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

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison was a prominent abolitionist based in Boston. In 1831, he co-founded The Liberator, an antislavery newspaper published out of Scollay Square (an area nicknamed “Abolition Acre”) in Boston. He was also the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society along with John Greenleaf Whittier and Arthur Tappan. Garrison was criticized by both pro-slavery forces and more conservative abolitionists for advocating for what was seen as a radical stance on slavery: non-cooperation with any entities that supported or allowed slavery. Twice he was attacked by angry mobs for his editorials printed in The Liberator. In the South, a large bounty was offered for his capture “dead or alive.”

When Edmonia Lewis arrived in Boston around the winter of 1862, Garrison was the one to introduce her to Edward Augustus Brackett, a sculptor with a studio in Scollay Square, who became her mentor. She was able to publish advertisements and announcements for her work in The Liberator.

Garrison initially decried John Brown’s actions at Harpers Ferry as “misguided, wild and apparently insane.” However, his opinion quickly changed to respect for John Brown the martyr. Garrison attended the Jubilee Concert at the Boston Musical Hall on January 1, 1863, to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation. That night he attended the unveiling of Brackett’s bust of John Brown at the Medford estate of George L. Stearns. On May 28, 1863, Garrison stood on Wendell Phillips’s balcony as the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment marched out of Boston. Garrison’s hand rested upon the bust of John Brown as a benediction to the man’s dedication to the abolitionist cause.

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Advertisement for John Brown Medallions, 1864
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John Brown Bust Cabinet Card (Litchfield Studios)
Courtesy of anonymous. Used by permission.

When slavery was abolished after the end of the Civil War, Garrison turned his attention to women’s suffrage, a cause he pursued for the rest of his life. Leadership of the American Anti-Slavery Society was turned over to Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, and Whittier, with Stearns serving on the executive committee.