National Council for History Education 2017

Seen and Unseen: John Brown’s Public Trial in U.S. History

John Brown’s 1859 trial was arguably the “first modern courtroom event” in American history. How was this remarkably public trial “seen and unseen” in its day? Through commercial telegraphy, on-scene reporters conveyed a sense of immediacy to a national audience. The developing field of courtroom art enabled those not present to “see” inside the trial. How did Brown’s performance shape his public image—in 1859 and since? How were his own words at issue? Why does Brown still fascinate?

Session materials


Chronology of John Brown’s Trial

John Brown’s Raid and Trial Cast of Characters

Packet of primary source documents includes:

  • Document 1: Indictment Against John Brown, October 26, 1859 (excerpted)
  • Document 2: Horace Greeley, “Tribune Editorial,” October 19, 1859 & E.B., “To John Brown,” October 27, 1859
  • Document 3: John Brown, Last Statement to the Court (Allocution), November 1, 1859
  • Document 4: Judge Richard Parker, Sentencing of John Brown, November 1, 1859
  • Document 5: Richmond Whig, “Editorial,” November 18, 1859
  • Document 6: L’Univers, “Editorial,” November 24, 1859 (excerpted)

Additional resources