This Shawl Belonged to Langston Hughes (True) and Was Worn by One of John Brown’s Men at Harpers Ferry (Well . . .).

Our objects tell amazing stories, not all of them accurate. 

HUMANITIES, Summer 2016, Volume 37, Number 3

“One of the most treasured objects” in the collection of the Ohio History Connection in Columbus is item H 6806, which, at first, seems to be a rather ordinary handwoven wool twill shawl. Measuring 142 cm x 315 cm (about 56” x 124”), it is large enough to cover a dining room table and has a plaid pattern in blue and yellow. The edges are frayed. The color is faded and the fabric bears numerous holes of different sizes. The shawl seems to date from the early nineteenth century, its age evident from both its badly worn condition and the nature of its yarn and weave.

The object is so modest it hardly seems museumworthy. But it came with a great story deeply rooted in American history and literature.

In 1943, the shawl was donated by Langston Hughes, the great African-American poet and playwright. In a handwritten note, Hughes explained that it had belonged to his grandmother’s first husband, Lewis Sheridan Leary, who had given his life in John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859.

Said Hughes,

Sheridan Leary wore this shawl when he went from Oberlin, Ohio, to join John Brown in order to help him create the slave revolt which they hoped might free the Negroes. At Harper’s Ferry Leary was killed and left to lie for a long while in a muddy ditch, but some good person took this shawl and sent it back to Oberlin to his widow, Mary Sampson Patterson Leary, who later became Mrs. Langston, my grandmother.

The museum’s website says that the shawl “had been handed down in the Leary family from Sheridan’s grandfather,” and adds that “we would be safe in dating the shawl at thirty to forty years preceding John Brown’s raid, certainly in the first quarter of the 1800’s.”

The shawl belonged first to the Leary family, then to the Langstons, and finally to the Hugheses. The poet also included a brief account of it in his autobiography, noting that Leary had left Oberlin without disclosing his destination, “except that he told [Mary] he was going on a trip. A few weeks later his shawl came back to her full of bullet holes.” Hughes’s biographer, Arnold Rampersad, wrote that “a friend brought [Leary’s] bloodstained, bullet-ridden shawl” back to Oberlin, and that it remained a symbol for Mary of his martyrdom. “She still wore it fifty years after his death, or used it to cover her young grandchild, Langston Hughes, while he slept at night.”

The Harpers Ferry raid and its aftermath are among the most evocative events in the long struggle to abolish slavery that led to the Civil War. To an African-American poet who wrote about the suffering of his people from the injustices of bondage and racial discrimination, the shawl had tremendous emblematic significance, not only of the quest for freedom but of his own ancestor’s sacrifice in the deeply unequal battle at Harpers Ferry. Hughes’s memories of being wrapped in it as a child lent even greater dramatic power to the story of the shawl, making it a part of his own origin story as well as a symbol of the family’s tradition of resistance to oppression and racism.

This shawl has the power to make the heart race and the imagination open wide to an incredible series of connections between a famous twentieth-century name and a significant nineteenth-century tragedy. And yet, in all likelihood, the story that this shawl was at the battle at Harpers Ferry is not true.

The Hughes shawl is what museum curators call an “association object,” an item we value not for what it can tell us about the past or its aesthetic properties, but for its association, real or imputed, with someone or something imbued with sociocultural mystique. It is as if the artifact embodies the spirit of the person, place, or event, what the Romans called numen. When objects are believed to have been present at an event with deep emotional significance, such as war, we perceive them as embodying the truth of the event, even if the association cannot be documented.

Such objects can pose ethical and cultural-sensitivity problems for museum professionals, who must balance respect for the documentary record with respect for family history and across identity groups with different agendas for the past. As a “numinous object,” the Hughes shawl occupies the intersection of several types of historical ambiguity.

The legacy of John Brown and the history of African-American slavery have been deeply contested. The South Carolina State Museum, for example, was stymied for decades in its efforts to develop an exhibit about the Reconstruction period, as the legislature refused funding for one proposed exhibit script after another, leaving a yawning gap in the museum’s permanent exhibit between April 1865 and the 1920s.

Over time, in most cases, there is a gradual softening of the harsh edges of traumatic historical memory into something acceptable to a broad range of human loyalties and sensitivities. The American Revolution in such places as Schoharie County, New York, was a bloody civil war, but the war as a whole has been polished by more than two centuries of consensus into simply a battle for freedom. Slavery and the Civil War are still undergoing the process of reconcilement with our national ideals. Evocative artifacts like the Hughes shawl support this process.

Its association with Harpers Ferry may not be supported by historical documentation, but ambiguities are common in the provenance of association objects. This does not mean we should discount their value or treat family history with anything but respect.

Conflation and confusion of events, persons, and objects in memory are normal and unavoidable features of the human capacity for remembering. According to psychologists and neuroscientists such as Daniel Schachter, Charles Weaver, and John H. Byrne, about half of what we remember, even relatively soon after the event, did not occur as we remember it. This is especially true of highly “memorable” events, such as the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, participation in battle, or a traumatic personal injury.

Moreover, because we are a gregarious and social species, our memories and beliefs are easily influenced, distorted, and “improved” as stories by the influence of our peers. Thus, when an object comes to have even a notional connection to a historical event, it is unlikely ever to lose the association, even if the light shed by documentary evidence makes the association unbelievable.

This is what makes it nearly impossible for the National Park Service, even with the most conscientious curatorial truth-in-advertising, to convince visitors that the cabin at the traditional site of the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln is not, and cannot have been, the building in which Abraham Lincoln was born.

The urge to build historical monuments or attribute semi-sacred qualities to places associated with historical events is nearly universal among our species. The reflex to make civil religion of ordinary material culture is, as computer scientists say, “not a bug but a feature” of human nature. It allows us to build group identities that enable important human achievements, of which the Revolutionary War and the civil rights movement are but two of many examples. And, obviously, it helps identify history that is important to remember.

Lewis Sheridan Leary was broad-shouldered and muscular, with high cheekbones, dark eyes, arched eyebrows, and a light reddish complexion indicative of his white and Native American ancestors. He was known to sport a wide-brimmed hat, which he wore at a rakish angle, sometimes tilting his head to give it even greater effect. Leary was born in 1835, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to a prosperous family of “free Negroes,” who traced their ancestry to an Irish Revolutionary War veteran named Jeremiah O’Leary. Jeremiah married a free woman of black and Croatan Indian background named Sarah Jane Revels. Their “mulatto” son was Matthew Leary, who rose to prominence as a saddle and harness maker in Fayetteville. Matthew, in turn, married Juliet Anna Meimoriel, a French woman who had been raised in Guadeloupe. The couple became affluent, thanks to Matthew’s skill as an artisan and investments in land, and they lived in a fine house where they raised five children. Their youngest child was Lewis Sheridan Leary.

The Leary children had advantages undreamed of by most African Americans in the antebellum South. They were educated by private tutors, attended fancy parties, and were waited upon by black servants, some of whom were slaves. As did other prosperous free blacks in North Carolina, Matthew Leary was known to purchase slaves at auction, thereafter allowing them to work for their freedom.

In contrast to his parents, young Lewis was said to disdain any accommodation with slavery, which may have led to his departure from North Carolina in 1854. According to family lore, Lewis confronted an overseer who was whipping a slave and knocked the white man to the ground. After that, Fayetteville became extremely dangerous for him, and he was forced to flee in the dead of night. This story is for the most part apocryphal, however, seemingly derived many years later from the Book of Exodus. In fact, Lewis left Fayetteville for Ohio in broad daylight, along with two of his sisters and their husbands (who had relatives in Oberlin), after first obtaining transit papers from the governor. It may be that Fayetteville had become “too hot” for Lewis, as his widow later recalled, but the likely cause was a falling-out with his father, perhaps over the latter’s indulgence of slavery. For whatever reason, the elder Leary later disinherited his Ohio relatives, with no suggestion that it had anything to do with Moses-like resistance on Lewis’s part.

In Oberlin, Lewis made contact with John Anthony Copeland, his relative by marriage, and the two young men became active in Oberlin’s “Freedom School” and other antislavery organizations. Copeland was studious by nature, attending the Preparatory Department (that is, high school) of Oberlin College, where he studied composition and religion. Leary, the more worldly of the two, worked as a harness maker and filled his free time with horseback riding and music. Both young men frequently attended abolitionist meetings, which they occasionally addressed with great passion.

On May 12, 1858, Lewis married Mary Sampson Patterson, a student at Oberlin, who had arrived from Fayetteville the previous year. Little is known of their courtship, although it is likely that they knew each other as youngsters in North Carolina. Mary quit her studies soon afterward, and she gave birth to the couple’s only child—a daughter named Loise who would be Langston Hughes’s aunt—in February 1859.

It was not many months after Loise’s birth, in late August 1859, that John Brown Jr. arrived in Oberlin, seeking recruits for the liberation army that his father was assembling for the Harpers Ferry operation. He first sought out Charles and John Mercer Langston, two highly accomplished African Americans who were leaders in Ohio’s abolitionist movement. (It was Charles who would become the grandfather of Langston Hughes.) The two brothers demurred, but they offered to introduce Brown’s son to the two “bravest negroes” they knew: Lewis Sheridan Leary and John Anthony Copeland.

The two young men agreed to enlist in Brown’s command, although it would take them nearly a month to raise the necessary traveling funds from several of Oberlin’s leading citizens. During the entire time—as he corresponded with Brown’s lieutenants and solicited money from local lawyers and community leaders—Leary told his young wife nothing about his plans to head south. Copeland, too, kept mum, although he did inform his parents that he was going to travel to Michigan in order to spend a term teaching in a “colored school.”

Only at the last moment did Leary confide in his employer, the harness maker James Scott, that he was embarking on a mission to “free the slaves” of Virginia. After that, Leary simply disappeared, without even a word of good-bye to Mary and Loise. Scott carried out the awkward task of explaining Leary’s sudden absence to Mary, who was left with no means of support for herself and her infant daughter. She would hear nothing more of Lewis until after his death at Harpers Ferry.

Leary and Copeland arrived at Brown’s headquarters—a farmhouse in rural Maryland, about five miles from Harpers Ferry—on Thursday, October 13, 1859. Most of the small army had already assembled. The force would ultimately total 22 men, including Brown as commander in chief, of whom five were African Americans. Leary and Copeland, however, had almost no opportunity to become acquainted with their new comrades, as Brown ordered the invasion to begin on the night of Sunday, October 16.

It took Brown’s men two hours to march the five miles into the sleeping town of Harpers Ferry. Crossing the Potomac River bridge, they were quickly able to take control of their main objectives: the federal arsenal and armory, and a nearby rifle factory. Brown set up his command post in the armory, where he gathered several dozen hostages whom he intended to trade for the freedom of local slaves. Leary and Copeland, along with John Kagi, a white man who was Brown’s adjutant, were assigned to the rifle factory, where they stood guard and awaited further orders.

Not all went as planned. Two of Brown’s men who had been left to guard the bridge were discovered by a railroad baggage agent—a free black man named Hayward Shepherd—whom they mistakenly shot and killed. The sound of gunfire awakened others in the town, and church bells were soon ringing the alarm. The local militia assembled in response, surrounding Brown’s redoubt at the armory.

Meanwhile, another militia contingent rained fire on the rifle factory, where Leary, Copeland, and Kagi did their best to stand fast. They managed to repel six or seven attacks, holding firm until some time Monday morning, when their ammunition began to run low and their situation turned hopeless. In the face of mounting pressure from the Virginians, the three abolitionists fled through the factory’s back door, only to realize that their path to freedom was blocked by the fast current of the Shenandoah River.

Their “only means of escape, if any” was to swim for it, so they “turned and fired one round” before plunging into the water. Some of the militiamen waded in after them, while others stood on the riverbank and, as Copeland later put it, “opened a hot fire on us from all sides.”

Kagi was shot in the head and died instantly. Leary managed to reach a rock outcropping in mid-river, where he was “shot through the body” and collapsed. Copeland, too, reached the small island, where he was confronted by a militiaman. Realizing that he had no chance at escape, he dropped his rifle and surrendered.

The badly wounded Leary was dragged to the shore, where many in the enraged crowd called for his immediate lynching. Instead, he was taken to a nearby cooperage, where he suffered in agony for another ten or twelve hours before succumbing to his wounds. Before he died, Leary at last sent word to Mary and Loise by asking a newspaper reporter “to inform them of the manner of his death.”

Brown’s main force in the armory managed to hold out until Tuesday morning, when they were routed by a contingent of United States Marines that had arrived under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee. Ten of the raiders had been killed in battle, five had escaped, and seven—including Brown and Copeland—were eventually captured, tried, and hanged.

Lewis Sheridan Leary died on Monday, October 17, 1859, having given his life in an attempt to bring freedom to Virginia’s slaves. A full understanding of the events surrounding his death, however, makes it all but impossible that a “friend” or some other “good person took this shawl and sent it back to Oberlin” a few weeks later with bloodstains and bullet holes, as Hughes and his biographer have written.

Leary spent his last hours in the rifle factory fighting off the assaults of the Virginia militia. A light shawl is not the sort of garment to wear when aiming and firing a rifle, and it would have been cumbersome to clutch while racing through the factory’s back door to escape the militia’s fusillade. The riverbank near the factory is fairly steep and the current at that point is swift. If Leary had worn a shawl as he attempted to swim for his life, it would have come loose in the rushing water.

Nor is it plausible that a “friend” would later have retrieved a shawl and sent it back to Oberlin, if only because Leary and the surviving raiders had no friends in Harpers Ferry. In the aftermath of the raid, the entire region, and much of Virginia, remained a virtual armed camp, and strangers—especially those suspected of Northern sympathies—were turned away at the border. The roads were lined with troops who interrogated travelers to determine their loyalty to the Commonwealth, and railroad passengers encountered “the scrutiny of an officer who passed through the cars to see if he could find, as they said, ‘a damned abolitionist.’” Even United States Congressman Harrison Blake, attempting to reach Charles Town where Brown had been sent for trial, was forced to turn back when he realized that he had been spotted as an Ohioan and his life was therefore in jeopardy. Well into late December, Oberlin professor James Monroe found it necessary to disguise his origin when he came to Virginia on a futile mission to retrieve the body of John Anthony Copeland, who had been hanged a week earlier.

An examination of the shawl also reveals no signs of either bullet holes or bloodstains. While there are holes in the shawl, their placement, shape, and edge characteristics are inconsistent with penetration by projectiles, a subject well understood by experts in textile and apparel forensics. Wear and moths are much more likely to have been the culprits, especially since the holes are on or near the fold lines, where the fibers weaken during long storage. Both light and insects have readier access to the folded edge than to the larger planes of the fabric. Hughes himself once explained that he had exposed the shawl to a moth infestation, having stored it in a box along with a wool hat that was eaten “to a powder.” There are no obvious stains of any kind on the shawl, much less the characteristically brown, wash-fast imprint of blood, although there are faded areas, consistent with exposure to light.

There were numerous witnesses to Leary’s capture and death, but none of them—including the journalist who recorded his last words and a local woman who saw him floundering in the water—reported the presence of a shawl.

Mary Leary Langston herself made no mention of a shawl in her few recorded statements about the death of her first husband. In 1899 Mary sent a letter to Richard Hinton, one of Brown’s early biographers, noting that the bodies of Brown’s slain men had been retrieved from their common grave and reinterred on the Brown family property in North Elba, New York.

“I am the widow of Lewis Sheridan Leary [who] fell at Harpers Ferry,” she told Hinton, and “I remember with pride the name.” Moreover, “I am proud that [Brown] and his followers are not forgotten who braved death for Liberty,” she added, making no reference to any artifacts from Harpers Ferry. Likewise, in her 1908 interview with Katherine Mayo, who was then a researcher for Brown’s biographer Oswald Garrison Villard, Mary said nothing about owning a shawl or any other item of Lewis Sheridan Leary’s. Lewis’s sister Henriette, then living in Oberlin, was interviewed by Mayo in the same year. She also made no mention of any bullet-riddled artifact having returned from Virginia.

Loise Leary’s only known recollection of her father—an 1887 “Biographical Sketch” provided to the Kansas State Historical Society—says nothing about a bloodstained shawl, even though as Mary’s firstborn, and Leary’s only child, she would have been swaddled in her father’s shawl well before Hughes’s birth.

Some scholars have suggested that the shawl was presented to Mary at an 1859 commemoration in Oberlin. The actual event occurred on Christmas Day and featured an address by Professor James Monroe, who had recently returned from his failed mission to Virginia, where he sought to claim the body of John Anthony Copeland. If any friend of Mary’s had delivered Leary’s shawl, it could have been Monroe. The presence of a bloodstained relic from Harpers Ferry would have caused a stir in Oberlin. The printed accounts of Monroe’s speech, however, say nothing about the presentation of a shawl or any other piece of clothing; nor did Monroe include anything of the sort in his memoir, which included a lengthy account of his journey to Virginia.

As it happened, however, Leary did wear a shawl, at least briefly, at some point during the invasion of Harpers Ferry, although it was not blue and yellow. A few weeks before the raid, a Philadelphia supporter of Brown’s sent a shipment of “blanket shawls” to his headquarters. The shawls, which were heavy wool and dull colored, were worn by the men instead of overcoats on the late night march into Harpers Ferry. The raiders dropped their shawls at various times in the fighting, but at least one of them was retrieved and given to Copeland after he was captured, and he was seen wearing it during his arraignment a few days later in Charles Town. Four other raiders were arraigned that day, including Brown, but none of them wore shawls. It is possible that over time the two shawl stories became conflated in the way such narratives routinely are in human recollections.

By the time the survivors were arraigned, the remains of Leary and the other slain raiders had been interred, stuffed into two large wooden crates, and buried in an unmarked grave about half a mile from town. On July 29, 1899, the bodies were exhumed by Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh and his colleagues for a reburial on the Brown family farm in North Elba, New York. To his surprise, Featherstonhaugh discovered that the men had been buried with the blanket shawls as shrouds, “for great masses of woolen texture were found enveloping each body.”

The fact that gray woolen shawls were depicted on the defendants in newspaper images of the Harpers Ferry raid trial, and later documented when their bodies were exhumed and reinterred, increases the psychological likelihood that the history of the gray shawls worn in court would adhere to the yellow and blue one in Oberlin. This effect, known as “misattribution,” is a common error in human memory, one with serious consequences for the reliability of eyewitness testimony and a hazard pointed out as early as 1959 by neurologist Lawrence Schlesinger Kubie.

Mary Leary remained in Oberlin following Lewis’s death, supporting herself and her daughter by working as a milliner. In 1869 she married Charles Langston, 20 years her senior. Langston had been a leader of Ohio’s black abolitionist movement, and he had been indicted and convicted under the Fugitive Slave Act for his role in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858. In fact, it was Langston’s stirring speech at sentencing, in which he vowed continued resistance to slavery, which gave Brown the idea of recruiting troops in Oberlin. And it was Langston and his brother who first introduced Lewis Sheridan Leary to John Brown Jr.

Charles and Mary soon had a son, whom they named after the rebellious slave Nat Turner. Their daughter Carolina—known as Carrie—was born in 1873. The family eventually moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where Charles operated a grocery store until he died in 1892. In 1899, Carrie married James Hughes. The couple moved to Joplin, Missouri, where James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in 1902. Carrie and James did not have a stable marriage. They separated often, ultimately divorcing, while frequently leaving young Langston, as he chose to be called, to be raised by his grandmother.

For their entire lives, both Langston and Carrie Hughes firmly believed that the shawl had been sent to Mary, “bullet-riddled and bloodstained,” after Lewis Leary’s death. They referred to it between themselves as the “Harpers Ferry shawl” and treated it with reverence. Langston repeated Mary’s story of the shawl in the early pages of his autobiography, including the sort of inaccuracies that are characteristic of human memories, especially those of childhood. According to Hughes, Mary “was with child . . . when Sheridan Leary went away” in September 1859, when in fact Loise was already six months old, having been born the previous February. There are other tales of long-ago claims to “Indian land,” much of the sort that grandparents tell children in every family.

In any case, Mary did not need a shawl to remind her grandson of his connection to John Brown. In 1910 she took him to hear former president Theodore Roosevelt speak in Osawatomie for the dedication of the John Brown Memorial Park, memorializing one of his Bleeding Kansas victories. Only eight years old at the time, Hughes may not have fully understood Roosevelt’s promise that “the name of John Brown will be forever associated” with the “heroic struggle” for freedom. But he long remembered that Mary, as the last surviving widow of Harpers Ferry, had been given a place of honor on the platform, next to Teddy himself.

Quite apart from the provenance of his shawl, then, Hughes had good reasons to take enormous pride in the antislavery heroism of his grandmother’s two husbands—Lewis Sheridan Leary and his grandfather Charles Langston, for whom he was named. As his biographer put it, Hughes had been “born into a relationship with his family’s past, into a relationship with history, so intimate as to be almost sensual.” He knew that Charles Langston had risked almost everything in the fight against slavery, even defying the white judge of a United States court to declare that he would continue to resist with force, “if ever a man is seized near me, and is about to be carried Southward as a slave.” And of Leary, Hughes wrote, he was “shot attacking, believing in John Brown [because he] always did believe people should be free.” The old shawl may have provided a meaningful physical representation of his ancestors’ struggle, but it did not define Hughes’s admiration for John Brown and his men. In 1931 he wrote one of his most memorable poems, “October the Sixteenth,” commemorating the anniversary of the raid on Harpers Ferry:


You will remember

John Brown.

John Brown

Who took his gun,

Took twenty-one companions,

White and Black

Went to shoot your way to freedom.

During his years in Harlem, Hughes kept the “Harpers Ferry shawl” in a safe deposit box, along with his manuscripts, at a Fifth Avenue bank. Carrie once suggested selling it to an antiques dealer in Cleveland, believing that it could bring as much as $500. Hughes declined, and instead donated the shawl to the Ohio Historical Society, where it can be appreciated today as an early nineteenth-century artifact, handspun, with soft yarns probably produced on a wool or “walking” wheel. Its faded yellow lines, or “tan” as the catalog record describes them, could have been made with any of a number of natural dyestuffs available in that era, such as walnuts or dandelions. The blue, which remains fast after nearly a century and a half, is almost certainly indigo. There is no doubt that the shawl belonged to Langston Hughes, and probably to Lewis Sheridan Leary, which alone would be enough to explain its presence in the collection. It remains a numinous object, even if its direct connection to John Brown and Harpers Ferry exists only in the historical imagination.