John Brown’s Army: The Man from Indiana County

Albert (Absalom) Hazlett was born September 21, 1837, in the area near the old “Devil’s Elbow,” Green Township, Indiana County (about six miles east of Indiana near the old, closed Route 422).  He was the sixth of eleven children.  His mother, Sarah, was born around 1814, and was a widow by July 1860.  His father, Alexander, had 40 acres worth about $100 in 1850.  He was listed as Absalom, age 12, by the census taker in 1850.  It is likely he disliked the name and adopted Albert instead.  Hazlett was five feet, eleven inches tall, genial, with a fair complexion and blond, curly hair.  Richard Hinton, an abolitionist who sympathized with John Brown, remarked that he “did not impress you unless you specially as striving to climb the golden stairs.”  It is quite apparent he had a craving for adventure.  John Brown’s daughter, Anne, said he “was a really good, kind-hearted man, with little or no education. He had always lived and grown among the roughest kind of people.  He was the least accustomed to polite living” of any of Brown’s men.

Absalom Hazlett: Abolitionist from Indiana County

Sometime during the early part of 1857, Hazlett went to Kansas where he joined a volunteer Free State military company.  In the later part of 1858 he met John Brown and joined his raiding party.  Early in 1859, he went with Brown and others escorting a group of fugitive slaves to freedom in Canada.  After accompanying Brown as far as Cleveland, they parted and Hazlett returned to Indiana County where he worked as a farm hand and wrote to Brown on May 21, “I wish it would come off soon, for I am tired of doing nothing.”  Around the early part of September, Hazlett joined the others of John Brown’s party at the Kennedy farm in Maryland, and the raid at Harper’s Ferry occurred on October 16-18, 1859.  The details of the Harper’s Ferry raid need not be retold here except to note that Hazlett, with two colored members of the Brown party, were assigned to hold the Arsenal.  When the situation worsened, Hazlett and Osborne P. Anderson managed to escape.

Anderson later wrote that after the raid he and Hazlett returned to the Kennedy farm but found it ransacked.  Since they had nothing to eat for forty-eight hours they roasted some ears of corn at night and headed north.  Because of the “hard journey and poor diet” they became

nearly famished and very much reduced in strength.  Poor Hazlett could not endure as much as I could.  With his feet blistered and sore, he gave out at last ten miles below Chambersburg.  He declared he could go no further, and begged me to go on as we should be more in danger if seen together in the vicinity of towns, that after resting that night he would throw away his rifle and go to Chambersburg, where we agreed to meet again.  The poor, young man’s face was wet with tears when we parted.

After this, Anderson saw no more of Hazlett.

On October 22, Hazlett was arrested and taken to Carlisle on the supposition that he was John E. Cook, another of Brown’s men, for whom there was a $1,000 reward.  Hazlett gave the authorities the alias “William H. Harrison.”

The story continues in the words of W.J. Shearer of Carlisle, an attorney who tried to save Hazlett from extradition to Virginia.

One Sunday morning in October, 1859 [probably October 23], I was coming up town . . . [and] passed the place where Squire Sponsler had his office, . . . I was attracted by a large crowd there.  I crossed over to learn what it all meant.  I went into the office, and there sat a tall, raw-boned man and with him were Charlie Campbell and Bill Houser, of Chambersburg.  I asked what was the matter, what they were doing. Houser said here is Cook, one of John Brown’s men.  He was in Chambersburg and slipped out and came down here, and we followed him and arrested him up the railroad.  I asked which is Cook? They said that man back there. I said no that cannot be Cook, . . . he is described as being an effeminate-looking man, with light hair and blue eyes.  This is no such man, this tall, rawboned man with hard hands, which show him to be a laborer . . . I said what are you doing with him here.  He said Squire Sponsler is writing up authority to take him down to Virginia.  And I turned to the man and said to him, do you know any lawyer here in Carlisle, and he said no.  He asked me, are you a lawyer?  I said yes.  Well, will you see that I have justice done me? I will.

Next Shearer objected to Squire Sponsler writing a commitment and the squire sent for his attorney, who informed him he did not have that authority.

Houser said it didn’t make any difference whether he gave them the authority or not, we brought him here, he said, and we will take him away.  I said I don’t believe you will.  In the meantime I had sent for Sheriff McCartney, to come up with his deputy, and when they came up I went out and told them to stand against the wall to the right of Squire Sponsler’s door.  I then went into the office; they were preparing to take that man away.  I said to Houser, if you take this man out of this office against his will, you will be put to jail for kidnapping.  He said I guess not.  That is what will be done, I said, I have the sheriff out there for that purpose.  He looked out the door and he saw Sheriff McCartney whom he knew, he asked him what he was doing there, and Sheriff McCartney says we are waiting for you and Campbell.  I had told McCartney that if they took that man out to arrest them and put them to jail, and I would make information against them for kidnapping.  Mr. McCartney says if you will promise to stand by me, I will do it, and I said I will stand by you.  They didn’t take him away, but of course Squire Sponsler had the right to put him to jail, which he did.

Shearer presented a petition for habeas corpus and was assisted at the hearing October 26 by attorneys W.J. Miller and A.B. Sharp.  A warrant from the Governor of Pennsylvania was presented, at the request of the Governor of Virginia, for the delivery of Hazlett but, since he would not be positively identified as Hazlett, he was returned to jail.  On October 29 Shearer, Miller and Sharp asked that the prisoner be discharged on the ground that his name was not Albert Hazlett but William Harrison.  Judge James H. Graham recommitted him to await a third hearing on November 6, at which time three witnesses identified him.

Shearer had asked Sheriff McCartney not to spot Hazlett for any parties from Virginia coming to see him.  Two groups failed to identify Hazlett, but on the third attempt a man from Harper’s Ferry professed to known him and was able to pick him out from a group of prisoners.  Shearer continues:

Mr. Miller went down with me the last night to spend a short time with him before he would be taken to Virginia, and we sat and talked with him until 10 o’clock in the jail. . . . When we left him, he said to me, Mr. Shearer I wish you would tell the sheriff that I would like to have a plug of tobaco [sic tobacco].  Now if it is remarkable on what small matters one’s life may depend.  Asking for that plug of tobacco cost that man his life.  As I passed out of the jail with Mr. Miller., I said to Sheriff McCartney, Mr. Hazlett said I should ask you to give him a plug of tobacco.  Well, why he did it I don’t know, but he went back and examined the man’s cell, and found the whole back of the cell out.  A blanket was hung against it, out of which he could walk whenever he wanted to do so, and Mark Scott, of Carlisle, a colored barber . . . was sent here by James Redpath, of Kansas notoriety, with a horse and buggy, and a rope ladder to help him over the wall and take him away, but McCartney went and examined his cell and finding it open in that way he put him in another cell, and that cost him his life.  Why Sheriff McCartney did that I could never understand.  The only way that I can account for it is, that Mr. McCartney thought Hazlett had not asked for tobacco, and that I only asked him this to warn him not to let this man escape, as if I, his counsel, had to do anything of the kind. I know that he wanted him to escape, that is why I could never fully understand why he went and took him out of that cell.  The reason I know he wanted him to escape is, that one day, the time of the hearing of the habeas corpus, it was late at night.  I was down at the jail the next morning and McCartney said to me, Mr. Shearer that client of yours is the most stupid man I ever saw in my life.  He says you know when I was sent down with him it was very dark, as dark as midnight under those trees in front of Judge Hepburn’s and if he had just given me a little push I would have fallen over in the gutter and hollowed murder, and he could have been out in the North Mountains in a short time . . . Mark Scott didn’t get him, he was taken to Virginia.

In early November, shortly after Hazlett’s arrest and extradition to Virginia.  The Indiana Weekly Report reported that:

. . . Albert Hazlett, one of the Harper’s Ferry insurrectionists, is a native of this county. About two years since Hazlett was arrested in this place for the larceny of a number of overcoats from the hall of the American Hotel, was admitted to bail, but forfeited the recognizance by not appearing at the time of trial.  He then left for the State of Ohio, and we believe was in Kansas a short period, and took part in the struggle between the Free State men and Missourians, and boasted that a pistol ball at one time made a furrow through his beard.  He remained in that territory . . . until the later part of July last, when he returned to this county. Being in search of employment John B. Allison, Esq. of White tp., engaged him to assist in harvesting his oats crop, and while in the employ of Mr. Allison, and at work in the field cradling, he inquired of him if he had observed the letter B on the blades of the oats and knew what it was to represent. Receiving a reply in the negative and asked to give his interpretation of the symbol, he replied that it stood for Blood, that all the oats this year bore the same impression, and the time was near at hand when it was to be shed. This aroused Mr. Allison’s curiosity and he desired to learn how it was possible that it could be construed into that light, and where and for what purpose the blood was to be shed.  Hazlett’s reply was, that he was connected with a company who were pledged to the overthrow of slavery, and that he must soon leave for the west. Mr. Allison treated the whole affair at the time as ridiculous in the extreme.  Shortly after this Hazlett left, but it was ascertained instead of going west he took the cars for the east, and nothing was known of his doings and whereabouts until we hear of his connection with Ossawatamie Brown at Harper’s Ferry, and is now on trial for insurrection, treason and murder.

            The Register also published an extract from the Johnstown Echo alleging that Hazlett, while working as a canal boatman some years earlier, had sold his employer’s boat and team but returned the money and avoided prosecution. It was also said he was connected with a gang of horse thieves but turned state’s evidence and testified against his confederates at their trial in Elmira, New York. Fearing their vengeance, he left for parts unknown.

In January 1860, another resident of Indiana County, J.E. Coulter, the postmaster, provided additional information about Hazlett’s background. In response to an inquiry from Andrew Hunter, prosecuting attorney for Virginia, seeking information or witnesses, Coulter replied:

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Hazlett remained in the Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), jail more than four months while the authorities completed preparations for his trial which finally took place during the week of February 6-10, 1860. Shearer obtained the services of Botts and Green, eminent Virginia lawyers, for Hazlett’s defense, and in Shearer’s words they “made a noble defense.”  The Richmond Enquirer reported that Botts’ closing argument took two hours, and Green spoke for three hours, “the ablest argument made since the commencement of the Harper’s Ferry Trials.” Prosecutor Hunter, writing to Virginia Governor Letcher, spoke of the “Protracted and hotly contested trial of Hazlett.” The Indiana Weekly Register followed the trial and reported that Captain Clowe, who had never seen Hazlett before, spoke with him in the jail February 8. “At that time the prisoner stated that he had not heard from his mother since his connection with the Harper’s Ferry Affair.  After the prisoner made the statement he seemed to regret it.”

Shearer heard that the jury was out all night and an acquittal or hung jury was expected, but some citizens “gathered below and howled ‘Hang him or we will hang you.’ In that way they succeeded in extorting the verdict of guilty from them.”

On February 13, Hazlett was sentenced to be hanged. When asked if he had anything to say, he responded:

I have a few words to say. I am innocent of the charge on which I have been convicted. I deny ever having committed murder, or ever having contemplated murder, or even having associated with any one with such intentions. Some of the witnesses have sworn to things which I deny, and which were positively false. For instance in reference to my beard; I have never in my life until my imprisonment to jail, allowed my beard to go more than three weeks without shaving, and all testimony therefore as to the length of my beard is false. Again, Mr. Copeland testified that I was sitting on a stool when he entered the jail cell at Carlisle, this I deny; I was sitting on a blanket, beck against the wall, and another man was on the stool . Copeland also said there were only two men in the cell: this is false, as there were four other white men in the cell with me, and we comprised all the white prisoners in the jail. Others of the witnesses made false statements, but I forgive them all. I have been treated kindly since my confinement – much better than I had expected – and I must say I think better of Virginia. I wish to also to return my thanks to the counsel who have so ably defended me; they have done more in my behalf than Northern counsel could possibly have done. I repeat I am innocent of murder but am prepared to meet my fate.

            Strong efforts were made to secure an executive pardon of commutation of the sentence. The Register reported

A petition signed by two or three hundred of our citizens, asking the pardon of Hazlett, the last of the Harper’s Ferry Insurrectionists, was circulated in this borough last week. It is hope, I that the Governor of Virginia will grant the prayer . . . the honor of the Old Dominion has already been more than vindicated.

Another petition for clemency came from Carlisle. Judge Graham at Carlisle and the attorney who represented Virginia at the Carlisle hearings both wrote letters asking Governor Letcher to pardon Hazlett. Another petition, accompanied by a letter from A.W. Taylor of Indiana, the county’s representative in the State Senate, was signed by 55 members of the Pennsylvania Senate and House.

Meantime a small group of sympathizers were meeting in Harrisburg to plot ways and means of rescuing Hazlett and Aaron D. Stevens, also condemned to die. Among the number were Richard J. Hinton, who appears to have been the organizer, Captain James Montgomery, John W. LeBarnes, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Revolvers were loaned and money contributed. It was decided to reconnoiter and gather information, so Montgomery went to the vicinity of Charles Town, and Silas C. Soule, who had a perfect Southern accent, went into the town in the guise of a drunk and disorderly Irishman and was locked in a cell of the jail. Cautiously, he conversed with Hazlett and Stevens, telling them of the planned rescue effort, but they requested that it be abandoned as impossible on account of a constant guard of eighty men around the jail at tall times. In spite of this, some of the group were still inclined to try, but heavy snows and bad weather caused them finally to give up.

Clemency was denied by Governor Letcher and Hazlett’s fate was sealed. The following letter from Hazlett to Anne Brown is evidence of his innermost thoughts:

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One of those who came to see Hazlett was Mrs. Rebecca Spring and her son from the “Socialist Union,” or Raritan Bay Union, of Eagleswood, New Jersey (now part of Perth Amboy). Afterward, Hazlett wrote to her the day before his execution:

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The brother who visited him was Jonas Hazlett, at that time a farm hand near Elders Ridge, who later moved to the vicinity of Lawrence, Kansas.  To him Albert entrusted a six-stanza poem which was afterward published in the Indiana Weekly Register:


The execution on March 16, 1860, was a carefully staged, impressive Virginia military display, as well as a gala spectacle. Twelve military companies participated. The Register noted afterward that Hazlett and Stevens

Both exhibited great firmness. There was no religious exercises at the gallows, as they persisted in refusing all the kindly offices of the ministry in their last moments. They were both Spiritualists, and had a peculiar religion of their own, which enabled them to meet their fate with cheerfulness and resignation.

            The bodies were shipped by Adams Express to Marcus Spring. He was warned of an angry mob at Perth Amboy determined to throw the caskets overboard from the boat, so it was arranged for the boat to stop at Rahway where the caskets were taken secretly to the grounds of the Socialist Union. Here funeral services were held and Hazlett and his buddy buried in the cemetery in the midst of a scraggy wood of cedars, pines and scrub oaks.

Hazlett was not completely forgotten in his home community. In 1894 Annie Brown Adams wrote Richard Hinton: “I received a letter from a lady in Indiana Co. Penn. Who had been reading [your book] also, and asking numerous questions about Albert Hazlett, giving all the information she could gather about him and his family in that region. Most unfortunately we do not know the lady’s name. Her letter, if it could be found, would probably reveal more about the Hazlett family.

In 1899, an Associated Press dispatch related that the bodies were about to be dug up because the clay was needed for a tile works at Pertch Amboy. Due to the efforts of Dr. Featherstonhaugh of Washington, D.C., and others, arrangements were made for reburial on the John Brown farm about three miles from Lake Placid, New York. Here, many miles from his native home, Hazlett rests in an unmarked grave near a large boulder surrounded by an iron fence. Eleven of his companions rest there with him.

This ends the strange story, and we are left with unanswered questions. Why didn’t his family help him? Why didn’t they have him buried in his native home soil? Hazlett’s father was dead. His mother apparently did not even write to him. One brother was the only member of the family who went to see him. In 1859, Hinton wrote to Higginson, “His brother can do nothing. They are poor, indifferent or frightened, probably all three.” When Mrs. Spring asked Hazlett who were dear to him, he evaded a direct answer, saying that “everybody that is good is dear to me.”  Yet two stanzas of his “Farewell” were addressed to his mother and a sister and a third stanza to a possible sweetheart, “My angelic maid.” Apparently nothing was provided for funeral expenses. At the first burial in Eagleswood, Stevens’ remains were conveyed to the grave in a hearse but Hazlett’s Virginia coffin was carried on a common farm wagon.  And, to return to the strange circumstance noted at the beginning, why has local and state history so totally neglected him?