Walt Whitman Standing in Solidarity with the Secret Six

Walt Whitman was in Boston overseeing the publication of his third edition of Leaves of Grass when he attended the trial of a man who was friendly with the Thoreaus, the Emersons, and John Brown, among others. 

The man, Franklin B. Sanborn, was the youngest member of the “Secret Six,” a group of men who aided John Brown in the 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. Fleeing to Canada twice after Brown’s capture and execution, he ignored a summons to testify before the Senate regarding his relationship to Brown. Federal officials eventually caught up with Sanborn, arrest warrant in tow, at his home in Concord, Massachusetts on the eve of April 3, 1860. A most unwieldy debacle ensued.

Struggling and stubborn, Sanborn was carried from him home by officials to the carriage (chariot) that awaited them. Family members screamed “murder, fire,” which caught the attention of nearby Concord neighbors who responded by ringing church bells, and a protective crowd gathered as townspeople did their best to rile the carriage horses. Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, recalled the night in a letter to her sister Edith (to whom Mr. Sanborn once proposed), describing a neighbor: “Anne Whiting got into the carriage and held the door and put herself in the way … fought with a cane, and so prevented them from getting Mr. Sanborn in, [giving] the people time to collect…”

The federal officials had ignored a prepared writ of habeas corpus. With aid from livid locals, the deputy sheriff was able to rescue Franklin Sanborn by force from the federal officials. The next day in Boston court, the townspeople, plus Walt Whitman, flooded the courtroom in solidarity.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Author’s Edition signed and inscribed, Camden, 1882.  Estimate $5,000 to $7,500. At auction June 17, 2015.

Whitman reportedly said that if Franklin Sanborn were convicted, he would help free him, and described the man as “a fighter, up in arms, a devotee, a revolutionary crusader, hot in the collar, quick on the trigger, noble, optimistic.”  

Sanborn was not convicted, in the end. So while a dramatic save by Whitman never followed the trial, Swann Galleries’ selection of 19th & 20th Century Literature includes an 1882 copy of Whitman’s magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, inscribed to Franklin B. Sanborn. 

This copy is a special Author’s Edition. It appeared after a later Boston edition, which had been marked as obscene by authorities, effectively suppressing its circulation, and before the next edition was published in Philadelphia. It was most likely issued personally by Whitman for friends while waiting for the first Philadelphia edition.

The inscription reads in full: “To / FB Sanborn / from the author / with thanks and love / June 11 1882.”