COLUMBIA, Mo. —A bloodthirsty brigand or a man who used violence to fight a greater evil? Depending on the perspective, either could describe John Brown, a Kansas abolitionist and vigilante who led a raid on Pottawatomie Creek in 1856 that ended in the murder of five pro-slavery men.
The University of Missouri School of Law's Historical and Theatrical Trial Society took up this nettlesome question with a fictional trial of Brown on five counts of first-degree murder and an act of domestic terrorism.
The performance at the Missouri Theatre was the fourth of its kind in the past three years, after trials involving Jesse James, Meriwether Lewis and Al Capone.
With all the trappings of a modern courtroom — a laser pointer was employed to pinpoint wounds on bodies — each side passionately argued its case.
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Cape Girardeau County Prosecutor Morley Swingle and MU law student Justin Smith led the prosecution. The team questioned a series of actors portraying family members of the five victims who testified that on May 24, 1856, a group led by Brown and his sons descended on their peaceful community, pulled men from their beds and hacked them to death with broadswords.
"What they did to my son was an abomination," testified Mahala Doyle, whose husband and two sons were murdered. Her son Drury Doyle was discovered in a creek bed with his fingers chopped off. "We had to wait until the next day to" bury him "because we were looking for all of the parts of my son."
The prosecution also brought forth a member of the Brown gang who turned state's evidence. James Townsley, a Brown accomplice and "free-stater," testified Brown was the group's ringleader and his aim was to inspire terror in slave-sympathizers.
On cross-examination, the defense led by MU Professor Frank Bowman questioned Townsley's motives and painted him as an opportunist out to save his skin.
"There's only one thing the government has failed to give you," Bowman said theatrically, handing the witness a fistful of coins. "Your 30 pieces of silver."
The defense countered that the murders were ones of "necessity." Bowman and MU law student Lindsey Laws argued that in Kansas, the rule of law was nonexistent and vigilante justice was the only kind available. Pro-slavery forces from Missouri had stuffed the ballot boxes in a recent election, and the new state Legislature had enacted laws that made expressing abolitionist views punishable by death.
The defense also emphasized the evils of slavery with testimony by Brown friend Frederick Douglass and with a photo of a whipping post in Columbia where slaves were lashed.
Then Brown, sporting a shock of gray hair, took the stand.
"Not only was Kansas in danger if we did nothing, not only was the nation in danger if we did nothing, our lives, our families were in danger if we did nothing," Brown said. "The sacking of Lawrence" days earlier "demonstrated the measure of slavers' resolve. It was time to demonstrate the measure of ours."
In a closing statement, Swingle was unmoved: "If he wants to be a martyr, ladies and gentlemen," he told the jury, "then give him the rope."
The jury deliberated for about 20 minutes before returning with a "hung jury" verdict resulting in a mistrial. Ten jurors voted guilty, and two voted to acquit Brown.
"He felt like he was in a warfare turmoil situation," said Joyce Pearson, one of the hold-out jurors. "The jury instructions were too rigid for me; it didn't give me enough flexibility" to opt for a lesser charge.
But for Andom Gherezghiher, a law student and juror, this could not accurately be called self-defense.
"The jury instructions were clear. In defense of one's life, the harm has to be imminent," he said. "That means it has to be immediate, like knives at your throat. But they were the ones causing the harm. And the harm" they were fighting "was philosophical."
The real John Brown was hanged in 1859 after carrying out a raid on an armory in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. He was tried and convicted of murder, conspiracy and treason.