Was John Brown’s 1st Victim Black?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Within a famous attempt to start a slave revolt was a terrible irony.

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Douglass’ refusal was a grave disappointment to Brown. As novelist James McBride has his narrator, Henrietta (nickname “Onion”), say in The Good Lord Bird, winner of this year’s National Book Award, Brown’s “great heartbreak was his friend Mr. Douglass,” even though Henrietta “[k]nowed from the first, really, that there weren’t no way Mr. Douglass could’a brung hisself to fight a real war. He was a speeching parlor man.”

In the aftermath, Douglass still drew suspicion for his suspected complicity in the planning of the raid. Investigators found a letter from Douglass in Brown’s possession, and though it was two years old and silent on Harpers Ferry, the governor of Virginia enlisted the support of the Buchanan administration to track him down on charges of “murder, robbery, and inciting servile insurrection,” as quoted in John Stauffer’s dual biography of Douglass and Lincoln, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Before fleeing to Canada, then on to England for a pre-planned tour, as he wrote, defensively, in the New York Daily Tribune on Nov. 4, 1859, Douglass had his son “hide or destroy incriminating documents” at home. It wasn’t until the following June, in 1860, that Virginia’s governor “dropped the charges against him,” Stauffer writes. 

For a time, he had been “the most wanted man in America.” (Interestingly, Douglass visited Harpers Ferry in 1881 to deliver a speech on Brown at Storer College and donated the proceeds from the printed version to a fund for a John Brown Professorship. In it, he shared the above recollections and declared, “When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone.”)

RIP Heyward Shepherd

While abolitionists like Douglass were sympathetic to Brown’s ultimate goal, they were skeptical of the mission itself, and so, despite financial support, on the eve of the raid, Brown had only been able to assemble a force of 22, including himself and five black men. (More on them later.)

As Brown and his men moved into Harpers Ferry (less than 70 miles west of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.) on the night of Oct. 16, 1859, the people of the town had no clue what was about to happen. Here’s where brother Heyward Shepherd came in.

Shepherd was a baggage master working the overnight shift at the train depot in Harpers Ferry, when he must have heard the B&O express train out of Wheeling, Va., slowing down on the Potomac Bridge—about to be ambushed by a group of Brown’s raiders, including Brown’s son, Oliver. The train’s white conductor, Andrew Phelps, stepped out with four others to see what was going on. Once inside the covered portion of the railroad bridge, Phelps spotted the raiders’ rifle ends. Then, suddenly, one of his men had his lantern snuffed out after Phelps heard a shout, “Stand and deliver!”

The next thing Phelps knew, “a tall black man staggered out from the covered bridge, crying, ‘I am shot,’ ” as Horwitz writes. It was Shepherd, whose own version of the events was later transmitted to a U.S. Senate Select Committee on the Harper’s Ferry Invasion (1860) by his attending physician at the railroad office, John D. Starry. In his testimony, Starry said:

“When I got there I found the negro porter, Hayward, shot, the ball entering from behind, through the body, nearly on a line with the base of the heart, a little below it. He told me that he had been out on the railroad bridge looking for a watchman who was missing, and he had been ordered to halt by some men who were there, and, instead of doing that, he turned to go back to the office, and as he turned they shot him in the back. I understood from him that he walked from there to the office, and when I found him he was lying on a plank upon two chairs in the office … He was a free negro, and had permission of the county court to remain in Jefferson county … I saw him about daylight; he was still living. I understood he died between twelve and one o’clock on Monday, the next day.”

So it was, Horwitz writes, noting the irony, that “John Brown’s campaign to liberate slaves had claimed as its first casualty a free black man, shot down while defying the orders of armed whites.” My own elementary school history teacher, James McHenry, in a classroom about two hours’ drive from Harpers Ferry, enthusiastically pointed out to our fifth-grade class the same irony, almost as a sign from God of what he gleefully characterized as Brown’s lunacy. I remember feeling very bad for the brother, and I felt bad for John Brown as well.