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Previously lost first photo of executed abolitionist goes on show

December 18, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ About a dozen years before he was hanged, abolitionist John Brown visited the photo studio of a former slave’s son and had his first known picture taken in a glowering swearing-in pose without his unruly white beard.

The original, only 4 inches by 3 1/4 inches, was done about 1847 and disappeared a century ago. Recovered, it’s going on show Thursday at the National Portrait Gallery.

The picture turned up last spring in its original padded brown case at a small auction in the Pittsburgh area. Later it brought $115,000 at Sotheby’s. Mary Panzer, curator of the National Portrait Gallery show, said Wednesday she did not know who owned it over the years.

Part of the money for the purchase was contributed by Betty Adler Schermer and her husband Lloyd G. Schermer. Her great-grandfather, August M. Bondi, was among Brown’s ``Free-Staters″ battling pro-slavery ``Border Ruffians″ in Kansas and Missouri.

In all, the National Portrait Gallery has nine photographs and pictures and one bust of John Brown. Two of the others will be on display with the first sitting, including one with the beard.

Photographer Augustus Washington, son of an Asian mother and a black former slave, learned to make daguerreotypes _ a primitive photo process that had recently been brought to the United States from France. He wanted to earn his way through Dartmouth. Parents, friends and the president of the college disapproved, but Washington did a thriving business in his studio at Hartford, Conn. _ apparently the first in the city.

He never got through Dartmouth.

Washington’s customers included prominent abolitionists, and Brown, running a wool brokerage at nearby Springfield, Mass., came over to pose. The picture shows him clean-shaven at 47, with one hand raised as if taking an oath, the other on an unidentified flag.

In the late 1850s, Brown and 21 others occupied the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia to start a ``war of emancipation.″ The next day a company of Marines under Col. Robert E. Lee took Brown’s last stronghold by assault. Ten people were killed or mortally wounded, including two of Brown’s 20 children.

He was convicted of treason to the Virginia commonwealth and conspiracy to murder. When the Civil War began in 1861, Lee put his loyalty to Virginia first and took command of Confederate forces.

Washington went to Liberia, where freed American slaves set up a black government. But for daguerreotypes he needed copper plates, silver halide, mercury and other chemicals, and after a year his supplies ran out. He went into farming and writing for American newspapers. He also earned $260 a year teaching Latin and Greek for an hour a day at Monrovia’s high school.

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