CHARLESTOWN WAS FILLED WITH FEAR AND LOATHING when Brown and his comrades arrived from Harper's Ferry, and calls for reckoning did not always differentiate between lynching and the law. The headline on one local newspaper fully captured the sentiment of the locals: “The Infernal Desperadoes Caught, And the Vengeance Of An Outraged Community About To Be Appeased.” The Virginia militia patrolled the streets, both to discourage mob violence and to protect against a renewed abolitionist invasion or armed rescue, both of which were rumored to be in the works. In that atmosphere, the trials of the prisoners were set to begin.
John Brown's case was called on Thursday, October 27, barely a week after he had been taken prisoner at the armory. Still weak from his injuries, Brown was carried into the courtroom on a cot, on which he would lie for the duration of his trial. His repeated pleas for time to obtain counsel from the North had all been denied, and he grudgingly acceded to representation by Botts and Green. The two Virginians were both slaveholders, with no sympathy for Brown and less reason to want him acquitted, but they were also sincere professionals who would represent their client to the best of their ability. Of course, they could not defend Brown's ideals, much less justify his actions, but within the confines of their own principles, Botts and Green intended to spare no effort on Brown's behalf. Thus, even before a jury could be chosen and sworn, they revealed the only strategy that seemed feasible to them.
To the surprise of nearly everyone in the courtroom, defense counsel moved to introduce a telegram from one of Brown's Ohio neighbors, stating that “insanity is hereditary” in his family and offering to produce witnesses to that effect. That was an incisive move in strictly legal terms, as an insanity plea was Brown's only realistic hope of avoiding execution, but the defendant wanted nothing to do with it.
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