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John Brown’s “Fort” as Tourist Attraction
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[JOHN BROWN]. Photograph of “John Brown’s Fort,” [William C. Russell] ca. 1888-1891. Baltimore: Russell & Co. 9¼ x 7 in.

Inventory #27079.99       Price: $1,850

Historical Background
Built in 1848 as the fire engine and guard house for the United States Armory at Harpers Ferry, the building became known as “John Brown’s Fort” for its part in the raid spearheaded by abolitionist John Brown in October 1859.

On February 22, 1858, at Gerrit Smith’s home in Peterboro, New York, John Brown revealed his plan to raid a federal arsenal to spark and supply a massive slave uprising in May. With financing from the “Secret Six” wealthy abolitionists—Smith, Sanborn, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Howe, Theodore Parker, and George Luther Stearns—Brown took the next step, announcing a meeting of blacks and whites in Chatham, Ontario, and his intention of establishing in the Maryland and Virginia mountains a stronghold for escaping slaves. In the summer of 1859, Brown set up a headquarters in a rented farmhouse in Maryland, across the Potomac River from the largest federal armory, in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

With an armed band of 16 whites and 5 blacks, on the night of October 16, Brown quickly took the armory and rounded up some sixty leading men of the area as hostages.  Brown held out for a day and a half, fruitlessly waiting for the large group of enslaved people he expected to join the rebellion. On October 18, Lt. Israel Greene (under the overall command of Colonel Robert E. Lee) led ninety U.S. marines in storming the engine house; four of Brown’s men and two marines were killed. Brown and all of the remaining raiders were captured. A wounded Brown was tried for murder, slave insurrection, and treason against the state of Virginia. The jury found him guilty of all charges, and on November 2, he was sentenced to death. Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859.

During the Civil War, the town of Harpers Ferry changed hands between Union and Confederate forces fourteen times. The John Brown Fort was used as a prison, a powder magazine, and a supply house. Many troops from both sides broke pieces of brick or wood off of the buildings to take as souvenirs. After the war, enterprising locals painted “John Brown’s Fort” over the doors and operated it as a tourist attraction and advertisement for passengers on passing Baltimore and Ohio Railroad trains. The building became a tourist destination and almost a shrine for African Americans in the late nineteenth century.

In 1888, newspapers reported that “John Brown’s Fort” had been sold. At first, it was rumored to be moved to Central Park in New York City. Changes to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad track would require the removal of the building from its original location.

In 1891, the fort was sold, dismantled, and transported to Chicago, where it was reassembled and displayed near the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. However, it only attracted eleven visitors in ten days, so the owners closed and dismantled it, leaving it on a vacant lot.

In 1894, journalist Kate Field (1838-1896) of Washington, D.C. began a campaign to return the building to Harpers Ferry. Alexander Murphy sold Field five acres for $1, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad offered to ship it back to Harpers Ferry free of charge. In 1895, the building was reassembled on a bluff on the Murphy Farm about three miles outside of town, requiring an additional 8,000 bricks to replace those lost. In 1909, Storer College (1867-1955), a local educational institution for African Americans, purchased the building and moved it to campus on Camp Hill in Harpers Ferry. In 1960, the National Park Service acquired the building and moved it to near its original location in 1968.

This photograph was likely taken by William C. Russell (1843-1900). While working as a conductor for the railroad, he took thousands of photographs of scenery along the tracks. When he retired, he opened a photograph gallery at No. 5 North Charles Street from 1889-1891, though he may have taken the photograph earlier. After a few years, Russell sold his gallery, and his German-born wife Dora C. Jose Russell (1854-1904) opened a gallery on West Lexington Street, near their home, which she operated with their son Louis Russell (b. 1879).

The brick wall in the left foreground has been transformed into a billboard, probably for “Sozodont for the Teeth.” Sozodont was an oral hygiene product created in 1859 by druggist Roswell van Buskirk (ca. 1824-1902) of New Jersey. Manufacturers claimed it would clean and preserve the teeth and harden the gums, though some dentists as early as 1880 complained that Sozodont destroyed the enamel of the teeth and turned them dark yellow. It fell out of favor in the early twentieth century.

A smaller sign on the right door of the building advertises “Stonebrakers Cough Syrup.” Henry Stonebraker (1815-1877) of Baltimore sold a variety of patent medicines in a line of “family medicines and preparations.” His cough syrup was advertised for the “rapid cure of coughs, colds, hoarseness, croups, asthma, influensa, &c., &c.”

Condition: Minor wear and toning.

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