The Surprising Role One Local Man Played in the Deadly Harpers Ferry Raid

Osborne Perry Anderson, a Chester County native, followed extremist John Brown on his violent mission before the Civil War.



Osborne Perry Anderson//Photo couRtesy
of the  Chester County Historical Society.

Was Osborne Perry Anderson of West Fallowfield, Chester County, a terrorist? Or perhaps “J.B.”—the leader of the movement Anderson joined in 1858—should have that descriptor. 

In the middle of the night in 1856, with a passionate belief that God was on his side and what a biographer called “arrogance, self-certitude and a domineering manner,” J.B. and some armed followers burst into the homes of several of their opponents. During this raid, they separated five men from their screaming wives and children, led them outside, and callously hacked them to death with swords.

“William Sherman’s skull was split open in two places and some of his brains were washed out by the water,” according to the affidavit of James Harris, who found one of the victims’ bodies in a creek. “A large hole was cut in his breast, and his left hand was cut off.”

When challenged for what his own son described as “an uncalled-for, wicked act,” abolitionist John Brown (J.B.) retorted, “God is my judge. We were justified under the circumstances.”

Osborne Anderson was part of the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre in Kansas. Brown’s willingness to use violence against slavery and its supporters was notorious. Anderson would have known what he was getting into when he signed up for Brown’s planned attack on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Born free and black, Anderson is  thought to have been the son of Vincent Anderson, a Virginia-born laborer in whose West Goshen household Osborne, also as a laborer, was living in 1850. The census did not, however, identify Osborne Anderson as the older man’s son, as was the norm.

In May of 1858, Anderson attended what Brown called a “Constitutional Convention” in Chatham, Ontario. Brown’s purpose was to design a new U.S. government to be established in the southern mountains, a republic that would grow gradually through guerrilla warfare on slaveholding states. Conducted in a Baptist church under the cover story that they were organizing a black Masonic lodge, the meeting was attended by 34 blacks, 11 of Brown’s white followers, and Brown himself. They appointed two “congressmen” for the new regime, electing Alfred M. Ellsworth, a resident of Windsor, Ontario, opposite Detroit, and Anderson.

When and how Anderson arrived in Canada, however, remain mysteries to this day. Sources claim that he left Pennsylvania after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. That law allowed slaveowners to seize their property anywhere, whether located in a free or slave state, and some entrepreneurs abused that authority to capture free blacks. In 1851, African-American Rachel Parker was kidnapped from the residence of her employer, Joseph Miller, in West Nottingham and carried to Baltimore for sale. Parker was rescued and sent home by Miller, though he was killed before he left Baltimore. The danger was real.

Anderson is also claimed to have attended Ohio’s Oberlin College, an institution that accepted both black and female students, and was committed to the abolition of slavery. This may have been true; at least two other Brown raiders—carpenter John Copeland and harness maker Lewis Leary—studied at Oberlin. However, the college has no record of Anderson as a student or a graduate.

Historian Tony Horwitz described Anderson as a printer, which may be the best clue. In Canada, Anderson worked with Mary Ann Shadd, editor of the Provincial Freeman, an antislavery newspaper she founded in 1853.

Born free in Wilmington, Shadd was a Quaker-educated, mixed-race woman whose parents were active in the Underground Railroad and whose father, a shoemaker, had a shop in West Chester. Shadd later established a school for black children in the borough. In 1851, she moved to Canada and was later followed by the rest of her family. Many sources point to the threat of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act as an explanation for this relocation.

Compared to the United States, Canada was downright friendly to blacks. Slavery had mostly disappeared by 1800 and was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834. By the time of the Civil War, Canada had become home to about 30,000 fugitive slaves, most of them in Southern Ontario.

Perhaps Anderson and Shadd met in Chester County, or their similar roots drew them together in Canada. Or it could be that  the connection started with Shadd’s brother, Isaac, who handled the Freeman’s business affairs and would also sign Brown’s constitution.

Despite many differences, Anderson and others who took part in the Harpers Ferry raid had many similarities to modern terrorists. They were well educated, employed, and had not been personally touched by the injustices they opposed. According to a 2013 study of domestic terrorists by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, more than half were college educated and employed. Nearly half had received training.

Consider John Kagi, an attorney, or John Cook, who’d been a teacher and a lock tender on a canal. Jeremiah Anderson (no relation to Osborne) had graduated from Knox Academy in Illinois and had worked as a peddler, farmer and sawmill operator. Stewart Taylor, an amateur historian and skilled debater, was a wagon builder. Brown himself had run a tannery in Crawford County, Pa.

Brown’s raiders were trained in “Bleeding Kansas,” by which the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre launched the worst violence in a seven-year struggle between pro- and anti-slavery activists for control of the territory, where one of Brown’s sons was killed. Convinced by the experience that only war would resolve the issue, Brown returned East in late 1856 and spent the next two years secretly raising money for the operation.

Anderson went to his father’s house and was turned away. He threatened “to have his son arrested if he ever came again.” 

The Chatham convention wasn’t the success John Brown had hoped for. He’d tried to recruit Harriet Tubman, whose name, Brown believed, would attract fighters, but she didn’t show up. He had also invited several black leaders, but they didn’t come, either. When he found out about Brown’s plans, Frederick Douglass discouraged blacks from joining.

“In the end, his Canadian sojourn yielded only one committed recruit: Osborne Anderson,” wrote Horwitz. “Many blacks in Chatham and the nearby towns would volunteer to fight in the Civil War. But Brown’s vision and ardor inspired more admiration for him than confidence in his chances of success—or in the chances of anyone who went with him.”

After delays, in October 1859, Brown and 21 followers made a final rendezvous at a remote farmhouse in Maryland, near Harpers Ferry. They brought 200 rifles and almost a thousand pikes, planning to seize the federal arsenal—a large complex that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles—and arm the slaves whom Brown was sure would rise to the cause.

Most whites—even most abolitionists—believed blacks were too submissive to take up arms. Brown’s insistence not only that they could fight, but that their participation in their own liberation was essential to achieving equality, was powerfully attractive to Anderson.

“There was no milk-and-water sentimentality—no offensive contempt for the Negro—while working in his cause,” Anderson later wrote. “In John Brown’s house, and in John Brown’s presence, men from widely different parts of the continent met and united in one company, wherein no hateful prejudice dared intrude its ugly self. No ghost of a distinction found space to enter.”

On the evening of Oct. 16, Brown’s team cut the telegraph wires and easily seized the armory, which was defended by a single night watchman. They rounded up hostages from nearby farms, including Col. Lewis Washington, a great-grandnephew of George Washington.

Brown’s order to Anderson was that Col. Washington “must, before being secured as a prisoner, deliver [his arms] into the hands of Osborne P. Anderson. Anderson being a colored man, and colored men being only things in the South, it is proper that the South be taught a lesson upon this point.”

Anderson and Albert Hazlett, a farmer from Western Pennsylvania, were among six men assigned to guard the Harpers Ferry arsenal. Others seized the bridges and attempted to stop an eastbound train, killing baggage master Heyward Shepherd, a free black to whose “character and faithfulness” the United Daughters of the Confederacy later raised a monument. The train’s conductor soon sent a telegram that brought U.S. Marines under Col. Robert E. Lee. In the meantime, local militia and citizens pinned down most of Brown’s men in the engine house, where the armory kept its fire engine.

The Marines smashed the engine house’s doors with sledge hammers and captured Brown and a few survivors. Jeremiah Anderson, who’d received a mortal wound from a bayonet, was dragged outside to die. 

“He was subjected to savage brutalities, being kicked in body and face,” recalled a survivor, “while one brute of an armed farmer spat a huge quid of tobacco from his vile jaws into the mouth of the dying man, which he first forced open.”

Hazlett and Osborne Anderson escaped—the only two of the six assigned to the armory who had not been killed or taken. “Having [no] commander, we knew that there was but little two of us could do against so many, and that our turn to be taken must come,” wrote Anderson. “So, Hazlett and I went out at the back part of the building, climbed up the wall, and went upon the railway.”

Hazlett and Anderson followed the Potomac north, until they found a boat with which they crossed the river. Once on the Maryland side, they headed into the mountains and hiked for four days—most of it in the rain—until they reached Chambersburg, Pa., where they split up.

Anderson slipped through Chambersburg and reached York. There, a black businessman put him on a train to Philadelphia. From there, he went to his father’s house and was turned away. Vincent Anderson—if that was actually his father’s name—threatened “to have him arrested if he ever came again.” 

Eventually, Anderson reached Cleveland, crossing Lake Erie and returning to Canada. Two years later, he published an account of the raid, A Voice from Harpers Ferry. Oswald Garrison Villard, a grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, called Anderson’s account of events “misleading and exaggerated.” 

Hazlett was captured in Carlisle, Pa., extradited to Virginia, and hanged in March 1860. Like Brown and the rest of his surviving raiders, he’d been convicted of treason, murder and inciting slaves to rebellion—what we might call terrorism.

Those who left them no alternative would soon suffer, as well.  

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