John Brown Today

Catch Him if You Can: The True Story of Alexander Ross, John Brown’s Fraudulent “Friend”

January 10, 2021 Louis DeCaro Jr. Season 1 Episode 10
John Brown Today
Catch Him if You Can: The True Story of Alexander Ross, John Brown’s Fraudulent “Friend”
Show Notes

One of the most incredible stories related to John Brown that really is not about him is the story of Alexander Milton Ross, a Canadian public figure of the nineteenth century. Ross was most widely known and celebrated in the later nineteenth century because of his antislavery activities and his reputation as a leading abolitionist figure prior to and during the Civil War. However, Ross was a fraud--at least as far as his claims to have been a close associate of John Brown, and probably as one familiar with Abraham Lincoln, a claim he also made.  Ross not only made an extended, false claim of having been a colleague of Brown, but wrote an autobiographical profile, Recollections and Experiences of An Abolitionist  (here is a link to the very successful second edition, widely celebrated)  in which he invented letters from Brown. To reinforce his deception, Ross went on to initiate a long and successful correspondence with some of Brown's adult children that cemented his reputation.  Ross was never exposed as a fraud until the mid-twentieth century by Boyd B. Stutler, the "godfather" of John Brown scholars.  Stutler sniffed out Ross as a fraud and laid the groundwork in his correspondence, but never published anything beyond what he had written in correspondence with scholars. In this episode, Lou builds on Stutler's findings, adding insight from Ross's correspondence with the Browns, documents not available to Stutler when he was active in the twentieth century.  Ross was one of Brown's most enthusiastic defenders and was widely accepted by Brown's admirers. But his story was that of an amazing fraud--one that slipped away from this life without being caught.

*This episode is based on a longer chapter that Lou did some years back for a little self-published collection, John Brown: The Man Who Lived (2008) which is no longer in print.   A transcript of this version is available on the John Brown Today blog using this link.