Saturday, April 4, 2015

A Kentuckian Provided the Eulogy for a John Brown Raider

Reading the title of this post may surprise some of my longtime readers who know how vehemently Kentuckians opposed John Brown, and those of like mind, at the time of those momentous events. However, there were a handful of men and women from the Bluegrass State who either saw slavery as a great evil, viewed African Americans as equal or potentially equal, and sought different ways to end the institution. John G. Fee was one such Kentuckian that has received considerable attention in this forum. James Thome was another. Amazingly, they were both natives of Bracken County.  

Edwin Coppoc (pictured above), along with his older brother Barclay lived in Springdale, Iowa before joining John Brown's band of raiders in the late summer of 1859. Edwin was born in 1835, and raised as a Quaker in northern Ohio, where abolitionism was the rule rather than the exception. When Coppoc's father died, the boy went live with a nearby uncle who helped conduct slaves along the Underground Railroad. Thus, from a young age, Edwin came to have strong feelings against slavery.

At age 15, Edwin moved to Springdale, Iowa, where his mother had moved and remarried. While there Edwin and Barclay met John Brown, who passed through the town during his Kansas years on his way to Canada and the East seeking funds for his abolitionist force and mission.

During the action at Harper's Ferry, Edwin found himself in the fire engine house with John Brown and was captured on October 18 by Robert E. Lee's command of Marines. He was taken with the other captured raiders and Brown to nearby Charlestown for holding and trial. Edwin was convicted along with Brown and the others. Coppoc's sentence was death by hanging, to be completed on December 16, 1859. He would die that day with African Americans John Anthony Copeland, Sheilds Green, however, on segregated gallows. Also executed that day was John Cook, who had escaped Harpers Ferry, but was caught in Pennsylvania, several days later. Edwin's brother, Barclay, made a complete escape.   

After the hanging, Coppoc's body was placed in a wooden coffin and claimed by relatives who made their way back to northern Ohio, apparently by rail, as his funeral and burial in Winona was held two days after his execution. A couple of weeks later, on December 30, Coppoc was reinterred in Hope Cemetery in Salem, Ohio, near Cleveland. At the service on December 30, distinguished minister, James Thome (pictured above), a native of Bracken County, Kentucky, provided the eulogy.

Thome was born in Augusta, Kentucky, in 1813. His father had been a slaveholder, but as a young man studying at Lane Seminary in nearby Cincinnati, Ohio, Thome revolted with a group of other students over the issue of slavery and transferred to Oberlin College where he fully converted to the abolitionist camp. Although the difference in sentiment divided Thome from his family, he remained convinced that slavery was wrong and needed to end, the sooner the better. Thome went on to teach at Oberlin and then ministered at Congregational Church in Ohio City. Thome's father eventually manumitted his human property, largely due to his son's influence.

A handbill was circulated for Edwin Coppoc's funeral that read:
"The friends of Edwin Coppock and the great principles of freedom, for which HE sacrificed his life, and to advance which, he suffered martyrdom, being desirous of showing proper respect to his memory have obtained his remains from his relatives, and have made arrangements to inter the body in the Cemetery in SALEM, FRIDAY, DECEMBER 30, 1859.

To open the service a Rev. Burke led a prayer and then the attendees sang one of John Brown's favorite songs, "Blow Ye Trumpet, Blow." Then, Thome took center stage and used the biblical tale of the writing on the wall to explain that "like the message to Belshazzar was John Brown's to enthroned iniquity. . .Here is granduer; here is God's own work and grace, here where it is treason to proclaim God's truth; here in an age of sounding brass--are these great souls, like living organs though whose trumpet notes God has blown an anthem that shakes the land like an earthquake." An attendee explained that the sermon was especially eloquent and like one only hears once in a lifetime.

Barclay Coppoc went on to serve in the Union army and was killed when the train he was riding was derailed by Confederate sympathizers in Missouri in 1861.

Edwin Coppoc's original wooden coffin was kept after he was reinterred in a metallic casket for the Salem burial. The wooden relic was brought out of storage when Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant at Appomattox. It was paraded through Salem on the shoulders of its bearers while they sang "John Brown's Body."


  1. I am a descendent of Joseph Coppoc, the youngest brother and only survivor. I've been researching them to share with my son's 5th grade class that has been studying the civil war. The younger brother, Joseph, wen ton to drive wagons in the Underground Railroad and during the civil war, became a Captain of a colored infantry. Genealogy has really brought the history to life for us and gives me a greater appreciation for their bravery. What shoulders we are standing on!