There have been a lot of men named John Brown in America, and a lot more all over the world, but in American legend there is only one John Brown.
Before he became John Brown’s Body, he lived in Akron.
And when he was living in Akron, he bought a notorious Merino ram named Goliath in an auction at Newville, Ohio.
Other, more qualified, historians will lay out all the epic sweep of John Brown’s life, and the critical junctures when his personality intersected with and directed the momentum of American History.
I am here more humbly to fill in one small moment of his past that might offer a very brief insight into the trajectory of his being as it was seen from our neighborhood.
Because, John Brown also intersected with Richland County. He left behind a small anecdote that would certainly have washed down the Clear Fork River of time if his name had not also collided in such a dramatic way with the destiny of our nation so as to make Newville farmers remember him.
Before John Brown was a chapter in American History, before he was a liberator of Africans in human bondage, before he was an inspiration to Northern abolitionists, whose public martyrdom made bells toll over the Union states, before all that: John Brown was a shepherd.
The farmers of Newville were all very familiar with John Brown a dozen years before he became notable in the headlines, and they all liked him a lot. In fact, after a John Brown got famous in the newspapers for bloody mayhem in Kansas, they all assumed it was someone else; and when he entered the index of American History in 1859 as a chief contributing factor igniting the Civil War, it took some convincing before they could accept that this was the same John Brown who they all respected as a meek and mild agri-businessman.
Their John Brown knew everything about sheep—he could judge a fleece from across the field and render a fair price for any bale of wool without raising his voice. He was modest and soft-spoken, and an appropriate word to describe his personality would be ‘lamb-like.’
But these farmers of Newville also were very familiar with Goliath, and it was a matter of some considerable fence-side gossip regarding the irony about how a man so even-tempered should walk off with a beast so all-fired disagreeable.
Years later, on the day when they hung John Brown, it was suggested in Newville that perhaps somehow the evil spirit inhabiting Goliath had transmigrated into the soul of John Brown.
If anyone could defy slavery, it was Goliath.
The ram was nearly impossible to keep in a pen, and when he was in residence at Peter Zerby’s place he proved it by nearly taking down the barn. There were witnesses who watched him splinter clear through a wall of one-inch barn siding during harvest, and then, a few weeks later, he broke an oak barn post clean off its footer to collapse the back bay while the family was sitting to Thanksgiving dinner. They found him standing outside not five feet from the wreckage, serenely munching on a pile of poison sumac.
Clearly, that ram was in bondage to no man.
Zerby had declared very publicly that Goliath was going to be a mutton crown-roast before New Year’s Day.
And the famous sheep would have been dinner in Newville if John Brown hadn’t intervened.
There was a December market in Newville every year when farmers sold the beef cattle they’d been fattening up all year, and auctioned off their award-winning sheep. Dealers came in from all over the county in the early years, but then the event became so popular that by the 1840s there were buyers coming all the way from Pittsburgh, because Newville gained a reputation for the highest quality wool.
John Brown was there in 1844—he had heard there were soft Saxony sheep in Newville, and he meant to find a ram and some ewes to strengthen his herd at Perkins & Brown.
John Brown got one look at Goliath and he would have no other.
So single-minded was Brown’s focus on the huge ram he never even noticed that no one else from Richland County was bidding against him. Everyone from all the surrounding townships had already heard of the sheep’s reputation.
The local men all managed to look the other way while the bidding was going on, and the whole story might have passed quietly like the turning of a page except that old Zerby happened to make a comment loud enough for John Brown to overhear.
After the auctioneer banged his gavel to seal the deal, Zerby piped up and said, “Sold! Send that ornery cuss down the river!”
Too many men laughed.
Brown was the only one who wasn’t smiling. He turned slowly, looking at the grinning farmers as it dawned on him that they had cast him as a participant in a slave auction.
It didn’t matter how harmless the local folk thought the humor was—they didn’t realize they had stepped on the toes of a man who had already committed himself to stamping out slavery.
They couldn’t have known that they were belittling a man whose destiny was monumentally larger than anything they could imagine.
It was a destiny so majestic that even John Brown himself couldn’t yet suspect the magnitude of it. All he knew in 1844 was that human beings were being auctioned as chattel, and his life was being honed into an axe that would destroy the auction block.
He didn’t know the reputation of Goliath: to him, all he could hear was the hard-hearted snicker of men mocking him. He was a mild man, but history would prove he learned how to stand his ground.
Brown addressed them all in a voice so low the place had to go silent.
What he uttered was a question—one that puzzled the men of Newville on that day. He spoke to the crowd, but each of them felt as if he were talking directly to them.
What they heard him say was, “Will you allow your brother to be so ill used?”
The farmers thought that Mr. Brown was chiding them for making fun of him. Later, they wondered if he was talking about his Black brothers.
They didn’t realize he was speaking prophecy.
This small moment in the life of John Brown would have passed into the past like a leaf fallen in an autumn forest had it not been for a thoughtful young man who was there that day in Newville.
The man found himself at war nearly two decades later, and he decided he needed to document for his children various episodes of his life, as he pondered the possibility that he may well not return home from the Civil War.
His words take the form of a letter home from a soldier to his wife. The pages are signed with a simple “J,” so there is no way to be sure of the author’s identity; and it has survived to this day with an envelope addressed to Newville, but there is no way of knowing if it was the same envelope in which the letter was originally sealed.
It is possible he was named Schrack, because that is the name to whom the 1863 letter is addressed…maybe his wife, or his mother, maybe someone else.
A local collector bought the yellowed pages at an antique barn outside Lexington in the 1970s, in an old cigar box full of Civil War letters.
When he recognized what he had, he took the letter to a series of Civil War scholars, John Brown biographers, and rare book dealers. None of them showed any interest at all, and so, sadly disappointed, he stashed the letter in a plastic sleeve in a manila folder in an unmarked file drawer.
This spring he was online and came across an article I had written about Newville.
So now, Mr. Schrack’s letter is in my keeping for the time being.
That’s really what all history is: time being. A story from the past is cast into this moment on the timeline like a brief, inscrutable clue as to what the evolution of time and effort means to us; and unites us for an instant with our ancestors.