The Death of Francis J. Meriam

On November 28, 1865, Francis Meriam, one of John Brown’s men, died in a New  York City boardinghouse at age 28.

The grandson of Francis Jackson, a prominent Boston abolitionist, Meriam had been one of those left behind in Maryland on guard duty while John Brown and most of his other men proceeded to Harpers Ferry. Realizing that all was lost, Meriam and others escaped through the mountains, with Meriam ultimately boarding a train near Chambersburg and ending up in Canada. Physically frail, blind in one eye through a youthful accident, and mentally erratic, Meriam nonetheless served in the Union army. In 1863, he was with the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry, for which he served as acting captain. The following year, he enlisted as a private with the 59th Massachusetts Infantry and was wounded in the right leg at Spotsylvania in May 1864, after which he was hospitalized for months. During the war, he had married Minerva Caldwell, said to have been of mixed race, but the marriage foundered. Minerva graduated from the New England Female Medical College in Boston in 1865.

Little is known about Meriam’s postwar activities, and for years his former associates were uncertain as to exactly what had happened to him. Richard Hinton, an early biographer of Brown, believed in 1899 that Meriam had died “in Mexico of battle wounds.” But this letter held at Harvard’s Houghton Library, written by his mother, Eliza Jackson Eddy, to Wendell Phillips from Rome on April 25, 1866, tells the actual story:

“You probably had not heard of the death of Francis when you wrote. I read a letter from Lizzie [Francis’s sister] in March stating that it had been so long a time that they had heard nothing from Francis that they all felt uneasy, that brother James [Jackson] went on to New York, to the house where he was last boarding, and the description they gave of a person having suddenly died there of heart disease, corresponded so much with that of Francis that he showed them a photograph & they said he was the same; he had assumed another name, which his wife had heard him mention as intending to take. . . . It was so sad after all the poor boy had suffered, he should have been alone at  last. . . .

“Francis was with me at the Pavilion a day or two previous to my leaving [for Europe] & saw me off, on board the steamer. I have the mournful satisfaction of having seen him what I could before I left. I hope he is now in a sphere better adapted for his happiness & progress.”

Ironically, in the days after the raid on Harpers Ferry, Meriam had been reported dead, possibly as a ruse by his friends to provide cover while Francis made his way to Canada. On that occasion, condolences poured into the home of Francis’s family  in Boston. Theodore Parker, who had helped finance Brown’s activities, wrote to Eliza Eddy, “To the emancipation of American bondmen you have contributed your first-born son: not a drop of his blood is wasted. He himself is immortal, and has passed to that higher world we shall all enter on before long.” But Meriam’s actual death passed almost unnoticed, although Phillips did relay the news to Brown’s widow. Not even his burial place is known to us, although it seems likely that given the circumstances, his body would have been taken to the morgue and, having gone unclaimed for the prescribed time, ended up in one of New York City’s potters’ fields, perhaps on Ward’s Island. Thus, the wealthiest of Brown’s recruits–he contributed $600 in gold to the cause–in all probability lies in a pauper’s grave.

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