By DAVE McMILLION
CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Though he faced execution for his failed attempt at taking over the federal arsenal in 1859, abolitionist John Brown showed unique composure in the roughly 40-day period he was held in a Charles Town jail cell.
Writers from numerous newspapers came to Charles Town to interview Brown after his capture, and the experiences seemed to fuel Brown’s readiness to serve as a martyr in the fight against slavery, according to Greg Artzner, a musician and actor who has spent several years researching the history of the man whose actions helped spark the Civil War.
Brown’s final and colorful last days of life are being brought back to life in a play this weekend at the Old Opera House in Charles Town. But Artzner, who plays Brown in the play, and long-time music partner Terry Leonino, who plays Brown’s wife, Mary, are digging deeper to portray Brown in his last moments of life.
Brown’s state of mind can be keenly observed through numerous letters between Brown and his wife. Artzner and Leonino spent three years searching for the letters. Finding Brown’s letters was not hard. He wrote more than 100 letters while being held in his jail cell, which was at the site on Washington Street where the Charles Town Post Office stands. Many of his writings are included in two books, both titled “Life andLetters of John Brown.” The first was written shortly after Brown’s death by Richard Webb, and the second was compiled by Franklin Sanborn, one of the “Secret Six” supporters of Brown.
Finding Mary Brown’s letters was more of a challenge, Artzner said. Artzner and Leonino spread out across the country trying to find as many Mary Brown letters as they could. They found a handful in a collection at Columbia University in New York, and obtained others through the Kansas Historical Society, Library of Congress, the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, and other sources, Artzner said. Although they ended up with fewer than a dozen of Mary Brown’s letters, it was quite a discovery, Leonino said. At Columbia University, Artzner and Leonino read John and Mary Brown’s letters to each other and they immediately became transfixed by conversations.
“It was so moving, I said, ‘This is it,' said Leonino, recalling their decision to turn their efforts into a play.
Mary Brown was also active in the abolitionist movement, and she participated in several pro-abolitionist movements in Springfield, Mass., where the couple lived for a while, Artzner said.
“In a way, she had the same eloquence that he had,” Artzner said. Their research became the basis for the one-act play “Sword of the Spirit.” The performance presents Brown bound in leg irons and sitting at a table in his cell. Artzner quotes directly from Brown’s letters in his portrayal of the famous abolitionist, and at other times he talks to the audience as if they are the newspaper writers interviewing him.
“It feels tremendous,” Artzner said of the experience. On Oct. 16, 1859, Brown and several followers seized the U.S. armory and arsenal in Harpers Ferry in an attempt to free slaves. Brown was subsequently captured and found guilty of treason in the Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town.
He was hanged at a nearby location on what is now Samuel Street. In the play, Brown says he became committed to the abolitionist movement after repeatedly observing a black man being beaten with a small coal shovel near his home.
Brown proclaims that slavery is the “sum of all villains,” and he sings “the year of jubilee has come” as he walks across the stage, dragging his leg irons. Mary Brown recites her letters as if she is in a Philadelphia home where she once stayed.
The play was performed at the Old Opera House Friday and Saturday and there is a 2 p.m. matinee today. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for students.
Proceeds from the play will benefit Harpers Ferry National Historical Park’s commemoration of the 200th birthday of Brown in May. On May 9-17 at the park, academic speakers will talk about Brown’s place in history and a specially designed bicentennial postal cancellation will be unveiled by the U.S. Postal Service, among other activities. Artzner and Leonino, who have performed for 26 years as Magpie, have also released a collection of songs titled “Sword of the Spirit.” The songs are based on stories of other characters in the drama of John Brown in Harpers Ferry. The musicians live in Takoma Park, Md.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer
Greg Artzner, as John Brown, and Terry Leonino as wife Mary on stage at the Old Opera House in Charles Town, W.Va.