Wednesday, March 3, 2010

John Brown was Hanged with Kentucky Hemp Rope

One of the most rewarding things about doing research is finding that otherwise obscure nugget of information that helps answer the historical question you are asking and that solidifies your hypothesis. On the other hand, one of the most frustrating things about research is finding those nuggets of information and then having to wait to find time to dig deeper to learn even more about a source.

I recently ran across a couple of accounts that credited Kentucky with supplying the hemp rope that was used to hang John Brown. Apparently three states (South Carolina, Missouri, and Kentucky) vied for the honor of providing the cordage, but the Bluegrass hemp won out. One account I found explained that the three ropes were examined in a public forum for several days before the execution. The South Carolina rope that was made of cotton was judged too weak for the job, and the Missouri hemp rope was also judged inferior to the Kentucky rope.

So, what happened to this relic after the hanging. It appears there is some disagreement in the historical record. One account said that the wooden gallows was disassembled and mixed with other lumber for use in other construction projects while the rope was burned. Other accounts say that the rope still exists. One possible sample of rope is in the Warren Rifles Confederate Museum in Front Royal, Virginia (pictured above). Apparently this piece of rope was brought back from the hanging by the Warren Rifles militia unit that attended the hanging and later became a company of the 17th Virginia infantry regiment in the Civil War. Another piece is said to be in the West Virginia State Museum. The Massachusetts Historical Society also claims to have some of the rope. A newspaper article from the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette published in 1929 said that the rope or a piece of it was in the Kentucky archives. I don't think that the Kentucky archives was even existed in its current state in 1929, but possibly they meant the Kentucky Historical Society; anyhow, apparently this piece of the rope no longer exists.
I think that it is a particularly significant gesture for the state of Kentucky to send this token of its hate for abolitionism to Virginia to be used in the execution of Brown. It shows that the state was committed to the institution of slavery and that an attempt such as Brown's to end that practice would not be tolerated. Kentucky was nationally known for its hemp and rope production during the Antebellum years, and by choosing this gifted symbol it solidified its proslavery position in the country's perception.


  1. I'm not sure of the provenance of that sample of rope. Our museum has an piece of the John Brown rope with a 100% identification as such. It is a different diameter, etc. than the Warren Rifles rope. For more info visit

  2. Here's an interesting twist to this tale. John Brown Jr was a resident of Sandusky, oh at some point in time.