Anthony’s Connections to the Harper’s Ferry Raid

When studying D.R. Anthony, there are times when his life takes on a Forrest Gump-like quality, particularly within the abolitionist movement where he frequently appears as an ancillary, yet interesting character. Undoubtedly this phenomenon is true of many historical figures, especially if you study one individual long enough. Nonetheless, as someone who is still learning the trade of writing what amounts to a biography, its been a fascinating phenomenon for me to observe. I have already documented the close relationship between the Anthony’s and Frederick Douglass in earlier posts on this site, and I have hinted at the connections between the Anthony brothers and John Brown and his sons. Keep reading for more on these, and other connections Anthony had to the abolitionist movement.

John Brown conducted his raid on the Harper’s Ferry armory on the night of October 16-17, 1859. He failed in his mission to capture the weapons stored there, but in his eventual execution succeeded in becoming a martyr. The song “John Brown’s Body” became an anthem among Union units, and Company K of the 7th Kansas Cavalry included one of Brown’s sons, John Jr, as well as George Hoyt, who was his defense attorney. Indeed, it might be argued that he accomplished just as much to end slavery in death as he would likely have accomplished had his raid succeeded. However, almost from the moment of his arrest, plans were afoot to prevent his execution entirely. D.R. Anthony worked with R.J. Hinton, Hoyt, James Montgomery and a number of other prominent members of the abolitionist movement on an audacious plan to break Brown out of jail. According to Oswald Garrison Villard’s 1910 biography of Brown, Anthony contributed $300 to the effort.

Another anecdote following the Harper’s ferry raid involved Frederick Douglass. According to a 1920 article in the Topeka Capital, Douglass became a marked man after Brown’s raid, despite his opposition to it. The article claims that the Governor of Virginia put a warrant for Douglass’ arrest, causing the latter to flee to Canada. During this time, Daniel Read and Susan B. Anthony are said to have sheltered Douglass’ children while their father was out of the country. As it is told by Fred Douglass’ son himself, “but for the Anthony’s – Col D.R. and Susan B, I and the rest of my father’s family would have starved.” The veracity of this story is difficult to determine, as research has revealed no conclusive proof that D.R. Anthony traveled east at that time, though he did have plans to do so some time in 1859. He was definitely in Leavenworth as late as October, but a gap in his letters home, and the tone of his next letter to his sister suggest a prolonged absence during the fall of 1859. At a time when the movement was on very thin ice thanks to Brown’s actions.

No good Historian gets far without asking and answering questions about why their subject is worth pursuing, and what its significance is. What this site tries to do is to use facts (in this case D.R. Anthony’s life) to explore major events and themes of the past, all in the quest to better understand both that past, and our present. These small anecdotes from Anthony’s life demonstrate how closely knit the abolitionist movement was, an attribute undoubtedly born out of necessity which also contributed to their success.  I’ll end by saying that, for any students reading this who are fed up with learning history as an endless series of dates, names, and places, know that those facts by themselves are not history. If it helps, think of them as a means to an end; a means by which to explore greater themes.

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