people argue over the rightness of his path. Even before the outbreak of the Civil War, he used violence to put down slavery, and was met by violence in return. In the matter of John Brown there arose a debate not just about him, but a debate about what to do with him, that is, with his very body. From ancient times, as shown in Sophocles' drama Antigone, to the present day, the most satisfying victory seems to lie not just in vanquishing one's foes, but in dealing with their mortal remains. In the weeks following John Brown's raid, northern abolitionists struggled with both southern politicians and medical practitioners to obtain the bodies of John Brown and his followers. In microcosm, this dispute showed the nation beginning to fray and unravel, as violence entered the dispute, and dissent from one's countrymen gave way to disgust with one's opponents, and then to desire to put them on display as specimens.

In 1856 John Brown, the staunch abolitionist farmer from upstate New York, went west to "Bleeding Kansas" to take part in the guerilla wars over the spread of slavery. After a year of outright battle, he returned east to raise funds to carry out his raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. On October 16, 1859, Brown attempted to provoke a general slave uprising by capturing the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. Brown led some twenty men into battle; two days later he and the surviving raiders were captured by federal troops under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee. Although Brown had attacked a federal facility and had been captured by federal forces, his first battles had been with Virginia militiamen, and his troops had killed the local mayor. So when he went to trial on October 25, 1859, a week after his capture, the charge was treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. The trial took place at the Jefferson County courthouse at Charles Town, and the prosecuting attorney was Andrew Hunter, the local attorney for the commonwealth.

Few doubted that Brown would be convicted and sentenced to death. But even before the conclusion of the trial, competition had begun for possession [End Page 75] of his body. Arthur E. Peticolas, professor of anatomy at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond (now part of Virginia Commonwealth University), wrote to prosecutor Hunter on November 1:

Richmond, Nov. 1, 1859

Dear Sir, — We desire if Brown and his coadjutors are executed to add their heads to the collection in our museum. If the transference of the bodies will not exceed a cost of five dollars each we should also be glad to have them.

This request will of course not interfere with any clemency which it may be found desirable to extend to those convicted. Attention to this request will confer a great favor.

A. E. Peticolas M.D.

Prof Anat at Med. College of Va.

Mr. Andrew Hunter

Peticolas had apparently also written to Virginia governor Henry Wise, for on the following day—the day that Brown was found guilty and condemned to death—Wise wrote to Hunter:

Richmond, Va Novr 2nd 1859.

A. Hunter, Esqr

Dr Sir, — … The Medical faculty of Richmond College ask for the bodies of such as may be executed. The Court may order the bodies to be given over to surgeons. See to that in the sentence. It will not interfere with the pardoning power. And any who are hung ought not to have burial in Virginia.

Yrs truly Henry A. Wise1

In nineteenth-century America, the dearth of bodies for anatomical dissection is well attested. Here Peticolas took advantage of the prerogative of the courts to provide the bodies of the condemned to surgeons for anatomical dissection—a decision that was greatly aided by Virginians' visceral hatred towards Brown.2 As it turns out, the abolitionist was far too famous [End Page 76] and national sentiments were far too raw for Peticolas...


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