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John Brown, two daguerreotypes

John Brown of Osawatomie, 1857 Half-plate daguerreotype, 6 x 4 ¾ in (cased).

John Brown of Osawatomie, 1857 Half-plate daguerreotype, 6 x 4 ¾ in (cased). John Adams Whipple (attrib.) Grafton, Massachusetts 1822 – 1891 Cambridge, Massachusetts and
James Wallace Black (attrib.) Francestown, New Hampshire 1825 – 1896 Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Gift of James Redpath, 1863.  Below: John Brown, 1856. Sixth-plate daguerreotype, 3 5/8 x 3 1/8 in (cased). Anonymous.  Gift of Sally Fairchild, 1942.


John Brown, 1856. Sixth-plate daguerreotype, 3 5/8 x 3 1/8 in (cased). Anonymous.  Gift of Sally Fairchild, 1942.


James Redpath (1833-1891), journalist, abolitionist, and biographer of John Brown,[1] presented this elegantly cased half-plate daguerreotype portrait of the man he apostrophized as “Old Hero” to the Boston Athenæum on October 5, 1863.[2] Redpath had first met Brown in Kansas in 1856 when both men were engaged in the armed struggle against the pro-slavery elements in that territory. As an ardent abolitionist deeply disturbed by the persistence of slavery in a country that claimed to be Christian and democratic, the Scottish-born Redpath was in complete sympathy with Brown’s plan to incite an armed slave rebellion.

On February 27, 1864, Redpath wrote to William F. Poole, the Athenæum’s librarian, describing the circumstances of the daguerreotype he had given and commenting on other portraits of Brown, including the oil painting by Nahum B. Onthank (1823-1888) and the plaster bust by Edward Augustus Bracket (1818-1908), both still in the Athenæum’s collection. Redpath wrote:

The daguerreotype of John Brown which I gave you some time since was taken in January 1857 or in December of the year before. I think that this was his first visit to Boston after he had become a man of note in connection with Kansas affairs. At least, he was personally known to very few of the friends of Kansas in Boston; and as I happened at the time to be brought into daily intercourse with numbers of them, I availed myself of the opportunity to testify my admiration of the old man by introducing him, whenever I could, to this class of people.[3]

Later in the letter Redpath writes, “In January he [Brown] had three daguerreotypes of himself taken – one, he gave to Dr. Webb, one to Amos A. Lawrence, one to me. I had asked him for one; he expressed a reluctance to sit; but on leaving, he handed it to me, saying that he gave it because I had ‘been very kind’ to him.”[4]

The Athenæum’s good fortune was compounded in 1942 by the donation of another daguerreotype of John Brown, a smaller image in the common sixth-plate size, portraying him in a rougher mode. This daguerreotype descended through the family of Albert Hobert Nelson (1812-1858), Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court.[5]  It passed from Judge Nelson’s wife to her daughter Elizabeth Nelson, who was a student at the school in Concord, Massachusetts run by Franklin Benjamin Sanborn (1831-1917).[6] Sanborn, then serving as secretary of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, was Brown’s principal host during his 1857 visit to Boston and arranged many introductions to prominent persons who might be helpful to his cause. In 1868 Elizabeth Nelson married Charles Fairchild (b.1838), and it was their oldest daughter Sally Fairchild (b.1869) who presented the daguerreotype of Brown to the Athenæum in 1942.

Presently there are only four known daguerreotype life-portraits of John Brown: one at the National Portrait Gallery, one at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and two at the Boston Athenæum.


Sally Pierce (from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum [2006],316-318. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.)

[1]James Redpath, Public Life of Capt. John Brown (Boston: Thayer & Eldridge, 1860). The biography was written in haste as Brown awaited execution. The Athenæum’s copy was given by Thomas Wentworth Higginson on February 9, 1860.
[2]BA letterbooks, vol. 24, p. 85.
[3] James Redpath, The Roving Editor; or, Talks with Slaves in the Southern States (New York: A.B.Burdick, 1859), iii. In the dedication, Redpath makes common cause with Brown’s aims and methods.
[4]Dr. Thomas Hopkins Webb (1801-1866), secretary of the New England Emigrant Aid Society, established to help Free-Soil emigrants to Kansas, was instrumental in procuring a shipment of Sharp’s rifles to be sent to Kansas. Amos A. Lawrence (1814-1886), president of the New England Emigrant Aid Society, met with Brown several times during his 1857 Boston visit and pledged funds to aid the struggle in Kansas and to support Brown’s family.
[5]Judge Nelson is erroneously identified as “Abbott Nelson” in Walter Muir Whitehill, “John Brown of Osawatomie in Boston, 1857,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 69, p. 271.
[6]Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Sixty Years of Concord, 1855-1915, ed. Kenneth Walter Cameron (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1976), 35. In a recollection of his school from 1855-1863 Sanborn mentions “Mrs. Elizabeth Fairchild (Miss Nelson), who had a formed and finished style of writing when she came to me as a pupil.”