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Secret Six Tavern

Time Capsule-Historic Images and Recollections ()


At this tavern, supporters of John Brown helped plan his raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. Brown hoped to capture weapons and escape to the hills of western Virginia where he could rally slaves, free African Americans, and others who might oppose slavery. With small arms from Harper's Ferry, Brown and his supporters hoped to create a place in the hills where slaves might escape and join his rebel army of liberators and radicals. The Marines arrived quickly and crushed Brown's rebellion, but the aftermath of the raid accelerated sectional tensions that led to the Civil War. At the time of the raid, the U.S. military contingent was led by Robert Edward Lee. While the future rebel leader was defending the United States and its institution of slavery, Brown and his rebels were fighting for the abolition of slavery. The business of Secret Six Tavern no longer exists, but the structure still remains, as well as remnants of the history that the tavern provided.

The Secret Six Tavern
Perspective of Secret Six Tavern's location in Harpers Ferry


Before the raid, Brown assembled a collection of Northern merchants and financiers to supply him with the combat equipment necessary to initiate the raid. At this tavern, he and his supporters held meetings where they formulated plans for the upcoming raid. The location that Brown and his co-conspirators selected was a tavern in Harpers Ferry, a small town at the very tip of West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet (part of Virginia at the time.)  The tavern, in a way, symbolized that institution which Brown's rebellion was fighting against.  The former tavern remains a sturdy structure of brick and stone with its original rafter beams which were cut by slaves.  The customers included Brown himself, as well as the six men who would provide financial and material assistance.  These men were Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George Luther Stearns.  They would come to be known as the Secret Six.

Tactically, the raid was a disastrous failure which led to the death or capture of all involved except five who escaped.  Brown himself was captured, tried, and executed by hanging.  But the raid set a precedent for events as they would unfold in the years to come, and the Secret Six would go on to have their individual careers.  Higginson served in the Civil War as the commanding officer of the first black regiment authorized on a federal level, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, and spent the rest of his life as an activist for disenfranchised groups such as women and freed slaves.  Howe was appointed to the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission by the Secretary of War to investigate conditions slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation were living in and report on how they could be assisted.  Parker retired, traveled to Florence, Italy, and died less than a year before the Civil War began.  Sanborn was rescued by the people of Concord, Massachusetts from an arrest attempt made by five federal marshalls investigating him for his involvement with John Brown, and would go on to be an editor, philanthropist, and guest lecturer involved in numerous charitable organizations.  Smith, shaken by the results of John Brown's Raid, spent time in an asylum in Utica following a feud with the staff of the Chicago Tribune over his involvement, and, despite his support of the Northern cause in the Civil War, went on to underwrite the $100,000 bond for Jefferson Davis, who had been imprisoned for nearly two years without having been charged despite Davis' earlier attempt to have Smith hanged alongside Brown.  Smith became a major in the Union Army tasked with recruiting black soldiers for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments and the 5th cavalry, worked as a civil rights activist after the Emancipation Proclamation, established the Freedmen's Bureau, and died of pneumonia in New York City in 1867.

The tavern itself would survive the Battle of Harper's Ferry and was named after this cabal.  For a number of years in the 21st century, the building was home to a modern business named the Secret Six Tavern in homage to the building's historic roots. The walls of the tavern were decorated with portraits of John Brown and the Secret Six as well as scenes of Civil War battles. The menu provided a brief history of the building as well. The restaurant closed in 2015, but the building remains. At the staircase one can still find a few signs about the historic tavern as well as a small marker that tells the story of Private Quinn, the Marine who was killed during the raid.


Siburg, Mark. Secret Six Tavern. Maryland Historic District. February 13, 2014. Accessed April 23, 2016.  

186 High Street
Harpers Ferry, WV 25425
Phone Number
(304) 535-3044
  • African American History
  • Architecture and Historical Buildings
  • Cultural History
  • Food History
  • Military History
  • Political and Diplomatic History
This location was created on 2015-06-02 by William Mathers .   It was last updated on 2017-09-18 by Pamela Curtin .

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