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The Magnet and the Iron: John Brown and George L. Stearns The Stories Behind the Busts

Franklin Sanborn

Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, who usually went by Frank, was member of the Concord literati, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sanborn was a vocal abolitionist and was one of the “Secret Six” that funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

Sanborn was a schoolmaster in Concord, Massachusetts. The two older sons of George L. Stearns, Henry and Frank, boarded at Sanborn’s school for a time. After John Brown’s execution, Stearns also arranged for John Brown’s youngest daughters to attend the school.

Sanborn was the one to invite John Brown to Kansas and introduced him to George L. Stearns in January 1857. At the time, Sanborn was secretary of the Massachusetts Kansas Relief Committee (an organization to support Free State settlers), of which Stearns was chair. After Brown was captured, Sanborn initially fled to Canada with Stearns and Samuel Gridley Howe. After the commotion settled down, Sanborn returned to Concord.

On April 3, 1860, five federal marshals arrived at Sanborn’s home to arrest him and take him to Washington, D.C., to testify. He resisted arrest and 150 townspeople of Concord came to his aid. Sanborn recalled, “[The marshals] slipped a pair of handcuffs on my wrists before I suspected what they were doing, and tried to force me from the house. I was young and strong and resented this indignity. They had to raise me from the floor and began to carry me (four of them) to the door where my sister stood, raising a constant alarm. My hands were powerless, but as they approached the door I braced my feet against the posts and delayed them.” Outside, Sanborn continued to resist and Anne Whiting jumped into the marshals’ carriage to prevent the marshals from being able to pull Sanborn inside. Then, Sanborn wrote, “The sheriff then called on the 150 men and women present to act as his posse comitatus, which some twenty of the men gladly did, and I was forcibly snatched from senatorial custody.” Judge Ebenezer Rockwell Hoar (who had served as Stearns’s lawyer many years previously) issued a writ of habeas corpus and the next day the case was seen in the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Sanborn was set free on a technicality—federal marshals were not allowed to execute an arrest issued by order of the U.S. Senate.

Throughout his life, Sanborn remained a staunch defender of John Brown. “From the first I honored [John Brown] and the more I learned of his life the more I honored him,” he wrote. He published a glowing biography of John Brown in 1885 titled The Life and Letters of John Brown: Liberator of Kansas and Martyr of Virginia.