- The Tie that Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz
John Brown, Women’s history, Abolition, Reform movements
In popular accounts, John Brown and his sons are often lionized as men operating with violence outside of a feminized domestic sphere even as [End Page 311] the men’s bonds as father, sons, and sons-in-law are apparent. Historians have paid scant attention to John Brown’s wife, daughters, or daughters-in-law. In The Tie that Bound Us Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz effectively writes the Brown women into history, establishing that all the Brown women offered logistical and material support for the Brown men in both Kansas and Virginia, including wrapping bandages for them in advance of their departure for Harpers Ferry. Fifteen-year-old Annie and her sister-in-law Martha accompanied John Brown and the other raiders to their farmhouse hideout to do the domestic work and to serve as decoys from prying neighbors. For the rest of her life, Annie Brown was proud of the role she played at Harpers Ferry as an “outlaw girl” and soldier in the fight against slavery. Laughlin-Schultz documents how Annie Brown chafed at the lack of public recognition of her role.
Long before Harpers Ferry, the Brown family confronted devastating crises. In total, John Brown had twenty children, eleven of whom lived to adulthood. That number is reduced to only eight who survived into their thirties, if one factors in the sons who died due to their militant antislavery activism in Kansas and Virginia. John Brown and his first wife had seven children before she died after complications from childbirth in 1832. The widower soon married teenager Mary Ann Day, who bore another thirteen children, only four of whom survived into their thirties. Six of Mary and John’s children did not reach their teenage years and four died of dysentery in September 1843 (15). Even for the early to mid-nineteenth century, the Browns lost far more children than the norm. Although Laughlin-Schultz declines to speculate about whether these tragic deaths contributed to either a willingness or a reluctance on Mary Brown’s part to see her children and stepchildren participate in John Brown’s antislavery activism, it appears to be a defining aspect of their family’s history of radical militancy.
These terrible losses were compounded by the family’s constant dislocation, as John Brown tried to find permanent, profitable employment. In 1848, Brown moved his family to a remote Adirondack region in western New York, settling at North Elba, Gerrit Smith’s land-grant colony for free blacks. There, they lived in social equality with their black neighbors. The family had already faced many trials, but the worst was yet to come: John Brown’s antislavery missions in Kansas and Virginia directly imperiled the lives of his male family members and increased the work and emotional burdens of the poverty-stricken Brown women left back at the farm. [End Page 312]
After Harpers Ferry, John Brown engaged in a letter-writing campaign from prison to raise money for his family, casting the Brown women in the role of needy, worthy dependents. White abolitionist women were fascinated by the grieving family and eagerly offered assistance, even as they condescendingly caricatured them as simple, “rustic,” and impoverished. Focusing on their white supporters, Laughlin-Schultz misses an opportunity to introduce African Americans, such as the writer and abolitionist Frances Watkins (Harper), who reached out to Mary Brown with moral and financial support. Watkins spent the two weeks leading up to John Brown’s execution with Mary Brown at the Philadelphia home of Underground Railroad leader William Still.
Resenting the white supporters who pitied her but also assumed she had no volition, Mary Brown engaged in contests with them, including over where and how to bury John Brown. She refused to let him be buried with a large...