Luke Brown’s Abolition Hotbed

Prepared by Michael J. Davis

Being asked to write a historical sketch, particularly about a character from the distant past, presents the historian a unique opportunity.  So it is with Luke Brown, of North Bridgton.  As an example of the sort of thing one might write, one could say, “In North Bridgton, many years ago, there lived a cabinet maker named Luke Brown, who attained much in life and was a credit to his community.  His chief business was the manufacture of furniture, which he made with his son, Freeman.  He lived here and died here, but was not born here, etc…”  These are the sorts of biographies which fill the pages of our histories, and in general they provide the base facts of their subjects rather admirably.  In Luke Brown’s case, a fine biography of him appears in the acclaimed Story of North Bridgton, Maine by Guy Monk, who wrote in 1954; “Deacon Luke Brown, Manufacturer.  Born in Massachusetts, son of a cabinetmaker who moved to Livermore, Maine.  One of ten children.  Came to North Bridgton from Boston in 1840.  Manufactured and sold furniture under the name, Luke Brown Furniture Mfg. Company.  Later firm became Luke & F.H. Brown Furniture Co.  Lived in the house near the sawmill, owned by the late Sam Ridlon.  Selectman in 1845 and 1854.  Went to the Legislature in 1855, State Senate in 1867.  Elected Trustee of the Academy in 1842.  On Prudential Committee for 45 years.  Deacon of the North Bridgton Church.  Married twice; eight children, of whom three were living in 1878…”

As historians we find this sort of “thumbnail sketch” rather interesting.  On one hand, it is filled with useful information; a detailed list of the hard facts of the man, his accomplishments, names, dates, institutions, and so on.  Knowing how roughshod the march of time can be on memory, one might even say that this sort of sketch is indeed a far greater remembrance than most men are ever afforded.  How many have lived and died with nary a sentence about them recorded for posterity?  As we have said, on one hand this kind of sketch is a fine accounting of a man’s life, and this is certainly a form which we are accustomed to from our history books.  But on the other hand, we find it oddly lacking.  There is no personality to it, Mr. Brown is simply another name on the page.  In short, we find this sketch rather misses the character of the man it hopes to portray. 

This is common problem.  Far too often do we view those figures of the past as separate creatures from us, as fixed and immobile, more like characters or actors than actual people.  We know how their story ends, and we know their life’s doings, and so it becomes very easy for us to list their accomplishments and focus on their actions without much thought as to their motivations.  We must always remember that those of the past were people just as we are, who lived and breathed and felt with as full an intensity as we do today.  And so when the common sort of historical sketches lack passion, it is only because they lack the beliefs of those they chronicle.  This is no slight on Mr. Monk, but in all his book the biography of Luke Brown is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon.  To take an obvious example from it, we can see he was very active politically, but why?  For what cause did he stand? 

Does our understanding of the above information change when we reveal that he was an abolitionist who fought for the freedom of slaves?  That in the 1840’s he became centrally involved in Bridgton’s ongoing and often violent debate over slavery, the Underground Railroad, and the later advent of the Civil War?  If this information does change our understanding of him, ought it not to be included?  Would we like the motivations of our own actions remembered?  As historians, it is our duty to investigate, preserve, and pass down the stories of the past, and when we do this we must attempt to present the lives of those we study in as close an aspect to their true selves as we can.  In this relation, we will focus on an episode from the life of Luke Brown.  This is by no means a complete biography of his life, nor does it try to be.  It is simply a story, a piece of the puzzle which perhaps explains why a cabinetmaker from rural Maine later fought so hard in the legislature and his community for the cause of Freedom.  There are many more stories in the life of Luke Brown worth telling, but this being a very old and very rare piece, and one which is not widely known, we feel it ought to be presented.

In 1830 an anti-slavery paper entitled The Liberator was begun in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison, one of the earliest abolitionists whose lifelong fight for the freedom of slaves made him one of the most famous men in Nineteenth century America.  In a little shop just a few blocks from his printing office, a young carpenter named Luke Brown picked up one of Garrison’s papers and began to read.  Just a year later, he would save Mr. Garrison’s life.

The following incident has come down to us in two separate letters, each written by Charles O. Stickney, a close associate and friend of Brown himself.  Mr. Stickney has prepared two closely related accounts; the first obtained from Luke’s son Freeman H. Brown, and the latter from Mr. Brown himself upon his deathbed.  These accounts were published on Oct. 3, 1887 and Sept. 22, 1890 in the Boston Herald and Boston Journal, respectively.  As both accounts are largely in agreement on the particulars of the incident, and further supported by items within Mr. Garrison’s own memoirs, I have elected to combine the two accounts for the sake of clarity and accuracy to known events.  The story is as follows;

“The recent death of my townsman, Hon. Luke Brown, of North Bridgton, recalls a thrilling, and in its results a most important, incident of slavery days which transpired at Boston in connection with the historical anti-Garrison mob.  Mr. Brown, who resided here the last fifty years of his life, and died at the age of 80, after winning a more than local fame as a businessman and politician, he being the founder of the well-known bedstead manufacturing firm of Luke and F.H. Brown, and having served in the Maine House and Senate, was formerly a carpenter and builder in Boston.  His shop was in Wilson’s Lane.  At that time the “wicked fanatic” and “agitator,” as Mr. Garrison was then called, was publishing his earliest issues of the Liberator, and by his bold, aggressive course and brought the enmity of almost the whole of Boston down upon his head.  The rage against him, as survivors of the past generation will recollect, grew more and more intense, until at last matters culminated in the famous mob, from which he narrowly escaped with his life.  In these latter days, when all people and parties unite in the common rejoicing that human slavery is a thing of the past, it seems incredible that such a drama – well-nigh a tragedy – could have been allowed within a stone’s throw of the old “Cradle of Liberty,” Faneuil Hall, when a mob gathered to lynch a noble man who dared publically to resist the popular tide, and defiantly hurl his anathemas against the “crime of all crimes, the sum of all villainies;” and that, too, by what the local papers at that time were pleased to term a “highly respectable mob” containing “some of the most worthy and constructive men of the city.”  Yet such is the truth of history.

It is quite possible that William Lloyd Garrison and his famous anti-slavery paper, the Liberator, would have ended their brief existence on that eventful day had not the carpenter shop of my freedom-loving townsman, the late Hon. Luke Brown of Bridgton, afforded the great abolition chief a temporary refuge from the mob.  From Mr. Brown’s statement just before his death, and other authentic sources, I am enabled to present a correct account of the affair.

On the afternoon of Oct. 21, 1835, there was great excitement in Boston.  A meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society was appointed to meet in a hall adjoining the Anti-Slavery office, 46 Water Street, within a short distance of the old City Hall.  It was expected by the people at large that George Thompson, a noted abolition agitator and lecturer from England, would attend and take part in the exercises; but he had left the city.

As a note, the reason Mr. Thompson had fled the city was because just that morning, a placard had “suddenly appeared upon the streets” declaring; “That infamous foreign scoundrel Thompson, will [present] this afternoon, at the Liberator Office,.. The present is a fair opportunity for the friends of the Union to snake Thompson out!  It will be a contest between the Abolitionists and the friends of the Union.  A purse of $100 has been raise by a number of patriotic citizens to reward the individual who shall first lay violent hands on Thompson, so that he may be brought to the tar-kettle before dark.  Friends of the Union, be vigilant!”  It is interesting to read this now and find that the mob in Boston, as with similar Democrat mobs here in Bridgton, were publically styling themselves as “friends of the Union;” that is, citizens in support of the Constitution and its then pro-slavery status.  Back to Stickney’s account;

Mr. Garrison, then, was invited by the society to attend and address the meeting.  At the appointed hour he entered the hall, in which and on the stairway he found a throng of men and boys of the rougher element, who uttered insulting language.  The lady president asked Mr. Garrison to retire, as it was apparent he would not be allowed to speak.  He complied, and went to his office, adjoining.  It was now impossible to leave the building by any of the usual ways of egress, so dense had become the crowd outside, which had swelled from hundreds to thousands.

“Thompson!  Thompson!  Let’s have Thompson!” was the cries which came up from the crowd.

Mayor Lyman, who had now arrived, assured them that Thompson had gone, and besought them to disperse.  But this they not only declined to do, but increased in violence, acting like a pack of ravenous wolves bent on securing their prey.  Despite the tumult, the president calmly called the meeting to order, and opened it with prayer.  Thereupon the rioters broke in the lower panel of the office door, through which they could see Garrison writing.

“There he is!  That’s Garrison!  Out with the scoundrel!” shouted the mob.

Garrison turned to his friend and coadjutor, Burleigh, and advised him to let them in; but the latter coolly went out, locked the door behind him, and by his firmness kept the office safe.

Two or three constables succeeded in clearing the hall and staircase of intruders, and the mayor went to the ladies, and asked them to desist attempting to hold their meeting.  They thereupon adjourned to the residence of Mrs. Chapman, a pronounced anti-slavery woman, on West Street, for the completion of their business, greeted as they went by hisses, curses, etc.  The mob now renewed their cries for Garrison:

“We must have Garrison!  Out with him!  Lynch him!”

At this juncture the sign bearing the obnoxious legend, “Anti-Slavery Rooms,” caught their attention, and they vociferously demanded its possession.  The mayor, greatly agitated, and doubtless at heart not in sympathy with the abolition cause, signified acquiescence, and two men tore down the sign, and it was instantly broken into a great number of pieces by the mob.  Then they renewed their cries for Garrison.

Mr. Garrison, preceded by an anti-slavery friend, one Mr. C–, undertook to escape from the coils which were each moment more tightly drawing about him.  So he dropped from a back window to a shed, narrowly escaping falling headlong to the ground.  That the mob which had gathered and was surging down the street in quest of their prey had at its inception greatly alarmed the few friends of Mr. Garrison, goes without saying.  There was little time for action.  To secrete him was their only course.  But where?  Scarcely a house, a store, or manufactory was there in all that city which the hated anti-slavery leader could seek as an asylum with any hope of success.  Garrison himself was physically as well as morally fearless, but the idea of an ignominious death at the hands of a brutal mob was no part nor parcel of his philosophy.  His great work, to which all his manhood and intellect were consecrated, was not done – had only begun.  And so he was only too anxious to escape from his persecutors.  His brave “body guard” suddenly bethought themselves of one place not far distant where he would be welcomed.

“Luke Brown’s carpenter shop – to Brown’s shop!” was the slogan uttered with bated breath, which quickly passed from mouth to mouth among the brave little body of men.  Down Wilson’s Lane with hurried steps – behind them still the shouts of the pursuing mob: “Catch them!  Hang him!  Death to the damned abolitionist!”  Accompanied by two or three of his followers, Mr. Garrison entered Brown’s shop, while other scattered to other points in the vicinity; the better to avert suspicion, and to watch the development of the storm.  The proprietor happened to be away just then, having gone out presumably on business; but his employees however, were men of his own mind, and well knew that any co-operation by them with Mr. Garrison’s friends would be heartily endorsed by their chief, so they helped secrete him beneath a pile of carpenters’ “buttings” in a room on the second story. 

The mob soon arrived.  It was well known to them that Brown’s shop was an “abolition hotbed,” and so they naturally suspected that Brown had harbored the man.  They halted and prepared to rush into the building.  But they had counted without their host, for suddenly there appeared in the open doorway a stalwart young man, an apprentice of Brown’s with uplifted broadax, who, above the noise of the rabble, was heard to shout:

“I’ll split the skull of the first man who attempts to come in!”

They looked upon the young Hercules before them and correctly gauged his mettle.  They saw he meant business, and they stood at bay.  But presently they once more essayed to advance.

“Stand back!  Stand back!” and once more the glittering axe came into position.

But things could not long remain thus, and so a parley was held, the result of which was a committee of three or four were to enter and search the premises.  The apprentice felt confident that so ingeniously was Mr. Garrison secreted that the search would be fruitless, and so it would have been but that, going upstairs, the men saw Garrison’s friend, Mr. C–, whose attempt to masquerade as one of Brown’s workmen not only miscarried, but made it all the more likely that his confederate was there also.  He pretended to be at work, but they rightly construed this a subterfuge, and questioned him sharply.  His evasive answers tended to confirm their suspicions, and thereupon the ruffians seized Mr. C– in a rough manner, and led him out in front of the mob, to whom one shouted:

“This is not Garrison, but Garrison’s friend, and he says he knows where Garrison is, but won’t tell!”

A shout of exultation rose from the crowd.  Mr. C – broke away from his captors and escaped, and the next minute the ruffians discovered Garrison.  Like a pair of hungry tigers they pounced upon the pile and presently pulled from out from among the pieces of lumber the dusty form of the great abolitionist.”

One Ms. H.B. Thompson, who was in the crowd at the time, recalled “They followed him, dragged him from under the bench, put a rope round his neck, and brought him to the window to hang him out.  I had thought it was good sport up to this time, but when I saw him standing there so pale I thought it was going too far, and said “Let’s go to his rescue.”  This accords well with Stickney’s account, who relates that; “One of them relented, saying “Don’t kill him outright;” whereupon they shoved him through the window.  Garrison bowed to the crowd… then descended to the ground upon a ladder which had been raised for that purpose… the eagle-eyed friends of Garrison were equal to the crisis, and they shrewdly simultaneously adopted the stratagem of rushing upon him, hurling vile epithets and deadly threatenings, thereby deceiving the mob, who took them to be ringleaders in the plot, and dragging him by the arms and shaking their fists in his face, hustled him to the mayor’s office in the City Hall.

As he approached the south door Mayor Lyman attempted to protect him by his presence, but was quickly thrust aside, and then ensued a tremendous rush by the mob to prevent Garrison from entering the hall, but, happily, to no purpose.  His clothes being rent, a suit was lent him by individuals, and after a consultation of about fifteen minutes the mayor and his advisers concluded to take him to jail for protection.  Accordingly, a hack was procured, into which he was hustled and driven away.

The scene which succeeded fairly baffles description.  That their victim was likely to escape them after all excited the crowd to a pitch of frenzy.  They clung to the wheels, they opened the doors of the carriage and tried to drag him out, but a constable sprang to his side and the doors were closed; the driver lashed the horses and the heads of the mob, and got away, making a road through the crowd, and drove at full speed to Leverett street jail, which he reached by a circuitous route, followed by some of the rioters.

Arriving there, the jail authorities, in the interest of law and order, readily admitted him for safekeeping, where he remained overnight, by which time the popular frenzy had spent its force, and it was decided safe for Mr. Garrison to return to his home.  And all this excitement and tumult just because a few peaceful men and women had raised their feeble voices in sympathy with an enslaved race!  I have obtained the foregoing facts from a son of Hon. Luke Brown, Mr. Freeman H. Brown, his successor in business and a prominent and reliable citizen, to whom his father had often repeated the story of the eventful affair.  Mr. Brown, while regretting his absence at the critical time, had the satisfaction of knowing that his reputation as a prominent anti-slavery man among Mr. Garrison’s followers and the loyalty of his subordinates had jointly resulted, without doubt, in saving to the word the “noblest Roman of them all,” the heroic man who early proclaimed in thunder tones to a then pro-slavery nation: “I am in earnest!  I will not excuse!  I will not equivocate!  I will not retreat a single inch!  And I will be heard!”

Here in Bridgton Luke Brown became a Whig, and later a Republican strategist, and his rise to the legislature comes as part of a coordinated wave to drive pro-slavery forces from Maine’s politics.  Bridgton on the eve of the Civil War was a very contentious place, and a great many battles between the “abolitionists” and pro-slavery “copperheads” took place here, some of which involved Luke Brown.  But those are stories for other times.  We shall have to content ourselves for now with this glimpse alone.  But what a glimpse it is. 

In a fleeting moment in a Boston back alley, we have at last seen the figure of Luke Brown, the man.

© 2020 by the North Bridgton Historical Society