Lewis S. Leary

From Ohio History Central

Lewis Sheridan Leary was an African-American man who participated in John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in October 1859.

Leary was born to free parents in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on March 17, 1835. In 1857, he moved to Oberlin, Ohio, hoping to escape the racism of the American South. In Oberlin, Leary worked as a harness maker. He also became actively involved in the abolitionist movement.

In 1858, Leary participated in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case. On September 13, a federal marshal in Oberlin arrested a runaway slave named John Price. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the federal government was required to assist slaveholders in reclaiming their runaway slaves. The marshal knew that many Oberlin residents were committed to abolitionism. To avoid conflict with local people, he took Price to nearby Wellington. As soon as Oberlin residents heard of the marshal's actions, a group of them, including Leary, went to Wellington. There, they joined like-minded residents of the Wellington community and attempted to free Price. The marshal and his deputies took refuge in a local hotel. After peaceful negotiations failed, the mob stormed the hotel and found Price in the attic. The group immediately returned Price to Oberlin, where they hid him in the home of Oberlin College's president. A short time later, they took Price to freedom in Canada.

A federal grand jury indicted thirty-seven of the people, including Leary, who freed Price. Ohio authorities responded by arresting the federal marshal, his deputies, and other men involved in John Price's detention. Following negotiations between state and federal officials, the arresting officers were set free, as were thirty-five of those arrested under the federal charges. Only two of those indicted went to trial. Simeon Bushnell and Charles Langston were found guilty in federal court in April 1859. Bushnell received a sentence of sixty days in jail, while Langston's punishment was set at twenty days.

Following the dropping of charges, Leary became involved with John Brown, a famous abolitionist and resident of Ohio. Leary recruited his nephew, John Anthony Copeland, Jr., to join Brown. In 1859, Brown was responsible for one of the most important events that led to the American Civil War. On October 16, Brown led a group of twenty-one men, including Copeland and Leary, on a raid of Harper's Ferry, Virginia (modern-day West Virginia). A federal arsenal was in the town, and Brown hoped to capture the buildings and the weapons stored inside of them. He then intended to distribute the guns and ammunition to slaves in the region, creating an army of African Americans that would march through the South and force slaveholders to release their slaves. Brown and his men succeeded in capturing the arsenal, but local residents surrounded the buildings, trapping the abolitionists inside. A detachment of United States Marines arrived and stormed the arsenal on October 18, capturing seven men, including Brown. Leary was shot during the storming of the arsenal by the Marines. He died on October 18 (sometimes reported as October 20), several hours after the assault.

Leary's family never recovered their loved one's remains. In December 1859, Oberlin residents held a memorial service for Leary and two other residents who gave their lives in Brown's raid. They also erected a monument in honor of these men.

See Also


  1.  Nudelman, Franny. John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, & the Culture of War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  2. Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism. "Ohio's Underground Railroad Freedom Stations: Traveling the State's Underground Railroad." N.p.: n.p., n.d.