Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Letter to John Brown in Jail

In the month and a half that John Brown was incarcerated for his leading role in the Harpers Ferry raid, his image among the Northern population changed drastically. His clear and concise answers to questions by the prosecution team and by newspaper reporters, brought to the public a different side of Brown that few who had heard of his terrible Kansas reputation believed possible.

One person who was not impressed by Brown though was Mahala Doyle. Mahala was the wife of James Doyle, and the mother of William and Drury Doyle; all three killed by Brown and his men back in Pottawatomie, Kansas in 1856.

The Doyles had moved from Tennessee to Kansas in 1855 because, like many poor whites, they felt the future was not very bright in a slave state for nonslaveholders. To them, the Kansas Territory out west hopefully offered a new start. But, like others that moved to the plains, the Doyles got caught up in the antislavery vs. proslavery fight. In a war like bleeding Kansas, people who sat on the fence about the slavery issue often ended up having to choose a side. The Doyles chose to support the proslavery Law and Order Party, not because they liked slavery, but because they hated abolitionists more; and for that decision they would suffer.

Two events are believed to be the source for John Brown's rage on the night of May 24, 1856. On May 21, proslavery forces had attacked the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas, burning the Free State Hotel and destroying the printing presses of the town's printing shops. On May 22, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks had clubbed Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner at his desk in the capital building in Washington. Brown, long furious over the pacifism and perceived lack of backbone shown by abolitionists, had had enough. He would make a stand; make an attack, to show that those who opposed slavery could be as brutal as those that favored slavery.

As Brown's men knocked on the cabin door of James Doyle, his wife Mahala and their six children slept. When Doyle opened the door, the men rushed into the cabin and snatched James, and his two oldest sons William and Drury. Mahala begged Brown to spare sixteen year old John, which he did. The three Drury men were taken into the nearby woods and John Brown's sons Owen and Salmon hacked them to ribbons with fierce broadswords. To make sure James Doyle was dead, Brown fired a shot into his head. The attack was bloody and brutal as fingers and arms were severed from bodies and deep gashes were inflicted to heads and chests.

When Brown was captured and jailed over three years later, word of course spread across the nation like wildfire. Mahala Doyle who had moved back to Tennessee, took a few minutes to scratch out some words to Brown as he sat awaiting his fate. She wrote the following:

Chattanooga Tennessee 20th November 1859
John Brown
Altho vengeance is not mine, I confess, that I do feel gratified to hear that you ware stopt in your fiendish career at Harper's Ferry, with the loss of your two sons, you can now appreciate my distress, in Kansas, when you then and there entered my house at midnight and arrested my husband and two boys and took them out of the yard and in cold blood shot them dead in my hearing, you cant say you done it to free our slaves, we had none and never expected to own one, but has only made me a poor disconsolate widow with helpless children while I feel for your folly. I do hope & trust that you will meet your just reward. O how it pained my Heart to hear the dying groans of my Husband and children if this scrawl give you any consolation you are welcome to it.
Mahala Doyle
[Noted on Back] my son John Doyle whose life I begged of (you) is now grown up and is very desirous to be at Charleston on the day of your execution would certainly be there if his means would permit it, that he might adjust the rope around your neck if gov: wise would permit it
M Doyle.
[address leaf] To John Brown Care of the Jailer Commander of the Army Charles Town. At Harper's Ferry Charlestown Jefferson County V.A.

It is interesting to think what Brown must have thought as he read these words. Did he feel any sorrow for having committed those murders in Kansas in 1856, and having caused this woman so much suffering? Or, did he still view the bloody deed as part of his work as God's active servant in ridding the United States of the terrible stain of slavery?


  1. Good stuff Tim. John Brown is one of my favorite characters from American history. I have researched his life thoroughly and the one thing that stands out about the man is:

    He was 55 years old when "suddenly", he became a domestic terrorist. When he packed up, left New York and headed to Kansas in 1855 - no mean feat that - he would wreak more havoc in the last four years of his life than all 55 years prior.

    I live in Illinois and my research shows that Brown passed through Chicago and even ventured out to Rockford on his epic journey from New York to Kansas back in 1855.

    Kansas likes to claim John Brown and yes, he spent a few years there. But, the bulk of his life was spent everywhere else BUT Kansas.

    Have you ever read about The Secret Six?

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