John Brown’s Body Lies a Mouldering in the Grave

John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave,                                                                 John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave,                                                                 John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave,                                                                                      His soul’s marching on!

John Brown’s body may have been “mouldering in the grave,” but in May of 1862 the whereabouts of two of John Brown’s sons was anything but certain. The controversy over the disposition of the bodies of Watson and Oliver Brown, to some extent, still remains. The final resting place of Watson Brown, and its connection to the Shenandoah Valley, however, is the focus of this essay.

Watson Brown was born on October 7, 1835, in Franklin, Ohio. He was one of thirteen children born to John and Mary Brown. It has been said: “John Brown ruled his growing household with a rod in one hand and the Bible in the other. He insisted that his small sons learn ‘good order and religious habits’ and refused to let them play or have visitors on the Sabbath.” One could easily assert his opinion on household discipline was as absolute as his posture on slavery and involuntary servitude.

Watson Brown

Watson Brown

By 1859 John Brown had long been conspicuous in the anti-slavery movement in the United States. He first gained attention by leading an abolitionist group during the Bleeding Kansas crisis of 1856. As an advocate of engagement rather than discourse, John and his radical followers attacked and killed five slavery proponents in the Pottawatomie Massacre in response to the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas. Later, in 1856, he commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battles of Black Jack and Osawatomie.

By October of 1859 John Brown had concluded he would spearhead a slave uprising by leading a raid on Harpers Ferry. He intended to capture the armory and seize the armaments contained within. He would use these weapons to arm escaped slaves. Together, they would fight to establish their own slave-free state. Though Brown would seize the armory at Harpers Ferry, only a small number of slaves would actually join his rebellion.

Watson Brown would himself play a brief but noteworthy role in the drama that played out during John Brown’s occupation of Harpers Ferry. With local residents and militia laying siege to the engine house, John Brown decided he would try to broker a cease-fire. His first attempt failed, however, when co-conspirator William Thompson was captured, along with one of Brown’s hostages, while under a flag of truce. Angered by the failure, one of Brown’s other detainees, acting superintendent of the armory Archibald Kitzmiller, offered to make a second attempt. Brown approved the proposal.

Harpers ferry map

1859 Map of Harpers Ferry

Conspirators Aaron Stevens and Watson Brown volunteered to accompany Kitzmiller under a flag of truce. Stevens and Watson walked out the armory gate, behind their prisoner, and proceeded down Potomac Street toward the Gault House tavern. “Saloonkeeper George Chambers, smashed an upper-story window so he could shoot unobstructed.” He and one other man opened fire on the threesome. Watson was hit in the first volley and went down. Stevens was struck several times and tumbled, insensible, onto the cobblestoned streets. Remarkably, Watson was able to stagger back to the engine house all the while “vomiting blood from a stomach wound.”

Within a matter of hours most of John Brown’s attacking force would be killed or captured. Local residents, militia, and U.S. Marines, under the command of Robert E. Lee, would see to that. Among the slain was Brown’s son, Oliver. Watson, however, would linger on until Wednesday afternoon, October 19. As a result, Watson’s body would not be included with the rest of the deceased assailants. Eight corpses were quickly collected by the citizens of Harpers Ferry and readied for removal.


US Marines Assaulting John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. (Harper’s Weekly)

As residents did not want these men interred in the local cemetery, they paid James Mansfield five dollars to bury the bodies elsewhere. Mansfield chose a spot along the banks of the Shenandoah river about a half mile from town. “Packing them into two large wooded store boxes,” he hastily entombed them. The bodies would remain in this unmarked grave until 1899 when they were exhumed and transferred to the Brown family farm in North Elba, New York.

Two of the deceased, however, were not buried in the common grave. Watson Brown and Jeremiah Anderson, though fatally wounded, had survived the final assault by Colonel Lee’s marines. When the two of them finally succumbed to their wounds, their bodies were attended to separate from the others. As a result, these two conspirators were not buried in the common grave. Fortunately, a resolution to this omission would soon materialize.

Several medial students from Winchester Medical College had made the journey by train to Harpers Ferry to see if they could take advantage of the carnage. Forced to detrain before they reached the town, the group “happened upon the body of a man.” Determined to be a “fine physical specimen,” the students “put the body in a container and shipped it back to the college. When they examined his papers later, they discovered they had selected one of John Brown’s sons, Watson Brown. Some accounts claim conspirator Jeremiah Anderson’s body was also shipped back to the college.


Wounded son Watson lying next to Oliver’s dead body.

“Body-stealing was a feature of reality at a time when medical schools had trouble acquiring corpses for anatomy classes.”  The so called “doctor resurrectionists” would nab the dead out of fresh graves. “’Scientists’” then boiled off the flesh or used acid to remove the skin and muscle.” Appropriating the bodies of these two deceased would have been easily accomplished as “nobody wanted them.”

The medical college of Winchester, Virginia had originally been chartered in 1826 as the “Medical College of the Valley of Virginia.” The institution was directed by Dr. John Esten Cooke, Dr. Hugh Holmes McGuire, and Dr. A. F. Magill. The college operated for just two years and was closed. The school did not reopen until 1847 when it was revived and newly chartered by the Commonwealth of Virginia as Winchester Medical College. “The College was a red brick structure located on the corner of Stewart and Boscawen Streets. It had a surgical amphitheater, two lecture halls, a dissecting room, a chemical laboratory, a museum, and offices.”

When the med students returned to Winchester Medical College with their newly acquired treasures, Watson’s body had the flesh stripped off and was then “dissected, and the skeleton displayed in the college museum.” “The whole was hung up as a nice anatomical illustration.” It was not a dignified end to a person’s life but it would serve as a valuable tool in the education of future surgeons. The practice would, undoubtedly, help save many lives during the Civil War.

According to an article posted in the Richmond Dispatch, Watson’s body, and perhaps Jeremiah Anderson’s, were not the only ones that were brought back to Winchester Medical College. In December, following the trial of John Brown and his accomplices, “Watson’s body would be joined by the recently hung, buried, and disinterred bodies of convicted African American co-conspirators John Copeland and Shields Green.” “They will be interred tomorrow on the spot where the gallows stand, but there is a party of medical students here from Winchester who will doubtless not allow them there long.” There would be no “mouldering in the grave” for these corpses. The resurrectionists would soon have their way with them.

Prior to the town’s seizure Winchester Medical College was being used as a hospital. During May of 1862, in the midst of the town’s occupation by troops under General Nathaniel Banks, however, the institution came under increasing scrutiny due to one of its most infamous residents; Watson Brown. Unfortunately, the future of Winchester Medical College was itself in doubt.

On the evening of May 16, 1862, Mary Greenhow Lee noted in her diary that she had been “startled by the sound of the fire bell.” “In less than hour there was another alarm, & on opening the door, the flames were ascending somewhat in the direction of Selma, but it proved to be the Medical College which is burnt to the ground; what this is the beginning of, we cannot tell, as we are in the hands of a treacherous foe.” Lee believed the fire was “for the purpose of destroying superfluous government stores and preparatory to an evacuation.”

The following day Mary noted: “The explanation of the burning of the college is that a skeleton of Oliver Brown (John’s son) was there, they buried in the yard what they supposed were his bones, but the genuine ones, had been removed by Hunter McGuire, thus foiling their malicious design.” Mary’s assertion that the body was that of Oliver, and not Watson, adds more ambiguity to the deed. It is very possible the body referred to by Mary was actually that of Jeremiah Anderson.

There are some errors, however, in Mary’s statement. First, is the first declaration that Oliver’s body was at the college. Most would argue the body was actually that of Watson. Second, if Hunter McGuire had removed the body buried in the yard, he would have had to have completed the task prior to March 12, when Nathaniel Banks troops first occupied Winchester. McGuire could not have returned to the town until after the 1st Battle of Winchester on May 25, nine days after the burning of the college.

There is also some contention as to who ordered the burning of the school. According to Winchester resident, John Peyton Clark, it was Colonel George Beal of 10th Maine that ordered Brown’s remains recovered and the college burned. True or not, there is no mention of this incident in the 10th Maine’s regimental history. Still, the Maine unit could be held accountable as they were responsible for the military occupation of town at the time of the blaze.

A second story, involving Dr. Jarvis Jackson Johnson of the 27th Indiana Infantry, claims that he was responsible for the retrieval of Watson’s remains. Johnson declared “that while serving as commander of a military hospital in Winchester, he acquired Watson Brown’s body from the museum of the medical college, then shipped it on a train to Franklin Indiana, the nearest railroad depot to his home in Indiana.”

Following the war, it is said Johnson kept the bones on display in his medical office. Twenty years after their acquisition, however, an article appeared in the Indianapolis Journal, on September 11, 1882, claiming Dr. Johnson had obtained the remains of Brown “immediately after the evacuation of the place by the Confederates.” Upon entering the medical college, he observed “an admirably preserved body, and obtained permission from General Banks to ship it home.”

According to Johnson the “anatomical preparation of the body was perfect, and it was for this reason, an exceedingly valuable piece of property for the physician and the physiologist. Dr Johnson was moved by no desire to get possession of it because it was the body of one of John Brown’s sons, but because it would be of practical value to him.”

According to the Indianapolis Journal: “The body has received careless treatment during the last few years. It has been carted about from place to place, and has been doing duty in all the anatomical exhibitions about town. During the first few years it was in the possession of Dr. Johnson it was in a remarkably fine state of preservation, but ill-usage has ruined it. For several years, it has been lying in the Knights of Pythias hall, and, it is whispered, was used in the mystic ceremonies of the order. The best of care had not been bestowed upon it, and it was infested with worms and insects.”

John jr

John Brown, Jr.

Though John Brown, Jr. was not one of the conspirators that had attacked Harper’s Ferry, his father had sent him there on a scouting mission prior to the raid in 1858. During the war he was a Captain in Company K of the 7th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. John Jr. would survive the war and in September of 1882 he was living in Put-in-Bay, Ohio, raising grapes for a family owned wine business. When John learned his brother’s body was being stored in Martinsville, Indiana he took the opportunity to visit the town to see if he could identify the remains.

After picking up and poring over skeletal fragments and examining the shape of a half-missing skull John pronounced: “Gentlemen, if it is either of my brothers, I am now inclined to think that it is Oliver”. Yet the more he looked, the more he came to think he was looking at his other brother, Watson.

On closer examination “A large bullet hole in the muscles of the back, beside the spinal column, is visible in a front view, but the course of the ball was not directly through. This coincides with the wounding of Watson Brown, who was shot in the region of the lower part of the stomach. The wound is below this organ, but was evidently received while in a stooping posture, and the exit of the ball bears out this conclusion.”

Twenty years after its capture, Dr. Johnson turned the body of Watson Brown over to his brother John. In October 1882, “Watson Brown’s strange post-mortem odyssey had finally come to an end.  On an autumn day in the Adirondacks, he was laid to rest in a patch of soil near his famous father, who — as the old Union song put it — had long lain ‘mouldering in the grave.’” Watson’s journey had finally ended.

Browns stone

Marker Dedicated to John and Oliver Brown.


Horwitz, Tony. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. Henry Holt and Co. New York, N.Y. 2011.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. University of Massachusetts Press. 1984.

Straader, Eloise C. The Civil War Journal of Mary Greenhow Lee. Winchester County Historical Society. Winchester, Va. 2011.

Redpath, James, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown. Thayer and Eldridge. Boston, Ma. 1860.

3 thoughts on “John Brown’s Body Lies a Mouldering in the Grave

  1. Thanks for sharing this very interesting post. I just coincidentally starting reading Horwitz’ “Midnight Rising” today. John Brown’s house in Elba, with the gravesite of Brown and his sons, is well worth a visit!


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