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. East Region Editor, Digital First Media. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
This entry was posted in All politics is local, Archives, all posts, Black history, Civil War, Events, Explanations/controversy, For photo fans, People, Uncategorized, Underground Railroad, War and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Bill Landes says:

    This food for thought is pretty heavy for a college course let alone a travelling exhibit. Wow!

  2. bill schintz says:

    yorker micheal p. small a west point grad was involved with putting down browns uprising at harpers ferry. he was there under the command of robt e lee…at the conclusion of the civil war m.p. small was again involved with lee providing provisions too lees defeated army. micheal small owned the home at 249 east market st.now it is the schintz studio. a plaque on the building with facts of the event. we could provide pictures of the plaque and micheal small if needed…. bill schintz ph 846 4584 thanks jim

  3. Jim Poland says:

    My response to the questions:

    (1) Was John Brown’s violent actions at Harper’s Ferry justified to destroy slavery?

    YES. The tide was moving toward abolition and the “evolution” away from slavery as a core of the American South’s economic engine had already taken too long and could well have taken another 30 years.

    (2) Did slavery, dependent upon violence against a race of people, need to be ended by violence?

    YES. Humankind history illustrates that extreme measures are necessary where violence and oppression occur. Did the end of South Africa’s apartheid require violence to end that oppression? Did the end of the “Ultimate Solution” of the Third Reich require the violent overthrow of the Nazi regime to open the gates of the “labor” camps and death camps? Does the end of the violent, dictatorial oppression of populations in Middle East countries “really” require violence?

    Has non-violent, civil disobedience achieved positive change where there is violent oppression. Yes, but at the cost of life and limb of those protesting for change.

    Did York City need to have violent “race riots” to achieve positive change? Apparently, sadly, yes.

    Less violent intervention is required when MORE of the TOTAL population, including members of the segment of that population benefiting from that very oppression, engage in non-violent initiatives for removal of the oppressive practices/system.

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