Tough questions for York countians about John Brown’s Harpers Ferry Raid


This pike, in the collection of the York County, Pa., Heritage Trust, is credited as coming from John Brown’s Raid. History professor John Quist said abolitionist John Brown armed his band in their raid on Harper’s Ferry with pikes, believing that black members of the band could not be trained to use guns. Osborne Perry Anderson (see photograph below) escaped, made his way to York and then to Philadelphia and freedom. Also of interest: Here’s a reasoned response to questions raised in this post.

John Brown launched his raid on the federal arsenal and armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 with the hope of evoking a slave revolt.

The plan went awry, and Brown and several of his band were cornered in the engine house and later captured. Civilians and a U.S. Marine died in the raid, which also failed in prompting a slave rebellion. Brown and his fellow captives were later hanged.

Osborne Perry Anderson, a free African-American and one of John Brown’s raiders, may have been positioned away from the main band.

He made his escape through Franklin County in Pennsylvania and worked his way to York where a Good Samaritan gave him refuge and sent him to freedom in Canada. Some historians believe former-slave-turned-businessman William C. Goodridge was that helpful soul.

John Quist told the story of John Brown’s Raid as part of Civil War Road Show observances this past weekend at Penn Park.

He ended his talk with questions about whether Brown’s violent actions were justified to destroy slavery… .

And the broader related question: Did slavery, dependent upon violence against a race of people, need to be ended by violence?

Good questions.

Bringing them right home to York, was the Good Samaritan justified in harboring a fugitive who was part of a band that meted out death to innocent civilians?

William C. Goodridge was known to whisk runaway slaves to freedom, flouting federal law, the Fugitive Slave Act. Few argue today that the Underground Railroad was an improper form of civil disobedience.

But to hide a John Brown raider, who the federal government would have hanged?

This example isn’t parallel but it’s worth discussion:

John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln and fled.

If he had fled to York County, would a Southern sympathizer providing safe haven be viewed as exercising proper civil disobedience? (Booth in York could have happened. He knew people here, and York County was full of rebel sympathizers.)

Anderson and Booth both were part of conspiracies that took lives.

Was the Good Samaritan in York County justified in aiding a conspirator from Brown’s party who shed blood and broke the law?

Were other York countians, who no doubt knew about Good Samaritan’s actions, thereby drawn into a conspiracy of their own?

A point here is that the closer an event in history gets to a town, the tougher it is to pass judgment. York countians would not have easily cast stones at the Good Samaritan for housing a John Brown band member.

In fact, they didn’t. History does not decisively remember his name.

Also of interest:

– For more on Anderson, see Scott Mingus’ Cannonball post: First shots at Fort Sumter bring war’s reality to county.

The story of former slave William C. Goodridge of York, Pa., would play well in Hollywood.


Osborne Perry Anderson

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
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