May 9: Radical Abolitionist John Brown Born in Torrington


On this day in 1800, abolitionist John Brown was born in a humble saltbox house in Torrington, Connecticut.

The fourth of eight children, Brown left Torrington at the age of five when his father moved his family to the Western Reserve of Ohio.   As a young man, Brown briefly returned to Connecticut to attend the Morris Academy in Litchfield in hopes of becoming a minister, only to drop out because of illness and financial struggles.

John Brown, circa 1847.

John, like his father before him, spent most of his adult life wrestling with financial insolvency and moving from place to place in search of steady work.   His ardent anti-slavery views began to crystallize in the late 1830s, after learning about the murder of abolitionist preacher Elijah Lovejoy by a pro-slavery mob in Illinois.  In 1846, Brown moved to Springfield, Massachusetts for a period of four years, and became deeply involved in the city’s abolitionist movement.  Years of giving speeches, supporting the publication and dissemination of abolitionist literature, and bolstering the Underground Railroad networks that ran through western Massachusetts further radicalized Brown, who became convinced that the national scourge of slavery could only be destroyed through violent means.

In the 1850s, near Pottawatomie, Kansas, John Brown turned his radical beliefs into a self-fulfilling prophecy when he led a party of armed abolitionists on a raid that resulted in the killing of five pro-slavery settlers in cold blood, triggering several months of bloody retaliations between pro and anti-slavery settlers known as “Bleeding Kansas.”  In October 1859, Brown orchestrated his most extreme plan of action yet: a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.  Brown intended to use the stolen munitions to start a massive armed slave rebellion that he hoped would consume the entire South.  A contingent of U.S. Marines thwarted his efforts, and Brown was subsequently captured, tried, found guilty of treason, and hanged on December 2.

A vintage postcard depicts John Brown’s Torrington birthplace before the house was destroyed by fire in 1918.

The original Brown family homestead burned down in 1918, but the foundation is still visible in Torrington — a visual reminder of the humble beginnings of one of America’s most controversial figures in the years leading up to the Civil War.  The site is actively maintained by the Torrington Historical Society and became a stop on the Connecticut African-American Freedom Trail in 1997.

Further Reading

John Brown Birthplace Site,” Torrington Historical Society

Peter Vermilyea, “Hidden Nearby: John Brown’s Torrington Birthplace,”