The most famous person, and some would say infamous person to be born in Torrington was John Brown. No matter your opinion of the man or his actions it is hard to argue against him being the man who had the greatest effect on our Country to not only be born in Torrington, but all of Connecticut.
To get the feel of how important he was one just needs to read what some of the great minds of his time said about him. Famous abolitionist Frederick Douglas called him “One of the most marked characters, and greatest heroes known to American fame.” Harriet Tubman said of him “He done more in dying, than 100 men would in living.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson said that he was “the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross.” Henry David Thoreau stated “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. In that sense he was the most American of us all.” Victor Hugo talking about his death “It is possible that the execution of John Brown might consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it is certain that it would shatter the whole American democracy. You save your shame, but you destroy your glory.” Herman Melville called him “the meteor of the war.” (To read the full words of the authors about John Brown, click on their names. If you want a thorough look at the songs and poems inspired by John Brown you can read and hear them at John Brown’s Body.)
This man that so impressed such literary greats as Thoreau, Emerson, Hugo and Melville was born on May 9th 1800 in Torrington. John’s father, Owen, was born in Canton Center, which at the time of his birth was known as West Simsbury.
In 1799 he purchased a house located off of what is now known as University Road. The house had been built in 1785 and was a colonial saltbox style. A year after Owen and his wife Ruth purchased the house, John was born. All that remains today is a stone monument.
John’s stay in Torrington was short as his family moved to Ohio in 1805. But his roots in Connecticut ran deep and came back to New England several times. At the age of 16 he went to a preparatory school in Plainfield, Massachusetts before transferring to Morris Academy in Litchfield, only to head back to Ohio when he ran out and he suffered from eye inflammations. In 1846 he returned to New England settling in Springfield, Massachusetts to open a business with a partner, Simon Perkins. In Springfield he formed The League of Gileadites, a militant group to prevent runaway slaves being recaptured as a response to the Fugitive Slave Act. John Brown left Springfield in 1850, but returned in 1856. For the next two years he travelled throughout New England raising funds and weapons. In 1858 he contracted with Charles Blair of Collinsville, Connecticut for 1,000 pikes, which he later brought with him on the raid of Harper Ferry.
On October 16, 1859 John Brown led 18 men on a raid of the Harper Ferry Armory in West Virginia with the intent of providing slaves with weapons to lead a revolt against slave owners. However, the towns people surrounded them and kept them pinned in until Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee could arrive. Brown’s men were overrun with ten of them, including two of his sons mortally wounded. The rest, including John Brown who was seriously wounded, were arrested. On December 2, 1859 John Brown was hanged for Treason.
Many historians consider John Brown’s raid on Harper Ferry and his subsequent hanging as the impetus for the Civil War. His legacy is left in poems, speeches and songs, and by a stone market in his home town of Torrington, Connecticut.