In 1859, with John Brown imprisoned for the raid on Harper’s Ferry, attention turned to the question of who had helped him. Bostonian Samuel Gridley Howe and five of his friends — the Secret Six — were nervous.
Today, Howe’s wife Julia Ward Howe is better known to history lovers. But in 1859, Samuel had wider fame. A physician, he helped establish the Perkins School for the Blind.
Howe was also an active abolitionist. He had helped create an organization that tried to settle anti-slavery voters in Kansas. They aimed to turn it into a free state. Before it ran out of money, the organization purchased 200 Sharps rifles for use of the settlers.
The Secret Six
With the efforts to settle Kansas faltering, the six men behind the effort began discussing a new plan for the rifles.
Known as the Secret Six, they began listening to the plans of a Connecticut radical abolitionist — John Brown. Brown wanted to attack the U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia.
Brown and his band of raiders planned to capture the rifles at the armor. Then he would hand weapons out to local slaves who would join him in the uprising. Brown and his miniature army succeeded in capturing the armory, albeit only for a day. And the uprising never occurred.
Brown had tried and failed to recruit more men to support his efforts. In the end only 22 people participated in the raid. But he had convinced the Secret Six to divert their rifles — originally destined for Kansas — to Virginia to arm his raiders.
Brown was widely viewed as a mad man. Government officials dismissed warnings about Brown’s planned attack because it seemed so fantastically impossible. Frederick Douglass declined to participate. It was a suicide mission, he believed. But Brown succeeded in capturing the armory. He just couldn’t get out once he had it.
U.S. Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee recaptured the Harper’s Ferry armory and took Brown prisoner. After a trial, Brown was executed – a martyr to his cause. Northerners viewed the attack as a well-intentioned tragedy. Southerners, however, saw it as a crime. And southern slave owners wanted to know who had backed Brown’s efforts to deprive them of their property.
The Hunt for Samuel Gridley Howe
Following Brown’s conviction in Virginia, his Boston supporters raised money for one last appeal. They hoped to have Brown’s case reheard in federal court.
Howe supported the appeal, but he realized he could be forced to go to Virginia if a federal court took on the case. He fled to Canada. Howe also went further and published in a New York newspaper a disavowal of any knowledge of Brown’s plans. He would later admit his statement was misleading, at best, if not an outright lie.
As for the other members of the Secret Six, each responded in his own way to the aftermath of the raid.
The Secret Six Disbands
Franklin Sanborn, a school teacher who helped fund Brown’s raid, contemplated fleeing the country, but decided to stay in his Concord, Mass., home. He trusted the public would rise up to protect him if he were threatened. He was right. Federal marshals did try to arrest Sanborn, but an angry mob of his neighbors thwarted them. (Louisa May Alcott watched.) Sanborn also denied advance knowledge of the raid, but defended Brown. He took it on himself to personally see that Brown’s children received educations.
New York millionaire Gerrit Smith, who contributed funds to Brown, destroyed all his letters referencing the raid. When accused of funding Brown, he denied knowing anything about it. Accused again, he sought refuge in an insane asylum and said he had only foggy recollections of Brown.
George Luther Stearns of Medford, Mass., who actually paid for the guns sent to Brown, would destroy his papers related to the raid. He fled to Canada to avoid the controversy. He later returned to Massachusetts, however, to answer questions about his involvement in the raid.
Two outspoken Massachusetts ministers in the Secret Six, Thomas Wentworth Higginson of Cambridge and Theodore Parker of Lexington, continued to support Brown publicly. By the time of the attack on the armory, Parker had left America for Italy. Despite the failure of the raid, he remained convinced that the arc of history “bends toward justice.” He died in Italy at 49 in 1860 of tuberculosis, just five months after Brown’s execution.
Higginson, the lone stalwart defender, never backed down. His support for Brown was common knowledge and he was outspoken in his opposition to slavery. Seeing the failure of efforts to peacefully keep Kansas free, he became convinced bloodshed was inevitable if slavery were to be ended. He would say, “One held against his will as a slave has a natural right to kill everyone who seeks to prevent his enjoyment of liberty.”
Higginson, Sanborn and Stearns would all make occasional trips to visit Brown’s grave throughout their lives.
This story last updated in 2021.