The History Place - Writers' Corner
Book Excerpt
The Night I Freed John Brown
(Historical Fiction)

by John Michael Cummings


Chapter XIII: John Brown on Trial

On the first Saturday night in August, the Richmonds and I piled into their Toyota and headed up High Street. We were off to the big John Brown play! Finally the moment had come. All day, I had been tiptoeing around my parents and brothers, not sure whether they knew the play was tonight or not, waiting every second for one of them to blare out that I was forbidden from going. But the evening came, and no one seemed to know, so I escaped!

As Mr. Richmond steered up the long hill in town, Alex, Luke, and I put on fake mustaches and beards, to look like John Brown's thirty-something-year-old sons. To look dirty-faced, like we had been fighting Union troops, we had a can of stage makeup as brown as shoe polish. As I smeared it down my cheeks, glancing in the visor mirror, Luke and Alex started laughing because I had gotten gobs of it in my eyelashes.

"All in the spirit of authenticity, boys!" Mr. Richmond roared out, warming up his John Brown voice.

By the time we turned onto Philmore Street, Alex, Luke, and I were made up in floppy hats and fake beards, our faces streaked like John Brown's raiders! Daniel, who was playing a rowdy spectator, was decked out in an old-time suit and top hat. If there were any girls at the play, they'd go crazy for him.


Philmore Street was full of the fanciest old houses. Many had big names. Our Lady of Longstreet was a yellow mansion with curvy white columns. McClellan's Charge and Burnside's Brigade were also giant structures. But the house we pulled up to was a stone house not much bigger than the one my family lived in. I had barely noticed it in all these years. There was a high black gate around it, floodlights in the yard, and fancy electric candles in every window. The mortar was as white as the backs of my sneakers, and the columns glistened with green paint. This was my mother's dream home--a small Harpers Ferry limestone house like ours, restored to the hilt!

A chubby man with a pink face and a wineglass in his hand opened the door and was all smiles for Mr. Richmond. He even gave him a big hug like a woman. I recognized him. He was a big-name author around town. He wrote ghost stories about Harpers Ferry and Antietam, the famous battle-field just eleven miles up the road, across the river in Mary-land. Was he the man in the play my father hated? The one my mother had warned me about?

"I see you all have come ready," he said, chuckling as he looked around at our different costumes.

We went inside to a room full of bright lights and people dressed up like on Halloween. Right away my heart began to pound. Around the room were park people who were my neighbors but who never spoke to my family because my brothers had done something bad to them. The man in the farmer's overalls--Jerry had bent the antenna off his Jeep. The man who lived right behind us--Robbie had taken the distributor cap off his VW just to see him try to start it in the morning. The park architect dressed in an old-time suit--Dad didn't like him because he double-parked his Cadillac everywhere on the narrow cobblestone streets. Father Ron was here, toting one of those toy muskets they sold in souvenir shops around town. Dad definitely hated him. Lee Jackson was here, too, wearing an old floppy hat just like mine. I couldn't imagine what part he was playing. He was on Dad's blacklist, too.

As I looked at them all talking and laughing, I began to realize that no one recognized me under my itchy fake mustache and beard. It was like I was at a masquerade ball. When Daniel, Alex, and Luke started laughing and smiling along with Mr. Richmond, who was talking to a group of people, so did I, and for a second, I was rubbing shoulders with Harpers Ferry's upper crust! I wished my scared little parents could see me now, especially Mom. This was nothing. As nice as she was, she could do this easy.

As I found myself glancing around this beautiful house, the ache in my stomach for my mother grew. This was how she wanted our house to look--walls painted bright, chandeliers everywhere, fancy dark furniture, oval rugs, antique lamps, teacups.

Drifting away from everyone, I peeked into the first room I could. Over the fireplace was a big painting of George Washington. We had that exact same painting in our house! Only ours was smaller and in a cheap frame. We had the same fireplace mantel, too. But this one was refinished in fancy red wood and filled with neat candles. Dad had put a rusted stovepipe into our fireplace, which curled down to a potbelly stove some old hillbilly must have stuck his head into and committed suicide a hundred years ago.

I peeked into another room. Wow! A fancy wooden desk big enough for the president! A computer with speakers! In this room in our house, Dad stuck boxes and boxes of old Popular Mechanics magazines and left the plaster walls full of cracks. Jerry said it was like The Addams Family house in there. We didn't need to build an addition on our house or move up to Ridge Street--we could fix up our house to look just like this one!

I went back out to the main room, where everyone was chatting. After everyone stood around for a while, talking and sipping from wineglasses, Mr. Richmond appeared from a back room, wearing an old nightgown and a phony gray beard much longer and scragglier than mine, along with a white bandage around his forehead, spotted with fake blood. The room quieted down, and everyone took their places. The lights soon dimmed, except for a desk lamp, which was angled to shine on Mr. Richmond's face as he lay on the sofa, looking injured.

A tall man wearing what looked like a Dracula's cape came into the room and sat in a fancy chair at the head of the sofa. Behind him was a man holding a nightstick. I recognized him as a park ranger. Behind him was a Civil War soldier, standing like a guard. Two others in dark suits came into the room. Everyone else sat in folding chairs along the wall. The red chairs were for the jury, and the gray ones for the spectators. Some had out playbooks. My heart started pounding.

Then the man in Dracula's cape started speaking in a heavy, low tone that sounded like a church organ: "John Brown, you stand accused of treason against the United States." He unrolled a large scroll and read from it. "You stand accused of inciting rebellion, of insurrection . . ." He unrolled the scroll further. ". . . of arson, larceny, and looting--and the severest of these charges, indeed of all charges against man . . ." Letting the scroll roll up on its own, the judge leaned down from his throne and stared an angry face at the injured John Brown. ". . . of murder!"

From the back of the courtroom came a thunder of banging plastic gunstocks.

"Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" chanted the spectators in the gray chairs. Father Ron, standing tall among them, looked like a madman.

The judge, in swift response to this outburst, banged his gavel until the courtroom quieted. Then the chubby man with the pink face spoke at length, in a funny, overdone voice, pointing a Bible at John Brown: "The accused," he said, "shall be judged by the law of God and the land"--he turned and looked back at the spectators--"and not by prejudice and wrath!"

It went on this way for some time, with everyone getting a chance to point their finger at John Brown, using words like "guilty" and "everlasting punishment." I was totally caught up in the moment, wondering how, as John Brown's son, Frederick Brown, I would die to protect my father. A bayonet to the chest? A gunshot?

Finally, with the bright light from the desk lamp on his face, John Brown sat up and, with his arm outstretched, started speaking to the ceiling in a wavering voice.

". . . I have yet another objection," he said, his long gray beard falling down, "and that is, it is unjust I should suffer such a penalty . . . Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent--"

He stamped his bare foot down on the floor, rattling dresser handles all around the room.

"--the so-called great, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children--"

He paused as one by one, Alex, Luke, and I stepped forward, knelt, and placed our hands on his. In the bright light, I saw him look at each of us, his face as chalky as stone. My heart was pounding hard. I never imagined that the moment could feel so great.

"--it would have been all right," he went on, "and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward, rather than punishment!"

The courtroom spectators roared in outrage. So much so, the judge banged his gavel, and the Civil War soldier stepped forward and drew his sword, its blade gleaming in the light.

Then, in reverse order, Alex, Luke, and I stepped back, and John Brown went on speaking, saying he was under God's commandment. He spoke in long sentences that rose and fell like mountains and valleys. He said he had no consciousness of guilt and that he regretted the weakness of man. He mentioned places like Missouri and Canada and spoke of trying to free slaves without violence.

When he finished, Lee Jackson, with the light trained on him, stood and spoke, saying the accused was innocent in the eyes of God. Then the light swung on Alex.

"If my father so consecrates his life to the destruction of slavery," he said, "no penalty by man can stand against him for his deed. Not now or ever!"

Luke started speaking before the light reached him--"Who are we as a nation if only some of us should live freely?" He shook his fist at the judge. "The bees of revolution will begin to swarm!"

There were chuckles in the back of the room.

My chest was as hard as an oil drum by the time the spotlight blazed across my bearded face.

"I stand here today," I said, my voice not cracking once, "before God and country, in defense of my father"--I spun around and faced the unruly spectators--"for his actions are brave and of the noblest!"

Muskets rose up in my face. Father Ron's pie-face looked hideous as he shook his plastic gun at me--he should have been in the picture window across from my house, not John Brown. The gavel banged, and banged. The guard drew his nightstick. I felt the eyes of the room searing through me as I soared over the world, as if planet Earth was a Ferris wheel and I had the highest seat!

The light swung back onto the judge in the black cape, who rambled on for some time about crimes against humanity and their consequences. He spoke for so long that Alex, Luke, and I sat cross-legged on the floor.

"John Brown," he said finally, "it is the pronouncement of this court that you be hanged by the neck until--"

"Mankind will forever dwell in the wilderness of his ignorance," John Brown shouted in one final breath, "unless I forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice!"

Though injured, he shook his fist fiercely at the judge.

"Here! Here!" Daniel cheered loudly, standing in his spiffy suit.

More outbursts, more gavel banging, then more soldiers came into the room.

When the lights came back on, everyone started clapping, smiling, and looking around at one another. Mr. Richmond, the wounded John Brown, stood, pulled off his phony beard, and bowed. He waved Alex, Luke, and me up beside him, and we all bowed and smiled under our fake beards.

The clapping went on forever. In the brightly lit room, the chubby man, raising his wineglass, said he thought it was one of their best plays yet. The smiles went on and on, and for the next hour, we devoured carrot cake and swilled Sprite. In all that time, I absolutely did not know my name, if it wasn't Frederick Brown!

Copyright © John Michael Cummings 2008

John Michael Cummings' short stories have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review. Twice he has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. His short story "The Scratchboard Project" received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007, and his novella The House of My Father was a finalist in the 2006 Miami University Novella Contest. Author's web site: Purchase the book from today!

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