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Used on the man who broke the shackles of slavery...

John Brown: Maker-Stamped Leg Irons. Pair of leg irons or shackles believed to be those used on John Brown during his incarceration at the Charlestown, Virginia jail following his arrest during the raid at Harper's Ferry. John Brown's capture of the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry on October 17, 1859 as part of a failed attempt to incite a slave uprising is seen by most historians as the spark that ignited the Civil War. Brown and his followers had fought pro-slavery factions during "Bloody Kansas", slaughtering a group of settlers at Osawatomie Creek, in retaliation for the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas. This was seen as part of the larger picture of violence between Free Staters and Border-Ruffians. The actions at Harper's Ferry, in contrast, raised the fear of servile insurrection and was viewed by slave-holders as the logical outcome to abolitionist agitation. It was this fear, beyond all others, that prompted southern states to withdraw from the Union following Lincoln's election in 1860. This pair of leg irons has descended in the same family since their acquisition by the consignor's great-great-great grandfather, Hezekiah Atwood, Jr. (1824-1885). In researching them, we have tried to sort through the murky waters of family lore and faulty, contradictory information posted online. The leg irons are stamped "D2 ER" in two places while the key (left-handed thread) is stamped "D2". The initials "ER" stand for Elijah Rickard, a well-known locksmith who operated out of Shepherdstown, Virginia. Shortly after Brown's arrest at Harper's Ferry, Governor Wise, fearful of a rescue attempt or interference by the Federal authorities, transferred Brown and his fellow-prisoners to the county seat at Charlestown. Brown and six accomplices, all of whom were subsequently hanged, were housed in the Charlestown jail and forced to wear leg irons. Brown's shackles were only removed when his wife came for one last visit and once again when he was escorted from the jail to the place of execution. Brown received all the publicity and his co-defendants were given sparse press coverage. The shackles used on Brown were therefore seen as precious relics or souvenirs of the great man and no doubt several people sought to acquire them following Brown's execution on December 2,1859 (pieces of the noose and pikes from "John Brown's Fort" have appeared in the market from time-to-time). Atwood, who served in Company I First Maine Volunteers during the Civil War and subsequently became a Baptist minister, was one of those souvenir seekers. According to a newspaper article published in the "Cincinnati Herald" of November 19, 1893 (a transcript of which accompanies the lot), Atwood arranged with an elderly black lady to obtain Brown's leg irons by substituting an identical pair, procured at an expense of $8. Whether apocryphal or not, the shackles were "liberated" and employed thereafter (circa 1860-1865) as props by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights where, excoriating the evil of slavery, he repeatedly stomped upon them. The shackles may have been loaned to Beecher by Hezekiah Atwood, Sr., a Congregationalist minister. The consignor's aunt took the shackles to school for a show-and-tell around 1930 at which time a letter of provenance from Charles Baker Atwood (Hezekiah Atwood, Jr.'s son) was lost, as well as a piece of red flannel attached to them. The significance of the red flannel has been lost to time. Perhaps they designated the shackles used on Brown or perhaps they indicated that these shackles had left-handed thread locks. Besides the transcript of the 1893 article, the lot is accompanied by a copy of a 1973 letter of provenance from the consignor's grandmother (the aunt's mother), as well as copies of newspaper articles from 1889 and 1890. The shackles are extremely sturdy and quite heavy, weighing perhaps 5-6 pounds. The original key is included.

Service and Handling Description: Miscellaneous Collectibles, Small (view shipping information)

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Auction Dates
June, 2013
22nd-23rd Saturday-Sunday
Internet/Mail/Phone Bidders: 6
Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
Page Views: 5,183

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