|Browns past raided
Sword of the Spirit acts out abolitionists life
By Douglass Dowty
The soldier drew his sword and lunged at John Brown, but the tip hit the metal
of Browns belt buckle, shattering the weapons blade.
Brown had come to Harpers Ferry two days earlier intending to seize the lightly guarded federal
weapons armory and use the stockpiles to mount a slave insurrection in the hills on the Virginia
and West Virginia border.
But now, the morning of Oct. 18, 1859, two days after Brown and 19 abolitionists had infiltrated
the settlement, federal troops under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee stormed the area. Brown
was fighting for his life in the fire station of the small peninsula town. Carnage was in the air;
ten of Browns men lay dead or mortally wounded alongside one U.S. Marine.
Though Brown, by a stroke of luck, was not stabbed to death during the fighting, within hours after
daylight he had been captured along with his remaining fighters. Several months later, Brown was
hanged in public, solidifying his role as martyr of the abolitionist cause.
The whole ordeal raises the question: how did Brown, a former wool salesman, expect to take control
of a U.S. Armory with fewer than 20 men against the ranks of the U.S. Army?
The Sword of the Spirit, a one-act play based on the letters of Brown and his wife Mary that went
up in Wilder Main last weekend, attempted to answer that very question by examining the abolitionists
motives and life.
A two-person show, The Sword of the Spirit, was essentially a series of monologues in which Brown
and his wife read letters they had received from one another and commented on their significance.
Greg Artzner played Brown while Mary was personated by Leonino. The duo, which hails from Virginia,
has performed numerous times at Harpers Ferry, which is now preserved as a national park.
In every case, the letters served to portray important moments in Browns life. They showed
his increasing agitation with slavery, leading to his bold decision to storm the armory in Harpers
Ferry and his time in prison, the source of his lasting fame.
When Brown wrote from Kansas that during the fighting between pro-slave settlers and abolitionists,
one of their sons, Frederick, had been killed, Mary was understandably upset. Later, when she told
him that it would be impossible for her to join him while he was plotting the Harpers Ferry
raid, he was desperate and begged her to come. When he suggested she not visit him in prison before
his execution, Mary lamented to such a degree that he changed his mind.
It seems the greatest sacrifice I could ever make is to hang by the neck for a few seconds,
Browns character observed in the play, recounting a remark Brown made to a reporter 40 days
after his imprisonment.
The scenery for the play was quite simple. In a split stage, Brown sat with his feet shackled in
the prison cell on the left, while his wife sat at home on the right, knitting and tending to laundry.
The play progressed from Browns early years as a failed businessman to his first slave insurrection
plans spoiled by a government informer to the time he spent in Kansas when two of
his sons were killed trying to prevent the spread of slavery. It culminates in the raid of Harpers
Ferry, planned at a nearby farm leased under the name Smith and carried out the evening
of Oct. 16, 1859.
In the end, this sparsely-attended play proved a valuable contribution to the celebration of Black
History Month, though it suffered from a lack of publicity and the larger Black Musicians
Guild Concert was scheduled at the same time.
Mary ended up visiting Brown before his hanging. On the appointed day, Brown was not allowed to
give final remarks. As a religious man, he gave a note to the officer as he left his cell for the
final time. Immortalized, it read: He has taken the sword from me for a time, but He has
given me the sword of the spirit.