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The Last Moments of John Brown

Courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In The Last Moments of John Brown (1882–1884) by Thomas Hovenden, John Brown, the radical abolitionist and architect of the October 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, descends the stairs at the jailhouse in Charles Town, Virginia, on the way to his execution for treason, murder, and conspiracy. According to a New York Tribune article printed three days after his death, en route to the gallows Brown allegedly planted a kiss on the cheek of an enslaved child. Several works of art recorded the alleged scene over the following quarter century, culminating with Hovenden’s masterly painting, which was commissioned by Robbins Battell, a wealthy businessman from New York. The story of the kiss is almost certainly fictional, but just as the Tribune reporter in 1859 embellished his story to place Brown in a positive light, Hovenden and his patron in the 1880s sought to portray Brown as a sympathetic, kindly old man rather than as a violent criminal.