CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It wasn't until after the raid on Harpers Ferry that Joseph H. Diss Debar and others realized who the mysterious stranger was in the Clarksburg courtroom just two months before.
In August 1859, a federal court jury was hearing a case involving slaves who had been kidnapped in Virginia and taken to Ohio by way of the underground railroad.
Major James Jackson was fairly certain the stranger was an abolitionist and asked Diss Debar to sketch him. "He tries to look like a rock, but is restless as a squirrel," Jackson observed.
"He was one of those most startling figures, which once seen are never forgotten," Diss Debar wrote about John Brown years later.
The next day, when the jury started its deliberations, Diss Debar rode out to visit his lawyer who lived outside of Clarksburg on the Shinnston Road. About halfway there, Diss Debar accidentally overtook the stranger, and so rode beside him for a while hoping to learn more about him.
The stranger passed himself off as a cattle buyer from the Shenandoah Valley. "He was very interested in the number of people, slaves, cattle, and the state of the roads in sections, particularly the Greater Kanawha Valley."
Ever the promoter of western Virginia, Diss Debar described the virtues of the land.
"The rider signed, 'Yes, indeed, as fine of country as the Lord ever has made but (mouthing in a solemn undertone), black with the curse of human bondage.'"
Diss Debar wrote that he could elicit little more from the stranger on the matter. At the stranger's suggestion, they stopped beneath a tree for a rest. The stranger pulled out a worn map and asked Diss Debar specifics about a route.
Diss Debar recognized the route as the one discussed in the courtroom as that taken on the underground railway.
On Oct. 16, 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. He was captured and quickly convicted of murder and treason and was hanged within a month. At Brown's execution, as a commanding officer, was Maj. Thomas Jackson.
Diss Debar wrote an article, "Two Men: Old John Brown and Stone Jackson of World-wide Fame, Some Interesting Reminiscences by a Man Who Knew Them Both." The article was published in 1874 in the Clarksburg Telegram.