African-American History

The Tale of John Brown’s Letter Book

John Brown's Letter Book, 1859, MS 155, MdHS (reference photo)

John Brown’s Letter Book, 1859, MS 155, MdHS (reference photo)

The Maryland Historical Society has in its collection a small, tattered letter book written in the hand of famed abolitionist John Brown. In October 1859, Brown led a raid of a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in the hopes of igniting a nationwide slave revolt. The failed raid and Brown’s subsequent execution by hanging were among the causes that pushed the nation towards civil war in 1861.

The letter book contains a draft of “Sambo Mistakes,” an essay Brown wrote around 1847 for The Ram’s Horn, an abolitionist newspaper out of New York published by free blacks. Brown writes in the voice of a free African-American man calling out what he saw as a defeatist mindset that kept African-Americans from achieving equality. There are no extant copies of the newspaper remaining, so it remains unknown if the piece was ever published. The only remaining text is from John Brown’s own letter book, which contains three chapters of the essay in faded handwriting. (a full transcription of “Sambo Mistakes” can be found in John Brown, 1800-1859: A biography fifty years after, by Oswald Garrison Villard.)

The story behind how the letter book made its way into the collection of the Maryland Historical Society is an interesting tale in itself. In 1883, John H.B. Latrobe, the president of the Maryland Historical Society, received a letter and package from New Yorker Clifton W. Tayleure, relating how he came into the possession of Brown’s letter book. The full text of the letter is transcribed below:


The Carrollton, Baltimore, November 3, 1883

To the President of the Maryland Historical Society,


The Maryland Historical Society recently acquired this tintype of John Brown taken before he grew his trademark beard. John Brown, Abbot & Co., ca. 1860, Cased Photograph Collection, CSPH 580, Maryland Historical Society.

The Maryland Historical Society recently acquired this tintype of John Brown taken before he grew his trademark beard. John Brown, Abbot & Co., ca. 1860, Cased Photograph Collection, CSPH 580, Maryland Historical Society.

Herewith I send a manifold letter writes once belonging to John Brown and which I captured in his headquarters at the Kennedy farm near Harpers Ferry the evening of the day after Brown’s capture. At the time of his insurrectionary affair, I was connected with the Baltimore “Clipper” and also with the battalion of Baltimore City Guard. My presence at Harpers Ferry on the memorable October 18, 1859, was therefore in the double capacity of soldier and journalist. Unlike “Desdemona” there was no “divided duty” in my service. I marched with Colonel Robert E. Lee and his Company of U.S. Marines, into the yard of the arsenal immediately after our arrival from Baltimore, shortly after midnight on the 18th; was present upon the scene at intervals through the future night. For no one that I heard of had any thought of sleep – and with the exceptions of Dr. Dunbar of Baltimore – if I remember the name right and Dr. Harry Scott of the Baltimore City Guard was the only civilian in the yard enclosure during the assault upon the Engine House on the morning of the 18th. I was present at all the subsequent occurrences in connection with the examination of John Brown, including of course his memorable conversation with foreman? Harry? I was accosted by a young officer in Civilian attire, with an inquiry as to where he could find a Baltimore Military Company from a Battalion in connection with the Company of U.S. Marines for the purpose of capturing “the rest of those scoundrels” who were harbored, he added “at John Brown’s house three or four miles away on the Maryland Side.” The officer who had accosted me was J.E.B. Stuart, afterwards famous as a Confederate Cavalry Commander and his request to me was prompted by someone who pointed me out to him, as “an officer in a Baltimore Company, and a newspaper man.” – I proposed the service of Col. Joseph P. Warren Commander of the B.C.G. but he declined it after he found that his men were tired out with the fatigues of the journey of the ferry and the excitement attending the attack. It was then proposed to the Company of “Independent Greys” of Baltimore and promptly accepted in their behalf of Gen. Egerton, as I remember it.

Towards evening the Battalion crossed the bridge and marched in the direction indicated – some two miles from the Ferry. It was halted in front of a little log school house which stood on the right of the road, and there found and took possession of several boxes of Sharps rifles, together with a large number of murderous looking pikes. That done, the battalion was ordered hastily forward. Evening was rapidly approaching, and Captain Stuart who marched some distance in advance of his command, and who through the future distance has kept up a bright, cheery conversation with me upon the mystery of the affair. Remarking that according to Burner[?] ”the mountains are full of “ein[?]” but that his own idea was we should be confronted at the farm, and resisted by about “fifty or more of the miscreants” under command of a scoundrel named Cook.

Arrived at the farm house where John Brown and his adherents had lived. The battalion was halted in the wood whilst Captain Stuart and myself approached the house. We found it deserted, save by a large black dog of the Newfoundland Breed, which was chained to the porch. But a fire was yet burning in a stove in a small kitchen at the end of the house and the disheveled appearance of some fifteen or twenty beds, ringed around the large inner room (all of which had been made upon the floor, camp fashion) and other signs gave indication of a hurried departure on the part of its previous occupants. It was too dark for pursuit, and Capt. Stuart contented himself with picketing the house and grounds for the time.

In one corner of the room, I had observed a bed covered with a red and white Texas blanket. Perhaps my attention was attracted to it by the fact that it was the only bed in the room which had been left undisturbed. Near it stood a small black “army” trunk together with a large old fashioned carpet bag. Upon the bed very methodically arranged were a Sharps Rifle, a Sharps revolver, and a pike.

John Brown's Letter Book, 1859, MS 155, MdHS (reference photo)

John Brown’s Letter Book, cover, 1859, MS 155, MdHS (reference photo)

Obeying a sudden impulse, I hastily opened the trunk and found it partly filled with maps, Military books (in pamphlet form, I think Forbes advice for volunteers) papers, letters, etc. My legal education had taught me the value of documenting evidence, and hurriedly emptying the carpet bag of the articles of personal attire which it contained, I crammed it full of papers, letters, and a map or two and seizing the arms I had seen upon the bed, the rifle, pistol, and pike. I hastily left the house by the rear entrance, as Captain Stuart from the front porch was giving orders that nothing whatever should without his consent be taken from the place.

It was then perhaps about 7 o’clock of the evening, and quite dark. I had some apprehension of an attack, as I was alone, unarmed but personal audacity and professional pride urged me forward. A short distance from the Kennedy farm, I overtook a citizen of the neighborhood who was carrying off in a shoulder sling hurriedly improvised from a Captain’s blanket a partly filled barrel of flour, he had “looted” from John Brown’s pantry.

Arrived at the railroad station, then crowded with many soldiers, I cautiously opened the captured box and glancing over the papers found that a number of them possessed great value, as historic and legal evidence. At once I sought out Mr. George W. Mumford (I give the name from memory) Secretary of [sic] for Wise and who had accompanied his Excellency to Harper’s Ferry, and advising him of my capture, and my own idea of its importance added that I should be glad to hand them over to the state authorities of Virginia upon demand. A few weeks later demand was made, and I have in my possession Mr. Mumford’s official acknowledgment of the receipt of these documents, and offering thanks for my delivery of them.

Several of these papers proved of importance in the subsequent trial of John Brown, and were somewhat instrumental in proving the existence of a conspiracy against the rights and property of Virginia.

Two of ten[?] from these captured documents I published a day or two later in the Baltimore “Clipper” together with my narrative of facts and events in connection with the raid. Worn out with fatigue at the railway station at Harpers Ferry, I fell asleep shortly after my arrival there. When I awoke, I found that my military overcoat had been unbuttoned and from its breast pocket there had been abstracted, in addition to certain articles of value to me, but the Sharps pistol recently taken from John Brown’s bed. Fortunately, I had made a cushion of the carpet bag, so that it could not have been taken without hazard of awakening me, and the Sharps Rifle, being slung across my back by a stout strap, was also thus saved from loss.

The pike I sent to my friend, the late Richard Meadow[?] then editor of the Charleston Courier. The Sharps rifle I gave afterwards (in 1861) to my brother William W. Tayleure, a gallant officer in the 12thVirginia regiment (of Petersburg, VA). The carpet bag I yet have and the manifold letter written which I herewith saved. Its chief value seems to be in the evidence it furnishes of the drift and color of John Brown’s thoughts and [??]. I know nothing of its history, but is evident that its record antedates the outbreak of the John Brown conspiracy by several years.

I was reminded to present this book to the Historical Society of New York, but I find more gratification in offering it to your honorable Society. If you think it worthy of acceptance I shall be very glad to have it find a resting place amongst the archives of the society you represent.

Pardon the prolixity & seeming egotism of this hurried narrative. I give it, solely for the purpose of authenticating the book and explaining how and when it came into my possession. I leave town tomorrow for Cincinnati. I shall however be honored by a reply to my permanent address No. 162 South Elliott Place, Brooklyn, NY


Clifton W. Tayleure (1)

(Damon Talbot)


(1) Clifton W. Tayleure to John H.B. Latrobe, November 3, 1883, MS 2008, MdHS.


8 Responses to “The Tale of John Brown’s Letter Book”

  1. Good morning, excellent story, since very few people know that Mr. Brown was one of the first people to fight for the equality of African Americans and that his hanging generated in part the civil war of 1861, he also saw that if they did not change the mentality of defeatists would never achieve equality for them and that the struggle was for everyone.

    Posted by ADRIANA DELGADO | 23. Jan, 2019, 8:12 am
  2. Good afternoon, very few know this story, the struggle for equality of African Americans generated a civil war.

    Posted by ADRIANA DELGADO | 01. Feb, 2019, 4:23 pm

    Posted by ADRIANA DELGADO | 21. Feb, 2019, 6:22 pm
  4. I’m a fan of manuscripts

    Posted by Moises | 18. Apr, 2019, 12:01 pm
  5. Magnificent story, the truth is not that many people know. But it is good to know that with articles like this, you can know more about the struggle for equality of African Americans caused a civil war.

    Posted by Lidda | 29. Apr, 2019, 12:43 pm
  6. I still find the article or this story very interesting

    Posted by Lidda | 18. Jul, 2019, 11:52 am
  7. Good afternoon, I think it is a very good article that you have shared with us, I really believe that it is very important to know more and more about this topic that many of us are interested in knowing and know more in depth about this. Thank you very much for sending us this information through this blog so good and interesting that it gives us very good service for this in communication with many people.

    Posted by lidda03 | 24. Sep, 2019, 3:01 pm

Reply to Lidda


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