On October 13, 1859, 21-year-old Francis J. Meriam left Barnum’s City Hotel in Baltimore to go on a shopping trip.
The grandson of Francis Jackson, a prominent Boston abolitionist, Meriam had read of John Brown’s exploits in Kansas and may have even gone out there to join him, although he never caught up with Brown. In October 1859, however, Lewis Hayden, a black abolitionist who had been recruiting men for Brown’s cause, heard that Brown was badly in need of money. While walking in the streets of Boston, Hayden ran into Meriam, whom he knew to be well supplied with cash, having inherited a respectable sum from his father. Thrilled to be of help, Meriam agreed to give $600 to the cause–provided that he was allowed to join his hero. This was somewhat problematic, for Meriam (for whom I have a considerable soft spot) was not an ideal conspirator. Having lost an eye in a youthful accident, he was also in frail health, both mental and physical, and at the time had conspicuous blotches on his face, which the “wanted” notices that were put out for him later claimed were due to syphilis. Understandably, Brown’s Boston supporters were less than enthusiastic about this new recruit (Franklin Sanborn judged that he was “as fit to be in the enterprise as the Devil to keep a powder house”). Nonetheless, $600 was nothing to sneeze at, and Meriam was sent on his way down South.
At Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he boarded for a short time with John Kagi, another of Brown’s men, Meriam took the notion to have his will drawn up (he left his money to the abolitionist cause). The young man then proceeded to Baltimore, where he checked into the fashionable Barnum’s (which in 1861, ironically, would later be the headquarters of a plot to assassinate the soon-to-be inaugurated Abraham Lincoln; it was also a favored lodging of one John Wilkes Booth).
At the hotel on the evening of October 12, Meriam wrote a letter to his doctor, an osteopath by the name of Dr. David Thayer: “I telegraphed to you from Harrisburg yesterday, requesting you to send me at once by Adams Express four times the quantity of medicine you first gave me. . . . I did this so as to have enough and a package or two to loose [sic] as I may be where I cannot receive more medicine.” After detailing his symptoms for a couple of paragraphs, Meriam added, “I know you will want to write to me to warn me of the danger but I shall be of[f] before you can reply to this. I will try to save myself from exposure as much as possible that may or may not be very much.”
The next day, Meriam arose and went to the establishment of Schaeffer & Loney on Hanover Street, where he requested a whopping forty to fifty thousand military percussion caps. Edward Schaeffer later testified before a congressional committee, “We had on hand only about twenty and one fourth thousand at the time. He objected a little to the price we asked, but said he would see whether he could make up the quantity. I told him there were other houses in the city who kept them. As he went out of the store, he passed by where samples of spades and shovels were hanging up, and wished to know the price of spades and shovels. I suspected that he was furnishing supplies for some filibuster expedition, though I knew that New Orleans and New York were generally the places where they got up those expeditions. Still, the appearance of the young man was unfavorable, and I refused to give him the price of the spades and shovels. I walked with him towards the door, and told him there were other houses in the city where he could probably procure a supply of them, and he went out.”
Despite this unfriendly reception, Meriam returned on October 14 and bought the percussion caps. By this time, as Schaeffer recounted, his nerves were clearly getting the better of him: “Meriam’s manner appeared to be rather excited. He pulled out his money, which was in $20 gold pieces; and there were $14 or $15 of change coming to him, and in his hurry he went off without getting it. The young man called him back and gave him the change.”
On October 15, Meriam arrived at Harpers Ferry, where, bearing a large trunk, he stopped at the Wager House hotel, dined, and, as the New York Herald later reported, wrote a number of letters, “taking peculiar pains to prevent any one from seeing what he had written.” Presently, one of John Brown’s sons arrived to take Meriam and his bounty to the Kennedy Farm in Maryland. It was the only time Meriam would see Harpers Ferry: when the raid commenced the next evening, he was among those appointed to remain on guard duty in Maryland. It was an assignment that would save his life: with considerable help from John Brown’s son Owen, he made it through the hills alive and escaped to Canada.