The Lost Museum Archive

A Picture at Barnum's

This item appeared in Harper’s Weekly, a pro-Union magazine, praising a painting of John Brown going to his execution that was on display at the American Museum. The painting by Louis Ransom depicts Brown pausing on the steps of the Charlestown, Virginia, jail, surrounded by armed soldiers, and leaning down to kiss the small child proffered to him by an African-American woman. The legend of Brown kissing a slave child on the way to his execution originated with an account of the execution in the New York Tribune on December 6, 1859. This account was reprinted in other newspapers and in early Brown biographies. In fact, Brown encountered only soldiers and jail personnel on the way to his execution. Fearing that the painting would draw angry crowds during the July 1863 New York City draft riots, Barnum removed Ransom’s painting from the American Museum.

In the gallery with the Aquaria at Barnum’s Museum there is a large picture, painted by Louis Ransom, of John Brown on his way to execution. He is just leaving the jail under military escort and meets the negro woman and her child. "They were of the despised race for whose sake he had suffered so much, and was now about to lay down his life. He paused for a moment, stooped, and kissed the child tenderly." It is one of the incidents that history will always fondly record and art delineate. The fierce and bitter judgment of the moment upon the old man is already tempered. Despised and forsaken in his own day, the heart of another generation may treat him as he treated the little outcast child. In the picture his head is conspicuous against the yellow ground of a flag which surrounds it like a halo. The eager officer by his side pushes the mother away, and the bedizened soldier in the fore-ground scowls at her. The fussy parade which the authorities made at his execution is admirably suggested by these figures, and however sharply the work might be criticised by the connoisseur, there is a solemnity and pathos in it which is wanting in many a finer painting.

When the Lounger was a boy and went to museums, the chief and terrible attraction was the murder of old Mr. White in Salem, done in wax. But here for the boys of to-day is a terrible scene of another kind, to which the artist has brought an earnest and loving hand, and which—such is the constant throng at the Museum—more than many books or orations, will repeat the significant story to the popular heart. That heart will remember long that those who were fiercest in their condemnation of John Brown are faintest in their censure of the rebels.

Source: Harper’s Weekly, June 13, 1863.