The son of Owen Brown and Ruth Mills Brown, he was descended from a Mayflower passenger on his father's side. At the age of five he was taken to Hudson, O., where he spent the rest of his childhood and youth. His mother died when he was eight.
After a rudimentary education, he began working in his father's leather tannery and then went into business on his own.
A restless man, eager to try his luck anywhere, Brown worked for over twenty-five years in leather tanning and the wool business in at least ten different locations, ranging from Richmond, Pa., and Springfield, Mass., in the east to Akron, O., in the west. His ventures did not prosper, and in 1842 he was declared bankrupt while living in Richfield, O. He then joined with Simon Perkins of Akron in a new company selling wool, moving to Springfield to take charge of the firm's office there. Brown's business career ended in 1849 with the dissolution of his partnership with Perkins. Litigation continued for several years thereafter.
Brown inherited from his father a hatred of slavery which intensified as he aged. During the 1820's and 1830's his home was a station on the underground railroad. In Springfield, Mass., in 1851 he organized the U.S. League of Gileadites, an armed black group, set up for self-protection and to aid runaway slaves.
When Kansas was opened for settlement in 1854, Brown followed his five grown sons to the new territory, theoretically to operate a tannery at Osawatomie. Actually he went west to fight for a free Kansas. He soon became the leader of a guerrilla band, organized along military lines with himself as captain. Brown's most notorious exploit was the Pottawatomie massacre on the night of May 24-25, 1856, when five pro-slavery men were killed.
Brown gained the support of militant abolitionists in the North, especially of a group known as the Secret Six, men otherwise known for their humanitarianism: Gerrit Smith, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, George L. Stearns, the Rev. Theodore Parker, the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Franklin B. Sanborn. The six raised money for Brown and gave him every encouragement.
After some setbacks, his plans finally took shape during the summer of 1859 for an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va. (now West Virginia). With the arms he hoped to capture, he would equip the slaves of the vicinity who, he thought, would be eager to gain their freedom. They would take refuge in the mountains or, perhaps, escape to Canada. His company numbered twenty-one, of whom five were black and two were his sons Oliver, aged twenty, and Watson, aged twenty-four. Early on the morning of Oct. 16, 1859, they attacked and seized the arsenal. But the local blacks failed to join them. For two days Brown and his men held the arsenal until Col. Robert E. Lee, with a contingent of U.S. sailors and marines, forced their surrender. Brown's two sons were killed, while he was wounded. The raid caused a violent counterreaction in the South and aided Southern extremists to win control in their fight for secession in 1860-1861.
Brown was indicted for treason and tried at Charles Town, Va. (now West Virginia), beginning on October 25, barely a week after his capture. He was found guilty and hanged on Dec. 2, 1859. Immediately upon his death he was turned into a folk hero by his admirers, who resisted bitterly any effort to denigrate his work. The folk song "John Brown's Body" became a leading marching song of the Civil War, and Stephen Vincent Benet's epic poem John Brown's Body (1929) has continued this tradition.
The question of Brown's sanity has aroused much discussion among scholars. At this late date, it is impossible to speak with certainty of his mental condition. While it is true that there was insanity in his family (his mother died insane and two of his sons were of unsound mind), he always appeared to be in complete control of his senses. His behavior at his trial and in his cell as he awaited execution, as well as his last letters, show him to have been quite rational and alert, although this does not necessarily prove his sanity.
Believed that he was chosen by God to destroy slavery in the United States. As he grew older, Brown became fanatical on the subject of slavery. He worked on the Underground Railroad, tried to integrate the Congregational Church he attended, and grew more extreme in his views on slavery and slave owners. He said he would be willing to die for the destruction of slavery. He told black abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) that he planned to arm the slaves he led to freedom, because violent resistance would give them a sense of their own manhood. In 1851, he urged blacks to kill any official who tried to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, which decreed that escaped slaves must be returned to their owners.