The spears that John Brown ordered for his abolitionist army were fearsome, primitive things. Nearly seven feet long, the pikes had 10-inch steel blades made for slashing and impaling those who resisted the slave rebellion Brown envisioned.
But the uprising didn't come, and the nearly 1,000 pikes Brown purchased from a Connecticut blacksmith and stockpiled at a Maryland farm a few miles from the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., were never used for their intended purpose.
Instead, after Brown's ill-fated raid on the arsenal on Oct. 16, 1859, many pikes were seized as souvenirs and today command high prices. One bearing the serial number 846 was sold through Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries in 2007 for $13,000.
Brown's capture and execution for treason foiled his plan to hand out pikes to freed slaves and ignited passions on both sides of the slavery divide. Northern abolitionists considered him a martyr; secessionist fire-eaters in the South raised the John Brown pikes as symbols of Northern aggression in the run-up to the Civil War.
"There wasn't anything you could put in front of Southern aristocracy that was more frightening than a slave revolt. They feared that more than anything," said Dennis Lowe, who oversees Civil War material at Heritage Auction Galleries.
Putting pikes on display
Virginian Edmund Ruffin, a pro-slavery extremist, acquired a number of pikes from Col. Alfred W, Barbour, superintendent of the federal arsenal, and arranged with Alabama Sen. Clement C. Clay to have them sent to the governors of the slave-holding states.
To the handle of each pike, Ruffin pasted a label: "Sample of the favors designed for us by our Northern Brethren." He asked that the weapons be conspicuously displayed, preferably at the statehouse.
The historical record is hazy on whether any pikes were showcased. But Ruffin caused a stir by writing an editorial promoting his idea for the Examiner newspaper in Richmond, Va., said Eric H. Walther, a University of Houston historian and author of "The Fire-Eaters."
Ruffin also carried a pike with him to Washington to garner support for the gimmick, historians said.
"It became a huge media event: 'Come see the John Brown pike,'" said Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. "His wish was to create fear and terror of slave insurrection."
Frye said the anxiety whipped up by secessionists like Ruffin accelerated the formation of Southern militias and helped the Confederacy grow strong enough to defeat Union forces in the war's first battle at Fort Sumter, S.C., on April 12, 1861. Ruffin was there.
'Surviving pikes are rarities'
Surviving pikes are rarities, Lowe said. He said some were deliberately broken and used as knives and many others simply disappeared.
"If you see one of these every three or four years, it's unusual. That tells me a bunch of them were burned or destroyed. Otherwise, you'd see more of them," Lowe said.
Institutions with at least one intact pike — two is a lot — include Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., and the Kansas Museum of History. Brown led armed attacks against pro-slavery groups in Kansas before moving east.
Donald R. Tharpe, a private collector in Warrenton, Va., who owned the pike auctioned in 2007, said holding such relics brings history alive.
"It's a thrill because this is firsthand evidence of the scene at the time," Tharpe said. "I can just in my mind's eye visualize the whole incident."