1840s - John Brown (militant abolitionist)
Perhaps more than any other American historical figure, the militant abolitionist John Brown embodies the idea that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Brown’s zeal at the Pottawatomie Massacre, where five pro-slavery Kansans were taken from their homes and murdered, and his botched raid on the arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, beginning October 16, 1859, made him a pariah in the South and helped precipitate the secessionist movement that led to the Civil War. But in non-slave states, his execution on December 2, 1859, was marked by the tolling of church bells and martyrdom within the abolitionist movement. In a well-known painting completed circa 1884, many years after the Civil War, my great-great-uncle, Philadelphia artist Thomas Hovenden, depicted Brown as a secular saint on his way to the gallows.
Given Brown’s passionate opposition to slavery, it’s not surprising that his first photographic likeness was created by an African-American portraitist, Augustus Washington. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery purchased the daguerreotype at auction in 1996. Ann Shumard, NPG curator of photographs, describes it as “one of the treasures of the collection in all media. To have Brown daguerreotyped by an African-American is extraordinary.”
The portrait, taken in Washington’s Hartford, Connecticut, studio in 1846 or 1847, exudes an intensity consistent with the subject’s fanaticism. He appears very much as one might expect—angry and determined. In the image, Brown raises his right hand, as if taking an oath; in the other hand, he holds a banner thought to be the flag of the Subterranean Pass-Way, his militant alternative to the Underground Railroad.
According to Shumard, who also curated a 1999 exhibition of Washington’s work, the photographer made at least three images of Brown that day in Hartford. One, owned by Brown’s descendants until 2007, offers a glimpse of the abolitionist in a somewhat less intimidating stance—gazing contemplatively into the camera; it was acquired two years ago by the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Another, which remains lost, is described as a picture of Brown with his young African-American assistant, Thomas Thomas.
The dauntingly fierce NPG portrait, Shumard says, “was meant to serve as a symbol of Brown’s determination to abolish slavery.” As is often the case with photography, all is not what it seems. Daguerreotypes are mirror images, so to achieve his effect, Washington would have positioned Brown with his left hand raised and his right hand holding the banner.