Sunday, February 7, 2010

John Brown's Mysterious Origins

Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century journalists loved a good mystery.  Apparently, so do some Twentieth Century bloggers.    

The Washington Post of May 10, 1904, carried the following tale of a mysterious stranger:

On a cold and blustery night in the mid 1860s, a cold and starving stranger knocked on the door of Georgetown’s Franklin Inn at 168 Bridge Street—later, 3249 M Street--asking for food and shelter.   Innkeeper Ann Cleveland was the widow of John Cleveland, who had died in a tragic accident at the Washington Monument construction site.  Sympathetic to the man, she ordered her servants to give him food and a place to lie down for the night.   She told him not to leave in the morning until she had had a chance to speak with him.

The next morning, she offered the man, who called himself John Brown, a job as a general handyman.  He accepted the offer and ended up working there, according to the Post, for two decades until Mrs. Cleveland’s death in 1888.

Mrs. Cleveland, prior to her death, had instructed her daughter Louisa Phipps to provide for Mr. Brown and, on his death, give him a respectable Christian burial.

Mr. Brown died at Providence Hospital in May, 1904, and true to her word, Louisa arranged for Father Smythe from St. Joseph’s Church on Capitol Hill to preside over the funeral.  She buried John Brown in the family plot at Holy Rood Cemetery in Georgetown.

Mr. Brown was as much a mystery to the family and neighbors at his death as he had been in life.  He had appeared to be an educated man from a good family.   He never divulged a single detail about his past, no matter how much pressure he was put under.  He kept to himself, never making friends with either men or women.

The Post fancifully hinted he may have been connected to the infamous abolitionist by the same name—but of course, this would have been impossible, as the famous John Brown had been put to death in December, 1859. 

Census returns show John Cleveland in Georgetown as early as 1840.  The 1870 census shows a widowed Mrs. Cleveland and her children, as well as several servants and staff—among them, three Johns:  Sweeney, Whelan and Haines, but no Brown.   The 1880 census shows a plasterer named John Fowler.

No John Brown is listed in the tombstone transcripts of Holy Rood Cemetery, though further examination of burial records held at Georgetown University may reveal his name. 

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