A Pike Made for John Brown
This fearsome pike, nearly seven feet tall with a ten-inch steel blade, is a memento of John Brown's unsuccessful 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). In 1857 Brown contracted with blacksmith Charles Blair of Collinsville, Connecticut, to produce one thousand such weapons at the cost of a dollar a piece. Brown wanted the weapons to be designed in the shape of a Bowie knife, like the one he had confiscated from a captured pro-slavery Missourian during the Kansas-Missouri border war. Brown agreed to pay for the pikes in installments, but when he failed to keep up with the payments, the manufacturer halted production after making 500 of them. Blair held onto the pikes for two years, when Brown suddenly reappeared with enough money for 954 of them. Blair forwarded the pikes to Brown, who intended to issue them to the army of slave insurgents he thought would rise up after his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The weapons, stockpiled at a Maryland farm not far from the arsenal, were never distributed by the fiery abolitionist, who was convicted and hanged for his failed attack.
Despite Brown's failure to spark a revolution, his raid—and the fact that five of his "soldiers" were African Americans—touched off a frenzy among Southern slave owners. After Brown's capture—and in the midst of the presidential election of 1860—slavery defender Edmund Ruffin got hold of Brown's cache of weapons and sent a pike to the governor of every slave state. Affixed to each weapon was the tagline "SAMPLE OF THE FAVORS DESIGNED FOR USE BY OUR NORTHERN BRETHREN." Ruffin hoped that these tangible symbols of Northern aggression would be displayed in Southern statehouses and would help enflame secessionist sentiment.