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02.06.02 Scott, Otto, The Secret Six, John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement, published in 1979.

Notes Concerning the Author:

Otto Scott (1918-2006) was a journalist and author of several corporate histories who also wrote biographies on notable figures such as . . . John Brown, James I of England and Robespierre.  Born in New York City, the son of a broker, and “unable to complete high school,” Scott entered into the newspaper business as a reporter, starting in Virginia.  After moving to other papers, he joined the U. S. Merchant Marine at the outbreak of World War II.  Following the war he worked in advertising (Rubber World most notably) and gravitated toward writing several important corporate histories (Ashland Oil, Raytheon, Black & Decker, etc). 

Success in writing corporate histories and a personal interest in the saga of John Brown and his “Secret Six” supporters from New York and Massachusetts, led Scott to engage in research that led to his writing “The Secret Six, John Brown and the Abolition Movement.”  Scott researched hundreds of published works, endeavoring to “connect the dots” that showed how Brown had been empowered in his terrorism crusade (in Kansas Territory and at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia) by the support of six wealthy political activists from the northeastern States (Theodore Parker, Samuel Howe, George Stearns, Franklin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith and Thomas Higginson).  The bibliography at the end of the book lists 128 reference works, which seems to have been sufficient (an exhausting search for original records was not needed).  What was needed was common sense connections between the references, transcribed into a meaningful and complete narrative story of Brown, his ideology, his family, his terrorism in Kansas Territory, his scheme to create an incident at Harper’s Ferry, his manipulation of his gang members and his “Secret Six” supporters, his disregard for his sons and their lives and, eventually, his overpowering passion, bordering on insanity, to martyr himself at the hands of a Virginia executioner, a reenactment of Jesus nailed to the tree, so it would seem.  Today Americans often hear of fanatic Islamic Jihadists, terrorists who blow themselves up within a crowd of innocents for reasons that are hard to fathom.  In 1859 Americans learned of a similar fanatic passion driving a man named John Brown.  Otto Scott did a masterful job of connecting the dots and letting us live the life of John Brown and his “Secret Six” supporters.


A book of 375 pages, “The Secret Six . . .” is a readable narrative of the life of John Brown, showing enough of the early years to give an understanding of the man prior to the passions that surfaced in response to the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act.  From that date on, we travel with Brown through the saga of his terrorist activities (more accurately, his gang’s terrorist activities) in Bleeding Kansas Territory and on to his martyrdom at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.  We get to know the Secret Six supporters and how they were enticed into supporting this rather unimportant man from Ohio, who displayed such a wild and passionate hatred of African American bonding, of which he really knew very little.

This reviewed rather prefers not to summarize Otto’s book in a blow by blow way.  You are just encouraged to discover the story yourself. 

What made John Brown an important player in the sectional politics within the northern States, which gave rise to secession in the southern States, was not the terrorism of the man and his gang, but the wild, passionate and un-reasoning support he received from a huge number of northern States people.  It was their praise of the man that contributed to the decision, from South Carolina to Texas,  to peacefully and legally secede.

There are three books that represent a closely related set and all three ought to be read as a directed study.  Alice Nichols “Bleeding Kansas”, William E. Gienapp’s “The Origins of the Republican Party . . .” and Otto Scott’s “The Secret Six . . .” together tell the story.  Perhaps add Robert W. Johannsen’s “Stephen A. Douglas” to the list.  All are among the Society’s Recommended Reading List.

Availability of this Book

You can probably get a used copy of Otto Scott’s book on   There is no Kindle e-book, but a Google digital book is available.  One would hope for a new paperback reprint.  Do not be tempted to purchase a more recent book about John Brown by a different author.  Do not settle for less than the 1979 book by Otto Scott. 

Do not bother with the John Brown biography by Oswald Garrison Villard.  His grandfather was William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher most noted for dispensing misleading Bleeding Kansas propaganda.

Edward J Renehan, Jr. studied John Brown’s “Secret Six” in detail and published a book in 1997, which is worthy of consideration.  If one is seeking a supplement to Otto Scott’s work, consider Renehan’s, published by the University of South Carolina in 1997.  308 pages.  Get at as a used book.