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

John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier was a writer and abolitionist. He helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society, later becoming its vice president, and was involved with the Boston Vigilance Society that aided fugitive slaves. In 1860, George L. Stearns asked Whittier to use his “poetic genius” for emancipation and recruited him to write for the Boston Emancipation League.

Whittier’s poem “Brown of Osawatomie” (1859) features the legend that John Brown kissed the head of a black child on the way to his execution. In the poem, Whittier indicates that Brown’s loving nature atoned for his violent actions:

“The shadows of his stormy life that moment fell apart,

And they who blamed the bloody hand forgave the loving heart;

That kiss from all its guilty means redeemed the good intent,

And round the grisly fighter's hair the martyr's aureole bent!”

Whittier also wrote a poetic eulogy for Stearns simply titled “G.L.S.” It was printed in the Atlantic Monthly in May 1867. That poem is quoted on the Stearns plaque at the Massachusetts State House and mentioned on Stearns's grave monument at Mount Auburn Cemetery. One of the stanzas reads,

"No duty could overtask him,

No need his will outrun;

Or ever our lips could ask him,

His hands the work had done."

G.L.S. by John Greenleaf Whittier
In Memorium: George Luther Stearns
George L. Stearns Grave Monument, Mount Auburn Cemetery