One hundred and fifty-five years ago today, Southern abolitionist John Brown stormed a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to obtain weapons for a slave uprising. He joins a cadre of other hell raisers in American history.
Think you know how to go to extremes for a worthwhile cause? You don’t have anything on these historical hell raisers. These figures faced multiple arrests, stared down death threats, and even took the law into their own hands.
While these brave men and women went to the edge—and some may have crossed over the line—their dedication helped sway supporters and bring about change. Read on to find out what it took to be a true hell raiser in American history.
John Brown: The Anti-Slavery Crusader
In mid-19th century America, most abolitionists were willing to move slowly toward their goal of ending slavery. John Brown saw the cause in a different light. He thought that “slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is none other than the most barbarous, unprovoked and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens against another portion,” and he was willing to pursue just about any means at his disposal to stop the practice.
On October 16, 1859, Brown, hoping to obtain weapons for a slave uprising, led a raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). But Brown and his men were surrounded before they could escape. After U.S. Marines (commanded by Robert E. Lee) stormed the armory, a wounded Brown was captured. Brown was unrepentant at trial, stating: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done.”
Found guilty of conspiracy and treason, Brown was hanged on December 2nd. Though his dreams of starting a slave revolt didn’t come true, his actions had long-lasting repercussions, as more Southerners began to believe that there could be no agreement with the North when it came to slavery. With support for secession growing, the Civil War soon followed.
Alice Paul: Fighting for Women’s Suffrage
The struggle for women to receive the right to vote had been going on since the 19th century, with supporters such as Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But by the early 20th century the movement seemed to have stalled, until Alice Paul gave it a kick in the pants.
Paul started out as a member of the existing National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), but she grew tired of the group’s conservative methods. With others, Paul split away from NAWSA in 1914 and went on to form the National Woman’s Party. Paul was determined to focus the public’s attention on women’s suffrage, and decided that confronting the leader of the free world would help. In January 1917, the NWP began picketing the White House. As the year progressed, President Woodrow Wilson grew frustrated by these “Silent Sentinels”—he thought they were “unladylike” and preferred focusing on the United States’ entry into World War I. In June, the female protesters began to be arrested. However, Paul didn’t back down, even when she was arrested herself in October and given a seven-month sentence.
While in jail, Paul was force fed when she went on a hunger strike, isolated in the prison’s mental ward and threatened with being committed as a psychiatric patient. However, as news of her treatment—and the harsh treatment of the other suffragettes—spread, public opinion shifted in their favor. The prisoners, including Paul, were released at the end of November. Wilson declared his support for the women’s suffrage amendment in January 1918, and women officially gained the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Ida B. Wells: Leading the Campaign Against Lynching
What would you do if you were an African-American woman living in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1892, when three men, one of whom was a friend, were lynched? For Ida B. Wells, the answer was clear: no matter the risks, it was time to speak out. (Wells definitely wasn’t a woman who backed down from a fight—in 1884, she bit the hand of a conductor when he tried to move her from a first class railcar into a segregated one.)
Writing in the Memphis Free Speech (a paper she also co-owned), Wells denounced lynching and called on black residents of Memphis to abandon a city where they weren’t protected. Wells left Tennessee herself after receiving death threats (and after the Free Speech’s offices had been destroyed), but continued her campaign against lynching as a writer and speaker. Her output included the pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) and A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894 (1895).
Though Wells wasn’t successful in getting an anti-lynching bill passed, her work demonstrated that the idea of lynchings as being mob reactions to sexual assaults was a myth—in fact, they were organized attacks used to crack down on African Americans “who were acquiring wealth and property” or trying to exercise their political rights.
Sitting Bull: Inspirational Leader
When Sitting Bull became a leader of the Lakota nation, Native Americans were being sent to live on reservations, where they were expected to be farmers instead of traditional hunters. But Sitting Bull resisted the U.S. government at every step, becoming an inspirational figure and internationally known leader.
In 1868, the Lakota agreed to move to a reservation in what is now South Dakota. However, Sitting Bull—who had not accepted this treaty—refused to settle on the reservation. When the federal government demanded that all Lakota relocate to reservations by January 31, 1876, Sitting Bull and his followers ignored the order. More followers arrived when Sitting Bull had a vision of government troops being defeated—a prediction that came true when General George Custer’s forces were routed at 1876’s Battle at Little Bighorn.
After escaping to Canada for four years, starvation forced Sitting Bull to return and finally move to a reservation. Even then, he refused to farm as directed (instead he made money by joining Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and charging people to take his picture). Sitting Bull also retained respected status among his people, which contributed to his death. In 1890, the federal government was concerned about the growing “Ghost Dance” movement. Sitting Bull was shot by a Lakota policeman during the commotion that arose as he was being taken in for questioning about the movement.
Margaret Sanger: Birth Control Advocate
Margaret Sanger saw her mother weakened by 18 pregnancies, then grew up to nurse poor patients on the Lower East Side of New York City, where women had little recourse but illegal abortions for unwanted pregnancies. Sanger was determined to offer women more options, believing that: “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”
In Sanger’s day, it was illegal to either talk about or distribute contraceptives. Indicted in 1914 for writing about birth control (a term she devised herself), Sanger quickly fled the country. The next year she decided to return and embrace the publicity that a trial would bring, only to have her plans thwarted when the government dismissed the charges against her. Undaunted, in 1916 Sanger proceeded to open America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. She was arrested a few days later, and sentenced to 30 days in prison. As Sanger noted, “I knew I had violated the letter of the law. I was fighting that law.”
Over the years, Sanger’s fight gave Americans access to contraceptives, and she didn’t stop with promoting existing methods of birth control. In the 1950s, Sanger helped arrange for the financing that led to production of the first birth control pill, which would revolutionize women’s lives in America and around the world.
William “Big Bill” Haywood: Labor Organizer
At the beginning of the 20th century, most laborers—such as miners and factory workers—had few protections if they were injured on the job, and the concept of a living wage was practically unknown. That began to change as William “Big Bill” Haywood fought to improve working conditions.
Haywood lost his livelihood—but received no compensation—after his hand was crushed in a 1896 mining accident. He soon joined the Western Federation of Miners, then became a co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905. Haywood, who was no stranger to violent union tactics, was arrested in 1906 for the murder of a former governor of Idaho but was acquitted at trial. Still reviled by business leaders and government officials, Haywood went on to oversee many strikes for the IWW. In 1912, he told workers, “Single-handed you are helpless but united you can win everything.”
Along with other union leaders, Haywood was arrested for supporting strikes during World War I. Convicted and facing 20 years behind bars, he fled to Russia in 1921, where he died in 1928. Though his life ended in exile, Haywood deserves credit for helping set the United States on a path to more protective labor laws.