Mary Ann Day Brown

Mary Ann Day Brown

Mary with daughters Annie and Sarah (1851) courtesy of Library of Congress

          Mary Ann Day (1816-1884) was born on the outskirts of the Adirondacks in Whitehall, New York. The Day family moved to Pennsylvania when Mary was nine, but Mary returned to the Adirondack region with her husband, John Brown, in 1849.

          Mary Brown was not pretty, but plain and neat and quiet. She was a large, rugged girl with an industrious nature. She had been taught that it was a woman’s place to bear children, tend the house, and obey her husband. It was said she was built for times of trouble.

          Mary possessed strong convictions in favor of the abolishment of slavery and the equal treatment of blacks, but she worked in a manner different from her husband. Quietly and diligently, she worked at her home in the Adirondack Mountains. 

          John was often away on business matters and Mary was left to carry out the domestic duties. She worked the farm, prepared the daily bread, raised her children to the cause, and endured the omnipresence of death. She read the Bible every day, she prayed, she sacrificed, and she did not complain. She was John’s supporter and confidante in what both believed was his God-appointed mission. 

Mary Ann Day Brown

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, December 17, 1859

          “It was a life which but few could have lived,” wrote John Newton in Captain John Brown. “Unrelieved by any seasons of excitement, public applause, or sense of victory won, it was one prolonged endurance and quiet resignation, ending at last in supreme agony at Harper’s Ferry. Surely, wherever John Brown’s story is told, this ought always to be said of Mary Brown, ‘She hath done what she could.’”

          After John’s capture at Harpers Ferry, Mary wrote to him:

My Dear and Beloved Husband:

...I have often thought that I should rather hear that you were dead than fallen into the hands of your enemies; but I don’t think so now. The good that is growing out of it is wonderful. If you had preached in the pulpit ten such lives as you have lived, you could not have done so much good as you have done in that one speech to the Court. It is talked about and preached about every where and in all places. You know that Moses was not allowed to go into the land of Canaan; so you are not allowed to see your desire carried out. Man deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps.

From your most affectionate wife
Mary A. Brown

          Reporters talked to Mary and wanted to know everything about the wife of John Brown. “Ten minutes acquaintance is enough to show that she is a woman worthy to be the wife of such a man,” wrote Theodore Tilton in the New York Independent. He then reported what happened when he asked his most important question: “It is common talk of the newspapers that Capt. Brown is insane; what do you say to that opinion?”

          Tilton said that Mary stood firm and replied, “I never knew of his insanity, until I read it in the newspapers. He is a clear-headed man. He has always been, and now is, entirely in his right mind.”

          In this single, small act, Mary helped determine the way history would remember John Brown. She could have wept and said her husband was insane; in all likelihood, that would have saved his life. Instead, she supported her husband’s convictions and upheld his image, providing the testimony for abolitionists to claim him as their martyr.

          Mary maintained her dignity and held to her beliefs, and rejoiced in the changes brought on by the Civil War. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, she wrote to a friend: “God bless Abraham Lincoln. And give God the glory for the day of Jubilee has come.” And when the Union began to recruit blacks as soldiers, Mary commented, “I feel that that is just as it should be.”

          In the fall of 1863, Mary left the Adirondacks and headed toward California. “I very much regret that I ever spent a cent on that farm in North Elba,” she remarked.

Mary Ann Day Brown

John Brown Farm House, North Elba

Mary Ann Day Brown