Issued in the North during the Civil War, the melodramatic portrayal of an apocryphal incident from the life of John Brown must have had unmistakable propagandistic overtones. In actuality a violent antislavery fanatic, Brown was convicted in 1859 of treason, inciting slave rebellion, and murder in his abortive attempt to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and ignite an armed slave insurrection in the South. Yet through his trial and execution at Charles Town, Virginia, in December 1859, Brown became for many Northerners a martyr of the abolitionist cause.
Here the artist shows Brown calmly descending the steps of the Charles Town jail, hands tied behind his back. "Regarding with a look of compassion a Slave-mother and Child who obstructed the passage on his way to the Scaffold. --Capt. Brown stooped and kissed the Child--then met his fate." The strikingly madonna-like slave woman is seated on a stone railing, holding an equally Christ-like infant. One of Brown's guards reaches forward, about to push her away.
In the foreground a mustachioed and elegantly uniformed soldier waits impatiently, hand on his sword hilt. Behind Brown a figure from the American Revolution, wearing a tricornered hat emblazoned "76," watches with concern. The flag of the state of Virginia with the motto "Sic semper tyrannis" flies prominently above Brown's head. A statue of Justice, with its arms and scales broken, stands forgotten behind the railing at left.
Currier & Ives issued another version of the print (Gale 3515), minus the clearly sectionalist references, in 1870.