Richard Howard of Warwick was either a human relic of major historical significance, or one of the most creative con artists of all time.
Howard was born in Warwick in November 1835, the son of Richard Howard and Eliza (Rice). His father was a woolen manufacturer and, in 1860, the two men entered into a partnership, producing yarn in Apponaug.
In May 1862, Howard enlisted in Company F of the 9th Rhode Island Regiment to serve in the Civil War. He mustered out that September.
In 1874, he married 22-year-old Mary Chappelle, who died seven years later. In 1885, he married 29-year-old Elizabeth Gardiner. He remained in the woolen manufacturing business until his death in June 1907 at his home in Cowesett, well known as an honest and fair businessman. But there were many who believed that Howard was not quite so honest after he began publicizing that he was the last living member of “John Brown’s Men.”
John Brown was an American abolitionist who grew up in Ohio, watching his father Owen conduct safe passage for runaway slaves in their home, which was part of the Underground Railroad. After his marriage, Brown moved to Pennsylvania where he built a cabin and tannery. Inside the tannery, he constructed a secret room to conceal escaped slaves as they made their way to final freedom. It is estimated that about 2,500 slaves found shelter there.
Brown believed that the only way the country would give up slavery was by revolt. He devised a plan whereby he would build his own army of escaped slaves, provide them with weapons and let them destroy the institution of slavery as well as anyone who stood in their way.
Traveling around the country, Brown attempted to recruit as many people as he could to join his army, white and black alike. One of the men who joined, an abolitionist named John Henrie Kagi, was declared by Brown to be his secretary of war. He had Kagi write a new constitution whereby slavery would not be tolerated, as well as an attack plan for a brigade which he expected would include about 4,500 men.
Although many people were against slavery, most were hesitant to follow Brown in this plan he had hatched, even escaped slaves themselves. Eventually, Brown decided to move forth with his army of only 21 people, 16 white and five black, including two of his sons.
Brown brought his small army to the Kennedy farmhouse in Virginia and put his plan into motion. Leaving three men behind to stand guard, he and the others went to Harper’s Ferry, stormed into the government armory there, took the overseer hostage and robbed the establishment of muskets and rifles.
From there, John Brown’s men raided the town with the intention of taking more hostages. Ten of his men were killed in the process, including his two sons and Kagi. Five of his men escaped but Brown and the others were captured after the Marines were called in.
During the Senate investigation, Democrats and Republicans blamed each other for the raid and the deaths that ensued. Brown became the first person in the country executed for treason when he was hanged on the afternoon of Dec. 2, 1859, for his raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Richard Howard claimed to be one of the men who had escaped capture that day. He claimed that he had met Kagi one day while he was in Kansas. He allegedly then met John Brown, who asked him if he would accompany them to Harper’s Ferry and take part in the planned revolt. Brown reported that he agreed and traveled with the men to the Kennedy farmhouse in Virginia.
He described his time there, saying that Brown was a deeply religious man who gave sermons on Sunday nights at the farmhouse. He talked about Brown’s plan to arm the slaves and let them fight for their freedom. But the plan was not adhered to, he said. Brown decided to rush things, announcing they would make the raid 10 days earlier than scheduled because Brown believed there was a certain member of his army who could not be trusted to keep quiet.
Howard said that he and the others crossed a narrow bridge that took them into Harper’s Ferry, across the river. They then entered the armory and took it over. He went onto to explain that he and Kagi went to hide in a dug-out and he left momentarily to find Brown. When he returned to the dug-out, he said, it was being fired upon with Kagi inside, and Kagi was killed.
Jumping into the river, he described how he stood on a rock and listened to the gunfire around him. He then slipped beneath the water and floated with the current to safety. He claimed he returned to the Kennedy house and then went on to St. Louis before returning to Rhode Island. The entire exploit, he said, had him absent from Warwick for six weeks.
Brown claimed that, as the last living member of Brown’s army, only he knew the location where Brown’s private documents were buried. He also said he had a copy of Kagi’s “new” constitution, written in cipher.
The problem with Howard’s story is that all 21 men in Brown’s army were named and accounted for, and Howard was not among them. When he went public with his story, Brown’s daughter Anne begged that Howard be denounced as a “fraud and a humbug.” She stated that she had been present at the Kennedy farmhouse during those six weeks and that she had never met Howard. She believed he was hoping for financial gains by selling his story as the last living survivor of John Brown’s men.
Howard lived out his last years in his house on Narragansett Bay, telling a tale that was either one of the most carefully researched and put together shams ever told, or the memories of a man who was not included in the history of a major American event.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.