Remembering the Pembers

M ary Ann Day, a Granville girl, and John Brown, abolitionist

The beginning of their story

On April 15, 1816, a daughter was born to Charles Day and Mary Ann Crosset-Little, in Granville, Washington County, N.Y. The exact location of the family home is unknown, but is assumed to be in South Granville where the Day family first settled after leaving the Killingly, Conn., area prior to 1780. The Day men were farmers and blacksmiths, dating back to Nathan Day, the first of this family to settle in South Granville after leaving Killingly, and the father of Charles Day, who was born in 1777 in Connecticut.

The daughter born to Charles Day and his second wife, Mary Ann Crosset-Little, was to become the wife of John Brown, the abolitionist whose life ended by hanging for his murderous revolt against slavery at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Their lives together were to enter the pages of history as the question of free or slave states brought the impending war between the North and South to the brink of the Civil War.

John Brown was driven by his religion and Bible-sworn to fight for the freedom of enslaved black. Mary Ann Day’s role as his supporting and enabling wife during their marriage was also the result of her early and complete submission to the strict interpretation of the Bible as taught by her church.

Was Mary Ann Day Brown a victim of her religious beliefs, or a victim of her husband’s fanatical need to carry out his oath as a self-appointed and religion-driven savior of enslaved blacks? Should she be honored by history as a dutiful wife and mother or dishonored and exposed as an accomplice to lawlessness and murder? If the definition of accomplice is understood to be that of an abettor, partner, accessory and colleague, then Mary Ann Day Brown may be seen as such during those pre-Civil War events precipitated and carried out by her husband.

The overall view of her life according to research and publications shows her to be a woman of quiet dedication to her family when left on her own, but a submissive and unquestioning wife to the husband who controlled their marriage based on the practiced interpretation of the Bible.

The following brief view of Mary Ann Day Brown is part of the research on her life which I have extracted over the past year. There is much more to be done before the story is finished. Much has been written about John Brown and less about his wife as an individual woman and mother. Having read the biographies of John Brown and his life prior to his hanging after Harpers Ferry in 1859, I chose to search her life for answers as to why she willingly and religiously supported her husband’s premeditated killing of anti-abolitionists in Kansas in 1859. Attacking a lonely cabin late at night, Brown and his small band of men, including his sons, dragged a group of men from their beds, forced them out and proceeded to hack and chop them to death. One of Brown’s sons was so affected by this that he became violently ill, and descended into a state of mental illness for the remainder of his life.

One son died in Kansas, two more at Harpers Ferry along with others in the small force of young men Brown had managed to collect for the raid on Harpers Ferry. The bloody and violent battle ended with the capture of Brown and his conviction and hanging in December of 1859. It was only at this point, preceding Harpers Ferry,  when John Brown sought his wife’s help in carrying out his pre-raid preparations, that Mary Ann Day Brown found the courage to refuse his request.

By 1859 she was 43 years old, the mother of 13 children fathered by Brown and the stepmother of several by Brown’s marriage to his first wife, who had died in 1832, the year before he married Mary Ann Day.

In the days and years to follow Harpers Ferry she was assume control of her life and that of her younger children with a quiet but determined view of providing for their future. Turning her back on the church as the focus of daily life, she sought out means of providing for the education of her youngest daughters, still in their early years. They were to attend the finest educational facilities, in Massachusetts and Fort Edward, N.Y., where they achieved their goals as educated teachers and artists. They remained devoted daughters to their mother until her death in California in 1884.

The search for the facts regarding the life of Mary Ann Day Brown began with the many biographies I obtained through the Pember Library interlibrary loans. Having done that, I proceeded to seek actual records of the Day and Brown families, again done with the assistance of the Pember Library, through email obtaining the address of records sources and historian-archivists. With this information, I made contact with individuals who accessed, copied and mailed the necessary vital records information and genealogies for the two families. The use of primary source material is vital to establish the earliest life and progress of both individuals and families.

Without the knowledgeable and willing assistance of Pember Library’s Ardyce Bresset and the use of interlibrary loans for bios and microfilm newspapers for the time periods, along with email requests for out-of-state vital records, this information could not easily have been acquired and searched. These records were requested and received from Connecticut, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, as well as Vermont historians and historical societies.

It is national history with local roots. A fascinating and educational search that began with “intellectual curiosity.” After a hundred years of more of speculation and inaccuracies regarding the early life of Mary Ann Day in Granville, and the facts regarding who her mother was, much of that speculation was addressed and answered with actual records.

Granville’s claim to famous persons should not focus on the lives of such as Mary Ann Day Brown, or John Champion Bishop, or James Waldron Gillespie, who left nothing to their town except their names.

Instead, it should honor and visibly recognize those two people who gave us an educational and cultural institution whose assets enrich not only their town, but every person who enters its doors.

No town or city could find more deserving recipients of local recognition than Franklin T. Pember and Ellen J.L. Wood Pember. It is long overdue.

Edith M. Sparling

Town of Granville historian,

Middle Granville

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