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

Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo was a prominent French author, as well as a member of the European abolitionist movement. He was a vocal supporter of John Brown across the Atlantic; in fact, the character of Jean Valjean from Les Miserables may have been inspired by Brown. In exile on the island of Guernsey at the time, Hugo sent an open letter to the London News in defense of Brown on December 2, 1859, not knowing it was the same day Brown was executed. Hugo also sketched Brown hanging from the noose, a solitary figure echoing the crucifixion of Christ. Beneath the figure of Brown is the Latin phrase Pro Christus et sicut Christus (“for Christ and like Christ.”)

In the letter, Hugo wrote passionately about the injustice of Brown’s rushed trial and implored America for a stay of execution. He concluded his letter,

“As for myself, though I am but a mere atom, yet being, as I am, in common with all other men, inspired with the conscience of humanity, I fall on my knees, weeping before the great starry banner of the New World; and with clasped hands, and with profound and filial respect, I implore the illustrious American Republic, sister of the French Republic, to see to the safety of the universal moral law, to save John Brown. . . .”

In 1874, the John Brown Association, an abolitionist group of which Hugo was a prominent member, sent a letter and a gold medal to John Brown’s widow, Mary Brown. The medal and the letter later ended up at the Kansas Historical Society.

In May 1878, Moncure Daniel Conway traveled to France and presented Hugo with a plaster copy of Edward Augustus Brackett’s bust of John Brown. In 1967, the bust could be found at the Maison de Victor Hugo in Paris.