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A few years ago, I was doing something mundane when the feeling hit me. I want to go to Harpers Ferry, I thought.
Can’t explain why. I went through a John Brown period about 15 years ago (doesn’t every American history buff go through a John Brown period?), when my collaborator and I were trying to figure out a way to turn his life into a music theatre piece. He was a strange, fiery, erratic, Mad Hatter of a man, a tyrant, yet although his methods were lunatic, his goals were so admirable. He must have thought he was a failure when he died, yet he was bent on giving his death for his cause anyway.
Not many of us would fly headlong into something knowing we could very well fail. Maybe that made the violence easier.
Anyway, we eventually decided that it couldn’t be a music theatre piece. It had to be an opera, and neither one of us wanted to write an opera, so we turned to a Milton Berle theme instead.
Harpers Ferry (no apostrophe, mind) is not conveniently located. It’s in a little edge of West Virginia, near Maryland, and about 90 minutes from Washington. The only way you end up in Harpers Ferry is if you mean to go.
Yet in the post-colonial period, it seemed to be the center of the American universe. George Washington did some work there and picked it as a nice site for a munitions fort. Meriwether Lewis passed through on his way out west, picking up munitions of his own. Then John Brown picked it as the location of his disastrous raid. After they hanged him in a nearby town, the Civil War kicked up and its bloodiest battle, Antietam, was fought practically around the corner.
That’s some pretty heavy historical action for 100 years. But once the Civil War ended, fate pulled up stakes and left Harpers Ferry. Carved into the landscape by war, made essential by canals and rail, it became obsolete as the storms of the industrial revolution passed us by.
As if that story isn’t American enough, now there’s a fudge shop, some custard stands, jewelry and candle boutiques, a deliciously sad wax museum, and a bunch of similarly sad National Parks exhibitions that are mostly written as general overviews of basic historical concepts, as if they’re meant for third-grade field trips.
Maybe there’s some genetic memory in me that made me want to go. Perhaps that was the call. But I wanted to go to this little spit of land between two rivers. So two weeks ago, on a work visit to Washington DC, I took a Friday afternoon and I finally got myself to Harpers Ferry.
There are a few ghosts left there, though. The buildings are wooden, so they smell of mildew and age. Two rivers converge alongside it, pocked with the stumps of forgotten bridges. The ceilings stoop a little too low for modern heads.
The stone building where Brown held his last stand — and some of his cohorts were ruthlessly bayonetted against brick walls when their siege collapsed — is still there, but not in its original location. His little cabin became a portable shrine. It went to Chicago for the Exposition in 1893, then to the yard of a nearby college for another few generations, before meandering back to Harpers Ferry in the 1960s, where it has sat, in the wrong place, ever since.
The accompanying sign acknowledges in passing that 19th-century pilgrims picked the little barn clean of relics, and although it doesn’t hint at how extreme the damage was, it was probably pretty severe, because today the it looks as neat as if Walt Disney himself built it for our attentions. It’s so fresh and clean, they could sell apples out of it.
I’m usually a stickler for authenticity, and that includes location. The Europeans can manage to keep things as they are for centuries, but Americans can’t seem to stop fiddling with their shrines.
But for all the changes, the town feels more or less like it probably did for most of its vital life, minus lots of fences and soldiers. And for all my inexplicable yearning to go, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been there before.
No ghosts spoke to me in Harpers Ferry, but then again, I would need to sit a while to hear them. Perhaps they didn’t say anything because, like them, I expect somehow to return. If history has shown anything, it’s that once Harpers Ferry enters a story, it’s bound to keep coming back in new forms.
Harpers Ferry encapsulates all the major eras of American history: colonial, canal, rail, industrial, emancipation, rust, and finally, atrophy by ice cream.
I’d like to stay at night sometime and see what it feels like. By day, hikers cross through every so often as they make their way on the Appalachian Trail, which cuts through town and supports a few outfitters, just as it did in Lewis’ day. By day, there’s not much to do except buy custard from sullen West Virginian teen-agers and, of course, go to the sublime John Brown Wax Museum.
It’s the tackiest tourist attraction in town, so of course I went.
“How old are these figures?” I asked the bored-looking girl at the front desk.
“Um…” she said, and thought about it for a while. “They’ve been here longer than I have. And I’m 30!”
Each tableau, almost certainly unintentionally, seems drawn from classical paintings of historic events, the kind painted generations later by artists who’d never been there and wanted to cop a little noble grandeur.
The heroes of the story usually have blank expressions, which lends them the beatific air of Renaissance figures, but their poses are usually no less than heroic, which allows the otherwise even-handed curators to faintly suggest where they really stand on the issue of slavery. After all, although John Brown is an abolitionist hero, West Virginia still qualifies as the South, so stylistically, a little hedging is in order.
As if they’re intent on cramming every name from every textbook describing the whole affair, every lieutenant and sheriff no matter how minor, the creators of the John Brown Wax Museum have stuffed eight, ten, sometimes 14 figures into each scene. So as you make your way through the creaky old wooden house that houses the scenes, it’s like you keep stumbling into walk-in closets that have been packed with historical import. As if you went into the crawl space looking for the vacuum and found John Brown and his men in there, dispassionately hacking a a machete toward a luckless Kansan who only has a rake for self-defense.
In each diorama, the participants have been thoughtfully labelled with little name cards, so that Brown’s clandestine meetings at the Kennedy Farm House now come off like a frontier version of the United Nations. Women, of course, are not labelled, which Brown probably would have approved of. He was an Old Testament guy.
Naturally, the Wax Museum is obsessed with suffering and death, which makes sense: The bloody raid is the reason most people remember Harpers Ferry at all, and the macabre is a major reason you go to attractions like these. The first scene was of a slave family being torn apart during a sale, and it only gets more harrowing from there.
As I neared the climax of the John Brown wax tale, I kept hearing a strange mechanical sound, like the grinding of a windshield wiper that needed replacing or a DVD player having a hard time spitting out a disc. Nearing the source of the sound, I found my favorite tableau.
It was the one depicting the start of the Harpers Ferry raid on October 16, 1859. In it, Brown is shown on his knees (penitently, to go with that Renaissance theme) at the Harpers Ferry train station. He’s mourning over the body of Shephard Hayward, whom a sign pointedly describes as “a free Negro” who was “ironically, the first person to be killed by the raiding party.” Hayward’s mannequin, as red-shirted as a Star Trek casualty, repeatedly heaves his last breath with the aid of a noisy motor that laboriously cranks his chest up and down.
The wax version of John Brown is tormented by the fact he’s caused the death of one of the race of people he meant to incite. True enough, the first victim of the raid here was a black guy. Considering the whole point of the raid was to encourage nearby slaves to revolt and come get the guns that Brown was trying to liberate from the arsenal here, it was a pretty muddled beginning, symbolically speaking. It’s as confused as his own worldview, but just as stark.
The last time we see John Brown, we’re looking down at him as he ascends the stairs of the gallows, head bowed in observance of his coming solemn sacrifice. When you press a green button beside the case, you get some important narration laid over the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
“You have just seen a series of exhibits depicting highlights from the controversial life of John Brown,” the narrator intones. “The true character of John Brown is as much of an enigma today as it was when he attacked Harpers Ferry with a handful of men. And as it was at the moment he set foot on the gallows at Charles Town and waited with majestic serenity for the drop into eternity.”
Forget John Brown. I could die!
Then, while you’re watching the trap door to see it swing open, it’s John Brown himself who stirs, right when the narrator says he “wanted to lift the sin of slavery from the conscience of America.” Brown looks heavenward, directly at you. He’s trying to tell you something important! If only he could speak to you through the ages! If only he could shout through the clear plastic window that encases him!
“His soul goes marching on,” the narrator informs us. And it’s over.
Best $7 I’ve spent in a long time.