The Lost Museum Archive

Louis Ransom to the President of Oberlin College

In these letters, painter Louis Ransom attempts to sell his painting of "John Brown Meeting the Slave Mother and her Child on the Steps of Charleston Jail on His Way to Execution" to Oberlin College. Oberlin, founded in 1833, was the nation’s first co-educational college and one of the first to admit African-American students. Because Oberlin was known as an abolitionist stronghold, Ransom hoped that the college or residents of the town of Oberlin, Ohio, would be interested in buying his painting honoring the abolitionist martyr, first exhibited at the American Museum. Oberlin eventually did take possession of the seven by ten foot large painting, and later loaned it to Paul Laurence Dunbar high school in Washington, D.C. The painting is lost to history, but a Currier and Ives lithograph of the painting was widely distributed and helped to cement the myth that Brown had actually kissed a slave mother and her child en route to his execution.

October 16, 1863

To the President of Oberlin College:

Dear Sir:

I am compelled to address you in the above manner because I have not been able to learn the name of the gentleman now occupying the position indicated and wishing to communicate with you in relation to a large historical painting which I have. I adopted the only possible, present method of reaching you.

The painting to which I refer is one representing John Brown meeting the Slave Mother and her Child on the steps of the jail at Charleston, on his way to execution. I painted this work as a small tribute to the great soul of a noble man, and I desire that it should now occupy a place befitting the character of the man and the picture, and I know of no place which more completely fills every condition of fitness more than Oberlin College. I have always valued the work at $2000.00 and the day is not distant when its actual commercial value will reach that figure, but having been a source of expense to me , both during its progress and since I am willing to sell it for little more than would be necessary to cancel the debts now clinging to it (i.e. $400.00.)

This picture was on exhibition last summer at Barnum's Museum where it attracted a great deal of attention and receive a very flattering notice from George W. Curtis Esq. Through the Lounger in Harper's Weekly, and you will see from a paragraph from an as--- letter which I enclose, that it is somewhat known in the service. The picture measures7.10 feet I enclose a photograph of it, which is necessarily imperfect, like all photos of paintings.

If the picture could not be purchased directly by the College, perhaps the people of Oberlin might be induced to buy it for the institution.

Hoping to open a correspondence with you on this subject and asking your indulgence for this abrupt self introduction, believe me

Louis Ransom
Lansingburgh, N.Y.

I have been so --- as to find Mr. Curtis' article copied into our local journal and I enclose it. L.R.

January 9, 1864

Reverend Charles G. Finney

Dear Sir:

Your letter is here and I have delayed writing through the fear that this correspondence was annoying to you. Yet one proposition which I made must have been overlooked, for which reason I feel compelled to bother you again.

If Mr. Smith's suggestion were acted upon, the picture would be purchased for the Institute and placed in its rooms without its costing the Institution or its neighbors a single cent. All we would ask is room for the work, which would be paid for by gentlemen of this vicinity. The antislavery character of Oberlin is a sufficient explanation of my desire to place the John Brown picture permanently within its halls, for could any other institution be named to me of as good repute as that matter, I would as gladly see my picture in its possession.

Would you be pleased with the arrangement which I have intimated?

Asking your indulgence for my frequent intrusions, Believe me

Very Truly Yours.

Louis Ransom
Lansingburgh, N.Y.

Source: Archives of Oberlin College.