When Theodore Worth’s parents hide the abolitionist John Brown overnight, Theodore is impressed by the man’s courage. Brown wants to free the slaves—by any means necessary—and in 1857 this makes him a wanted man. Two years later, Theodore runs away to join Brown and his men at Harper’s Ferry. Brown has a daring plan that, if it works, could end slavery. And if it doesn’t, it may kill them all.
“This historically accurate, richly detailed novel perfectly captures Theodore’s angst as he stands on the verge of manhood, yearning to act.” –School Library Journal
Cover illustration copyright C.B. Mordan, 1997
A Man of Many Names
Winter was mounting one last attack on Boston, an army of small, hard flakes that melted when they hit the ground. The road to Concord was a swamp of ice and mud. The horses threw up clumps of the stuff against the underside of our cab, and our wheels were covered to the hubs with it. There was a crackling crunch as our carriage lurched through another patch of rotten ice and into the rut below. The coach tipped crazily, and my mother, my father, and I were all jerked out of our seats.
The coachman got down from his perch and rapped on the door with his whip. “Excuse me, gents, you’ll have to help me,” he said.
“What is the problem?” my father replied, though that seemed obvious enough to me.
“The horses need a little help.”
Grumbling, my father got down from the coach. I jumped out after him.
The front wheels were half-buried in a trench of mud.
“It appears to me you could have gone around this,” my father said.
“Yep,” the coachman agreed. “Now, here’s what I need you to do. Each grab a spoke and pull backwards. This ain’t a bad hole, and Dolly and Bill will have us out of it in a minute if you bear a hand. Then, I promise you, sir, we will drive around it.”
Swearing under his breath, my father took off his coat and laid hands on a muddy spoke. I went to the other side and gripped mine. The coachman jumped back into his seat and cracked his whip over Bill’s and Dolly’s heads.
“Now, heave!” the coachman cried.
We heaved. The coach didn’t budge.
“Again!” shouted the coachman. “Put your backs into it.”
I pulled with all my strength but felt my feet sliding out from under me. I stumbled, caught myself, and heaved again. There was a sucking sound, the wheel turned, and I rolled down with it into the mud. The horses’ rear hooves threw more muck as I lay there, splattering me on the only clean places left.
I got up laughing and trying to brush myself off. I looked at my father. He was as muddy as I was. Unlike me, he wasn’t laughing. “Not an ideal night to go to a lecture, is it?” I said.
“Come along, gents, it’s getting late,” the coachman urged.
“Indeed it is not, Theodore,” my father snapped. “And we are not going. Turn this cab around, sir,” he called to the coachman.
“But Father, we’re almost there,” I said.
“That is enough, Theodore,” my father said.
My mother leaned out of the cab. “Thee are angry, my love,” she said soothingly, “but we must go to the lecture, even as we are.”
Mother was a Quaker and still spoke in the old-fashioned way, using “thee” with everyone but God. It was thanks to her that I was there at all, instead of at home with Amy and Talitha, my seven-year-old sisters, and an unwritable Latin composition.
“If we go into the Concord Congregational Church looking like this, we will become a topic of gossip all over Boston,” my father said.
“My dear, what people may say does not matter,” my mother told him. “What we do does. Thy great-grandfather was at Bunker Hill. Was not he dirty by the end of the day?”
“So was everyone else,” my father growled.
“Many people are coming tonight. Many will have walked,” my mother said. “And many who came in carriages may also have had to get out and push them. Please, my love. It means much to me.”
“Which way would you like to go, sir?” the coachman called down.
“Please, dearest,” my mother said.
“Concord,” my father called to the coachman.
My mother smiled. “Thee will be glad, Hale,” she said. “What we hear tonight will be important.”
“Caroline, my love, I deplore what is happening in Kansas Territory as much as any man in Boston,” Father said. “But I am not sure that what happens out there matters to Massachusetts.”
My parents were at it again, arguing in their politest way over slavery. It was almost all they ever argued about. They adored each other and seemed to agree on everything else. They even said they agreed on slavery. But when it came down to what to do about it, they went around and around and got nowhere. As for me, I was curious. All I knew was what I’d been told, which was what everyone knew.
Once, slavery had been found only south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Then an exception had been made for Mis¬souri. Massachusetts then gave up Maine to raise the number of free states. After that, the number of free and slave states was kept equal. That had been the “Missouri Compromise.” It had stood for forty years. Then several new free states came into the Union. The South demanded, and got, a new policy. They insisted that the voters in each state should decide the slave question for themselves. Kansas was the first test of that policy.
Now North and South were each sending armed men there to insure that the new state would be their kind. War had begun last year, and now, in 1857, Americans were still killing each other in “Bleeding Kansas.” This was what we were seeking to learn more about. I was glad to be going. Our speaker had taken part in the fighting. It ought to be exciting.
We lurched into Concord at last, and the ruts widened into cobblestoned streets. We clattered up to the doors of the Congregational Church.
There were several other carriages there, and many people hurrying to the church on foot. They were nearly as muddy as we were. Clearly they must have thought that what happened in Kansas mattered to Massachusetts.
My father cheered up a little when he saw so many others in our condition. “Perhaps I ought to go about like this more often,” he said. “Looking as I do, no one with a manuscript under his arm would be likely to approach me.”
My father was a publisher, and writers often sought him out. His firm, Worth House, was small but well thought of. He published novels mostly, but they were good books. No one looked down on my father for specializing in fiction.
As we shouldered into the church, a tall, sharp-nosed man with a black beard forced his way down the aisle toward us.
“Hello, Hale. I want a word with you in private,” he said.
“About what, Mr. Howe?” my father replied as formally as possible. Although my mother and Julia Ward Howe were friends, my father never addressed her husband as anything but “Mister.” Dr. Joshua Gridley Howe had been knighted a chevalier by the king of Greece and liked to be called “Chev,” but my father refused to do it. “If ‘Mister’ was good enough for George Washington,” he told me once, “it ought to be good enough for Howe.”
“As I said, it is a private matter,” Dr. Howe repeated.
“Perhaps after the lecture,” my father said. “At the moment I am occupied in trying to find three seats together.”
“Right this way,” insisted Dr. Howe. “I took the liberty of keeping some seats in the front in hopes that you would be coming.”
“Indeed,” said my father.
But my mother smiled. “We thank thee, Dr. Howe.”
He led us up to the front of the church. Mrs. Howe and my mother embraced, as they always did.
When we were seated, I couldn’t help looking at the people around us. Nearly everyone who was known for anything in Boston or Concord was there.
Just behind us were Theodore Parker and Bronson Alcott and his family. Alcott, a believer in women’s rights, had brought his wife and all his daughters. Mr. Emerson was there with his handyman, Henry Thoreau. Just in front of them were the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson and a man I didn’t recognize.
The man soon rose to speak. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “My name is Franklin Benjamin Sanborn. As many of you know, I conduct a school here in Concord. And I am an abolitionist.”
There was a scattering of applause when he said this.
“The man whom I am about to introduce to you is also an abolitionist, a far greater one than I. For he has put his principles to the test in the fiery furnace of battle on the windy plains of Kansas. Neither the man nor the principles have been found wanting.” Mr. Sanborn brought his fist down on the lectern.
This time the applause was louder.
“I am not free to name this man, though he is known now across the country. There is a price on his head. Our government wants him for crimes it says he has committed, crimes that were carried out in the name of liberty. There may be agents of that government among us tonight, ready to seize him. For that is what it has come to in the land of the free and the home of the brave, my fellow citizens. It has become a crime to fight for liberty. Thus, ladies and gentlemen, I have the honor to introduce to you a criminal. A man without a name. Almost, a man without a country. A wanted man. A hunted man. A patriot and a freedom fighter. A captain of men like himself. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you—”
And Mr. Sanborn sat down.
A few people clapped uncertainly.
In that moment of confusion, a tall, thin, gray man with a fierce jaw strode out from the back of the church to stand before the pulpit. His black suit was worn. His pants were stuffed into high boots that had seen a lot of travel. He looked us over slowly with sharp, dangerous eyes.
“My name is John Brown,” he said. His voice was deep, his accent pure old-fashioned Yankee. With his granite face and his broad vowels, he might have been anyone’s great-grandfather come back from the dead to address us.
“Praise be to God for the avenging of Israel,” a woman called from the back.
Brown put up his hand. “Is there anyone here who would like to arrest me? I am worth two hundred fifty dollars to you.”
I looked around. No one moved.
“As my friend Mr. Sanborn says, I am lately come from Kansas. I have done some fighting out there. I mean to go back and fight again. That is why I am here with you tonight. To ask your help for the next campaign. I imagine all of you know that there are really two Kansases now. There is a free Kansas, with its capital at Lawrence, and a slave Kansas, with its capital at Lecompton. The free Kansas is being settled by your friends and neighbors from New England and Ohio. The other is being settled by packs of slavery-loving ruffians and murderers from Missouri and Alabama.”
He went on to tell us how his sons had gone out to Kansas Territory first, with fruit saplings and seeds. They had settled farms along Pottawatomie Creek.
But the Border Ruffians from Missouri had kept threatening them, trying to force them to leave. The Missourians didn’t intend to stay in Kansas. They were there to make sure that Yankees didn’t stay either.
Armed companies of Southerners came in from other states. Finally, some of them from Lecompton marched up to Lawrence and burned it to the ground. They destroyed everything, even the big stone hotel, which had been built to serve as a fortress. Brown, his sons, and their militia company had been marching to save the town but had arrived one day too late.
“And as we stood on that hill and looked at that twisting smoke and those still-rising flames, a messenger arrived. He told us that on the day Lawrence was burned, your own senator, Charles Sumner, had been beaten nearly to death with a cane by a Southern congressman who didn’t care for what he had to say about slavery.”
A shudder ran through the crowd. Sumner was still not recovered from the attack. And the Southern congressman had received hundreds of canes to replace the one he had broken across our senator’s back. The South approved of such behavior. All New England believed it.
“From that time, from that place, I have been an active-duty soldier in the fight for freedom and Kansas,” Brown said.
He came a step closer to us and held out his half-opened hands. He looked from one to the other. “Now the one thing all agree on is that two Kansases are too
many. We and the South each reckon that there shall be only one. The question is, shall it be the free Kansas or the slave?”
“Free! Free!” some of the people shouted.
Brown put up a hand again. “I wish I could tell you that it will be so,” he said. “But it may very well not be so. The Southern slavery men understand as well as we do what is at stake. Not only the future of Kansas, my friends, but the future of our entire republic. Under the government’s policy, each new state is likely to become another Kansas. The old promise that slavery would be confined below the Mason-Dixon Line is dead. The slaver insists on his right to take what he considers to be his property—that is to say, another human being—into any state in the Union. He claims the right to pursue that property wherever in this land it may attempt to flee from him, and to compel anyone to help him do it. And the Congress of the United States has agreed that he has those rights. That is why there is war now in Kansas.”
All around me, people were shifting in their seats. They were murmuring in agreement. One man across the aisle stood up, opened his mouth, clenched his fists, and sat down again.
“Now I have not told you anything you do not already know,” Brown said. “The Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act have been law for some time. I am only here to point out that if you do not agree with these laws, you must do something to oppose them.”
“Tell us, tell us!”
My father harrumphed and crossed his arms over his chest.
“I do not ask you to return with me to Kansas and fight,” Brown said, looking straight at Father. “There are men enough for that. I have five sons waiting for me there—”
We broke into applause.
“—and we have friends enough to do the job. What we need is money for good weapons. In a few more weeks, it will be spring on the prairies again. The fighting will likely start early. Will you not, for the sake of a free Kansas, for a free country, for the sake of the slave yearning for freedom, give what you can?”
The man who had stood up before now rose again. He waved his tall hat over his head and shouted, “I propose we fill this hat with money unless someone here has a bigger one.”
There were cheers and applause. The hat started bob¬bing up and down the pews while people sang hymns and talked.
When it finally reached us, my father took the hat and handed it on immediately.
“One moment, please, Hale,” my mother said. She reached into her reticule and took out a silver dollar. I was amazed. Mother’s reverence for thrift was profound. Brown must have touched her deeply. I felt in my pocket and found fifteen cents. It was all the money I had for the rest of the week, but I thought of the widow in the Bible who gave all she had, and put it in proudly. I was surprised to see that, although the hat was so heavy it was nearly falling apart, most of the money was nickels, dimes, and pennies.
The hat made its way up past Mr. Emerson and Mr. Thoreau and into the hands of Mr. Sanborn.
“Thank you, thank you, my friends!” Mr. Sanborn shouted. “This money shall be consecrated to the liberty of man and the honor of God.”
“I thank you, my friends,” Brown added.
People started singing hymns in different parts of the church. Gradually, they settled on one, and sang it over and over. It made no particular sense, but it was one everybody knew, and it gave release to our feelings.
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye Heavenly host,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
While we were singing, Brown disappeared.
People began to file out of the church. We waited with Dr. Howe. When the building was empty, he bent his head close to my father’s.
“See here, Hale,” Dr. Howe began. “Our friend has a problem. That federal marshal who’s followed him here from Kansas is across the street. We need a place to put Brown up for a couple of days. Preferably with someone who is not known to be an active abolitionist. Will you do it?”
“No,” my father replied.
“It would only be for a day or two,” Dr. Howe said. “We have another house ready to take him. But we fear it may be being watched. We know yours is not.”
“That can only mean, sir, that your people have been spying on us,” Father snapped. “Thank you for your solicitude, but it was unnecessary. I will never give houseroom to an assassin.”
Dr. Howe reddened. “John Brown is no assassin,” he answered. “He is a Christian and a fighter for freedom.”
“He murdered four men on Osawatomie Creek the night after he failed to save Lawrence, and the whole country knows it,” my father replied. “Dragged them from their homes and butchered them with broadswords.”
Dr. Howe glared at Father. His jaws worked. At last he said, “There is no proof of that, Worth.”
“And what is your marshal waiting to arrest him for if not those murders?” my father said quietly.
“That’s true,” said a voice behind us.
Father and I turned.
“I am wanted for murder in Kansas. I understand that the charge is not quite accurate, since I did not kill anybody that night myself. But I organized the killing. And I put one bullet into one man to make sure he was dead. Which he was.” John Brown turned to Dr. Howe. “It is all right, Chev,” he said. “Any place will do for me tonight. It doesn’t matter so much, since I won’t be taken alive in any case.”
Now my mother was standing beside us, her hand in my father’s.
“But what had these men done, Mr. Brown?” she asked.
“Done?” Brown said, smiling at her. “Not much. Only threatened other folks who lived along the creek. They promised to kill some Free-Soilers who had the bad sense to live nearby. One old man ran away and froze to death on the prairie because he knew they meant what they said. But I don’t reckon there’s any great crime in that. The murder of an abolitionist is no crime in Kansas. Had those four men I ordered killed come and killed me instead, there’d be no federal marshal after them.”
“But why those four, sir?” my mother insisted.
“Well, ma’am,” Brown drawled, “after the slavers burned Lawrence, I was mighty hot to get back at them any way I could. Those men were well known in our district. I reckoned killing them would have a good effect.”
“The effect it seems to have had is to turn Kansas into a war ground,” my father said.
“That is so, sir,” said Brown. “But I do not apologize for my part in it, since we fight for freedom against slavery. What I did forced every man to choose his side.”
“I think our government’s policy in Kansas is a scan¬dal,” my father said. “I despise its weakness. But I think you seek to split this country in two over slavery. I can never agree to that.”
“And what do you propose instead?” Brown asked.
“I detest slavery as much as any man in Boston,” my father replied. “But if you destroy the Union, the South will still have its slaves. It is only within the Union that the abolitionist has any hope of victory.”
“And what hope is that?” Brown said. “Tell me, sir. I am anxious to know. I have a wife and children I yearn to go home to. If there is some hope of freeing the slaves without fighting, I want to know about it. What hope do you see?”
My father was silent.
“You may be right, sir,” Brown agreed. “Perhaps it is better to live in a country where the slaveholder has all the rights and the free man none. I can only say that I have heard the cry of the slave in his chains and it has pierced my heart. This being so, I can only follow my conscience where it leads me. And it has led me to war.”
Everyone was silent then.
Mother put her hand on my father’s arm. “I believe we should take him in, Hale,” she said.
“Indeed?” said my father.
Dr. Howe stared. He was known to be a supporter of women’s rights, but he was no more used to seeing a wife disagree in public with her husband than most people.
“If we turn him away and he is captured tonight, then everything that follows from that will be our doing. If we keep him safe for a night or two, we have done our part to preserve his life. That, I think, is our duty.” My father started to speak, but my mother went on. “Thee are right, my love, but so is Mr. Brown. He is wanted for his part in murders. But specifically for his part in murdering slavery men. Thee and I know that this is true. Thee say that thee hate slavery, and I know that this is true. Do thee hate it enough to risk something for thy beliefs?”
“I won’t risk you and the children for anything,” my father said.
“I want to help,” I blurted out. “He can have the spare room, after all.”
“This is not your decision, Theodore,” my father snapped, but my mother said, “And I will answer for Talitha and Amy, as well as myself.”
“And if this marshal comes to our door with his warrant and enters our house and Mr. Brown makes good his promise to kill or be killed-” my father began.
“We must pray it will not come to that,” my mother replied.
Father stood with his fists clenched like stones for a moment. Then he turned to Dr. Howe. “We are leaving,” he said. “We will be home within two hours. Bring him to the back door after that time.”
“Not I,” said Dr. Howe. “Mr. Sanborn will convey Mr. Brown tonight.”
“I thank you, sir,” Brown said.
“I do not thank you, Mr. Brown,” my father declared. “But you will be as safe as we can make you.”
“It will be an honor, sir,” I said, ignoring my father’s scowl.
And as quickly as that, we, my own ordinary family, were suddenly doing something exciting. I hoped Brown would tell us some war stories.
On the street, our carriage was standing by itself, the horses drowsing under their blankets.
My father jerked open the cab door. The driver was asleep in one corner, wrapped in his cape.
“We are leaving, sir,” Father nearly shouted.
“Right,” sighed the coachman, stumbling out past us. I smelled whiskey on his breath.
“This night—” my father grumbled.
The coachman tried to climb into his box but slipped. I went to steady him.
“Thanks, boy,” he said with an amiable grin. “Want to ride up with me?”
I agreed at once.
“Theodore, come down,” my father ordered.
I bent as close as I could to his face. “I think I’d better,” I said. “He’s been drinking—”
“I know that, Theodore.”
“—and up here I can watch for any more large holes. We don’t, want to get stuck again.”
My father thought that over. “Very well. See that we do not,” he said, and climbed into the cab with Mother.
The coachman took the reins and got us back onto the muddy road to Boston. Then he settled down into his cape and pulled his hat over his eyes.
“Sir-” I said.
“Nothing to worry about. Dolly and Bill know the way home. Just wake me up when we get back to pavement.” He pulled a bottle out of his coat and offered it to me.
“Oh, no thanks,” I said, feeling flustered.
The coachman winked at me, took a long swig, and closed his eyes with a happy sigh.
” ‘This night,’” Father had said in disgust. It seemed like a fine one to me. Before we left Boston, my mother had said, “Theodore is fourteen, Hale, and should hear this lecture. He is old enough to begin taking part in the country’s business. Even when it is bad business. Perhaps he can help better it.” Now, suddenly, I was a part of it.
I picked up the reins that had fallen from the coach¬man’s slack hands. I liked the feel of them in mine.