Mock trial at MU highlights controversial history of John Brown

Thursday, October 15, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Under the cover of darkness on a spring night in 1856, a father and two sons were dragged from their cabin in Pottawatomie Creek, Kan., and slashed to death with broadswords.

The alleged murderers, abolitionist John Brown and his followers, broke into two more cabins and killed two more men. All five were proslavery Southerners, but they were not actively resisting or attacking the insurrectionists.

If you go

What: The United States v. John Brown

When: Thursday, October 15 at 7 p.m.

Where: The Missouri Theatre, 203 S. Ninth St.

Admission: Free

Information: Go to

“That’s something for which Brown was never tried. No one was successfully tried, or really tried at all,” said MU Law Professor Frank Bowman, faculty sponsor of the Historical and Theatrical Trial Society.

The MU student organization is staging a fictional trial of John Brown on Thursday night at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts.

“The idea was to have a historical trial about an event that might have happened but never did,” Bowman said.

Brown is perhaps most famous for his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., three years after the Pottawatomie Massacre, when he attempted to lead an armed slave rebellion. U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee suppressed the revolt, and Brown was subsequently tried and hanged for treason. Friday is the 150th anniversary of the raid.

“Pottawatomie Creek has always been sort of a black mark on his record, if you will,” he said. “Those people who think of (Brown) as being an antislavery hero, something of a martyr for what happened at Harpers Ferry, have to contend with the fact that he had committed what certainly appear to be some fairly brutal killings.”

Bowman said the trial intends to raise questions about heroes, terrorism and the merits of those who advocate violence in the pursuit of righteous causes.

He said the trial will also show what Columbia was like in 1857.

“This was really the heart of slave country in Missouri. Almost all of the prominent people in this community were slaveholders,” Bowman said.

The MU president from at the time of the deaths, James Shannon, was a Disciples of Christ preacher who vehemently defended slavery.

“One of the things that’ll turn up in the trial is that he was so rabidly proslavery, he actually encouraged Missouri students to put down their studies and go invade Kansas to suppress the abolitionists," Bowman said. "So this was a very different place in every kind of way.” 

Trial Director Carolyn Hamilton spent the past six months researching Brown and the murders to make the witness and exhibit lists and to cast the characters.

“I just tried to think of who might fit the image of the person I’d been thinking about, and luckily most of them said yes,” Hamilton said.

“This isn’t canned,” Bowman explained. “It’s not scripted; we just try it. So it’s completely live. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

Cape Girardeau attorney Morley Swingle and MU law student Justin Smith will be prosecuting Brown with Judge Deanell Reece Tacha of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals presiding.

The jury is made of people from the community, including a Rock Bridge High School teacher, a newspaper columnist and the regional officer of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

“This is probably a lot closer to a real trial than it is to a play,” Smith said. “I think the theater element is very interesting, so I think it’s going to be very exciting and entertaining to watch.”

The trial society was founded four years ago by Steve Easton, a former MU Law School professor, and a group of law students.

Past trials have included the theft of a Native American's canoe by Lewis and Clark and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Two years ago, the society “tried” former Missouri Gov. Thomas Crittenden, accused of putting a bounty on the head of outlaw Jesse James.

“The Jesse James case had a lot of interesting and surprising political resonance,” Bowman said. “This was during the Bush administration— what you had (with Crittenden) was a governor who was unsatisfied with the ordinary course of law enforcement and essentially hires or arranges to have private people arguably shoot James.”

John Brown's trial is being presented in conjunction with a regional meeting of the Mid-America Association of Law Librarians, hosted by MU Law Library director Randy Diamond.

“I don’t want to say it’s going to be fun because it’s a darker subject matter with five murders,” said MU law student Lindsey Laws, “but it’s entertaining.” Laws is the defense co-counsel along with Bowman, who is playing the lead defense attorney.

“Anyone who’s been a trial lawyer any time at all will tell you there’s an intimate relationship between trial and theater,” Bowman said. “That’s why I was a trial lawyer for a long time — because it is a form of theater.”

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