Home Massachusetts The Amazing Escape of Franklin Sanborn in 1860

The Amazing Escape of Franklin Sanborn in 1860


One April evening in 1860. Franklin Sanborn answered a knock on the door of his home in Concord, Mass. Deputy U.S. Marshal Silas Carleton and three men with handcuffs stood on his doorstep.

Franklin Sanborn

Franklin Sanborn

Sanborn, a schoolteacher, knew why they had arrived. His involvement in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry had come to light during Brown’s trial. Sanborn belonged to the Secret Six, a group of abolitionists convinced slavery would not die a peaceful death. They had met with Brown to discuss ways to attack the slave system and supported him financially.

Franklin Sanborn

Franklin Sanborn had been a troublemaker from an early age. He was born in Hampton Falls, N.H., on Dec. 15, 1831. At 9 he decided slavery was wrong and the U.S. Constitution should be revised or revoked. He became a journalist, author and social reformer, a friend of his Concord neighbors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

After the discovery of the Secret Six, Congress ordered Sanborn to Washington to answer questions about Harper’s Ferry. He declined.

And so the marshals appeared at his door. He resisted, knowing his neighbors would help him.

Foiled Arrest

Franklin Sanborn called out to his sister Sarah. She then riled the marshals’ horses and roused the neighbors with her screams. Meanwhile the marshals tried to wrestle Franklin Sanborn into their carriage. He described what happened:

As they approached the door I braced my feet against the posts and delayed them. I did the same at the posts of the veranda, and it was some minues before they got me on the gravel walk at the foot of my stone steps.

When they tried to put him in the carriage, he broke the carriage doors with his feet. Finally, the marshals manacled his feet and tried to shove him in the carriage.

They couldn’t, because a middle-aged neighbor, Anne Whiting, climbed into the carriage and fought them off with a cane. The marshals scratched her and tore her dress, but she fended them off long enough so more neighbors could come to the rescue.

Church bells pealed as more than a hundred townspeople rushed to defend Sanborn. Ralph Waldo Emerson ran out of his house and a neighbor summoned Judge Ebenezer R. Hoar.

The attempted arrest of Franklin Sanborn

The attempted arrest of Franklin Sanborn

Hoar issued a writ of replevin, formally demanding the surrender of the prisoner. The deputies refused to let Sanborn go. The crowd overpowered them and freed Sanborn. The marshals jumped into the carriage as the crowd threw stones at it.

One of Sanborn’s neighbors,  Louisa May Alcott wrote about the event. “Sanborn was nearly kidnapped. Great ferment in town. Annie Whiting immortalized herself by getting into the kidnapper’s carriage so that they could not put the long legged martyr in.”

Louisa May Alcott

Walt Whitman

The next day, Sanborn went to court in Boston to answer the questions about Harper’s Ferry. Looking out over the courtroom he saw Walt Whitman. The poet had come to Boston to supervise the third printing of Leaves of Grass. When he heard about Sanborn, he went to the courthouse to help him escape if necessary. The court did not convict Sanborn.

The two men got to know each other, and Whitman said he considered Franklin Sanborn a true friend. He called him, ‘a fighter, up in arms, a devotee, a revolutionary crusader, hot in the collar, quick on the trigger, noble, optimistic.’

Franklin Sanborn would go on to live a long and productive life. He wrote early biographies of many of the Transcendentalists, including Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father. His biographies, however, have been criticized as unreliable.

He later founded the American Social Science Association, ‘to treat wisely the great social problems of the day.’

Franklin Sanborn died on Feb. 24 1917, after which the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts adopted a bill applauding him for his various life works. There was a special mention of his role as

…confidential adviser to John Brown of Harper’s Ferry, for whose sake he was ostracized, maltreated, and subjected to the indignity of false arrest, having been saved from deportation from Massachusetts only by mob violence.

This story about Franklin Sanborn was updated in 2022.


Molly Landrigan February 25, 2014 - 9:10 am

It’s great to read a story like this. Thank you.

Annie Sullivan Escapes the Poorhouse (But Not Criticism for Being Poor and Irish) - New England Historical Society January 13, 2019 - 9:46 am

[…] protégé, Franklin Sanborn, served as General State Inspector of Charities, and in that capacity he came to visit the […]

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