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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: July 2015



LOOKING OUT FROM THE BARRED WINDOW of his jail cell, John Anthony Copeland could easily see the rolling hills and agricultural lands that surrounded Charlestown, Virginia. There had been no opportunity for him to appreciate the beauty of the countryside since his arrival in the state only a little more than one week earlier. Now, in late October 1859, most of the abundant crops had been harvested, leaving the fields brown with rolls of hay and a few standing stalks of corn. The leaves on the native beech, oak, and ash trees, however, had already begun to turn red and gold, and the vivid colors might have cheered Copeland's spirit if he had not been facing death by hanging.

Copeland's home was in Oberlin, Ohio, over 400 miles to the northwest, where leaves had already fallen and his mother and father longed for news of their imprisoned son. In time, he would write to his parents, assuring them of his belief that “God wills everything for the best good.” But for now, he had no words to calm himself or to bring them comfort. There was little hope for a black man charged with murder in Virginia, and even less for one accused of inciting slaves to rebellion.

A mob had gathered outside the jailhouse, calling loudly for the blood of John Brown, whose abortive invasion of Harper's Ferry had lasted only three days – October 16–18 – while taking the lives of four Virginians and a U.S. marine. Brown was already notorious from his days on the battlefields of “Bleeding Kansas,” but the four men captured with him – Copeland and three others – were unknown. That made no difference to the lynch mob, which wanted all of them dead. Nor did it matter to the Southern press, which dismissed all of Brown's raiders as “reckless fanatics” and “wanton, malicious, unprovoked felons.” In fact, Copeland's decision to join John Brown had been neither reckless nor unprovoked.

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The 'Colored Hero' of Harper's Ferry
  • Online ISBN: 9781139872072
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