Tracing a Conspiracy at the John Brown House

John Brown House

Also known as the Ritner Boarding House, the John Brown House is a historic house museum in Chambersburg PA. This rather average-looking, clapboard old house is famous because abolitionist John Brown stayed here from June until mid-October 1859. During that period, he gathered supplies and recruits for his raid on Harpers Ferry.

If you want to learn more about Brown’s raid and his noble quest to end slavery in the United States, this house is a must-see, bucket list daytrip destination.

I particularly enjoyed touring this house museum. It gives wonderful insight into how middle-class folk, especially a widowed woman, struggled to survive in the mid-1800s. That’s why the John Brown House, owned by Mary Ritner, is a must-see, bucket list daytrip destination. (Comparable examples of a working-class historic house museum is the Wagner House in Johnstown PA and the Shriver House in Gettysburg PA.)

About Mary Ritner (the John Brown House Was Hers, Afterall)

It probably wasn’t an accident that Brown chose Ritner’s boarding house. She likely shared Brown’s views on slavery. Chambersburg was just a few miles from Maryland and it was a well-known way-station on the Underground Railroad. Her father-in-law, Joseph Ritner, a former Pennsylvania governor, had spoken out against slavery. Ritner’s husband, Abraham was both a railroad conductor and a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

The Ritners had purchased the house in 1849. Unfortunately, Abraham died in 1851, leaving Mary with two young daughters to support. There weren’t many options available to respectible middle-class women in the 1850s. So, she opened her home as a boarding house, providing food and lodging to “paying guests.” Ritner and her daughters lived in the largest front bedroom. She was successful enough that she was able to enlarge her house.

After the raid, four of Brown’s followers returned to Ritner’s boarding house, hoping she would take them in. But Ritner wisely turned them away, not wishing to be implicated in a plot to overthrow the U.S. Government.

A Noble But Misguided Quest

On the run for the murders of five pro slavery settlers in Kansas in 1856, Brown rented rooms in Mary Ritner’s boarding house in Chambersburg during the summer and fall of 1859. Here, he and his men planned a raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry VA (now West Virginia). If he succeeded, he and his group would have enough weapons to equip an army of enslaved individuals, whom he would lead in a rebellion.

Brown spent five months planning his raid while he and his men stayed at Mary Ritner’s boarding house. Brown sent the weapons that he had been stockpiling in Chambersburg to the Kennedy farm. Just over the Maryland border, the Kennedy farm was close to Harper’s Ferry. It was the perfect staging point for his raid.

On October 16, 1859, Brown and 21 of his supporters seized the Federal arsenal, killing 7 men and injuring another 12. It didn’t take long for news of the attack to reach the U.S. Army. U.S. Army Colonel Robert E Lee led the effort to re-take the Federal arsenal and capture Brown and his men.

Brown and the few of his men who survived barricaded themselves in a small brick building in Harpers Ferry, refusing to surrender. Finally, Lee’s troops stormed the building and captured Brown and his men.

After Brown’s capture, the U.S. Government executed Brown in Charles Town VA (now WV). Brown’s last words predicted the outbreak of the Civil War.

Know Before You Go

If you want to tour the John Brown House, you should arrange it through the Franklin Historical Society. You would first go to the Old Franklin Jail at 175 E King Street. (There’s also plenty of parking.) Call ahead to ensure there’s a docent available to take you on a tour of the museum: 717-264-1667.

Getting there: 225 E King St, Chambersburg, PA 
Hours: May – October, Tuesday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.; November – April, Thursday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Website: Franklin Historical Society

Read more about the  Old Franklin Jail, just a few houses away from the John Brown House.