Last updated: November 15, 2022
Boston lawyer and reformer John White Browne participated in the abolition movement as well as the Underground Railroad as a member of two Boston Vigilance Committees.
Born and raised in Salem, Massachusetts and a direct descendent of the first generation of Massachusetts Puritans, John White Browne attended both Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He worked as a "counsellor," or lawyer, in Boston with an office at 19 Court Street. In 1842, he married Martha Ann Gibbs, and with her, had their daughter, Laura. The family resided at 120 Harrison Avenue in the city.1
While attending Harvard, he met and befriended Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner, two prominent abolitionists whom Browne would share common cause with for the remainder of his life. An early supporter of William Lloyd Garrison, he became an active participant in Boston's abolition movement as an organizer, writer, and speech giver.2 For example, he wrote and gave speeches promoting his belief in the "Higher Law" rather than supporting the current laws of the nation protecting slavery, in particular the hated law Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. He said:
What madness is theirs, who affirm that kidnapping committed by a private citizen is punishable crime, but that kidnapping committed by a great nation is venerable law!3
Browne also had strong connections to Boston’s Underground Railroad network. In 1846, he joined and became the "General Agent" of the second Boston Vigilance Committee, a short-lived organization dedicated to fugitive assistance. As general agent, Browne helped freedom seekers find employment and shelter. He kept detailed narratives of the nineteen freedom seekers assisted by the organization between November 1846 and April 1847, before Joshua B. Smith took over as the lead agent for the group.4
In 1850, Browne joined the third and final iteration of the Boston Vigilance Committee, established in response to the new Fugitive Slave Law. This organization committed itself to protecting and assisting those coming to and through Boston on the Underground Railroad. In July 1853, he helped rescue a freedom seeker, Sandy Swain, held on a brig in the harbor.5 According to Austin Bearse, a fellow committee member and captain of the Moby Dick:
Some colored men on Long Wharf got the story somehow, and with all speed, William I. Bowditch, Henry Kemp, John W. Browne, and four or five colored men, started with me on the "Moby Dick" down the harbor to look for the brig.
Bearse demanded and secured the release of Swain and took him to shore where Bowditch and Browne "drove him out to Brookline, and hid him there that night." Swain, Bearse said, soon made his way "to Framingham, and then to Worchester, and so on by the underground railway, to Canada."6
Browne also lent his legal skills to the work of the Vigilance Committee following the aftermath of the arrest of freedom seeker Anthony Burns. Abolitionists attempted to rescue Burns from the courthouse where authorities held him. In the melee that ensued, James Batchelder, recently deputized as a federal marshal to guard Burns, fell dead, likely from a gunshot wound. Browne and other lawyers in the Vigilance Committee "appeared as counsel for the prisoners, charged with the murder of James Batchelder."7
In addition to his work as an abolitionist and in the Underground Railroad network, Browne also advocated for other social reforms. He worked for criminal reform and served as a leader of the Boston Society for Aiding Discharged Convicts.8 He also supported equal rights for women and signed an 1853 petition urging an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution "striking out the word 'MALE' wherever it occurs in that instrument."9
In 1860, Browne died following a fall from a moving train. Though some newspapers immediately reported his death as a suicide, most soon rescinded that claim and reported his death as accidental.10 According to one friend, Browne "was returning by rail, from attempted professional duty, when feeling faint he sought relief in the open air. He reached the platform of the car, and fell beneath it."11
At the New England Anti-Slavery Convention, held soon after Browne's death, attendees honored his legacy with a formal resolution, stating:
the anti-slavery cause has lost a most uncompromising and devoted friend...in him, the cause of woman, of the poor, the intemperate, the imprisoned, and of the slave, lost a ripe intellect, a brave, loving and religious spirit, a vigilant and untiring friend...12
- Irving H. Bartlett, "Abolitionists, Fugitives, and Imposters in Boston, 1846-1847," The New England Quarterly 55, No. 1 (March, 1982), 97, footnote 1; Boston City Directory, 1850-1851, 365, 102; Boston Semi-Weekly Advertiser, July 18, 1860, 4. NPS maps place John W. Browne at the approximate site of his home at 120 Harrison Ave.
- Bartlett, 97, footnote 1.
- The Liberator, January 10, 1851, 2.
- Bartlett, 108.
- William Siebert, "The Underground Railroad in Massachusetts," American Antiquarian Society, April, 1935, 80.
- Austin Bearse, Reminiscences of Fugitive Slave Law Days in Boston, (Boston: Warren Richardson, 1880), 34-35, Internet Archive.
- "Examination of the Rioters," The Daily Atlas, June 3, 1854, 2.
- Boston City Directory, 1850-1851, 36.
- William Cooper Nell, "Equal Political Rights in Massachusetts," William Cooper Nell: Selected Writings, 1832-1874, edited by Dorothy Porter Wesley and Constance Porter Uzelac (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2002), 332.
- "Fatal Accident," New England Farmer, May 5, 1860, 2; "Suicide of a Boston Lawyer," Boston Courier, May 3, 1860.
- "John White Browne," Boston Semi-Weekly Advertiser, May 9, 1860, 3.
- "New England Anti-Slavery Convention," The Liberator, June 8, 1860, 2.