We often say the Civil War transformed the lives of its participants. If so, we must certainly say this of Hector Tyndale, the man who recovered John Brown’s body. In his case, a simple act of kindness altered his reputation forever. It began on December 1, 1859, just twenty-four hours before John Brown met his maker on the Charles Town gallows. Mary Ann Brown, wife of the condemned abolitionist, entered the city of Philadelphia, stricken with anguish, finding a particularly unhelpful city. Many Philadelphians called Brown a fanatic, declaring that he had brought the nation to the brink of disunion. Distraught and fearful for her life, she found comfort with two friends, James Miller McKim and his wife, Sarah Allibone McKim. The McKims expressed their concern, worrying that if Mary Brown went alone to Virginia to collect her husband’s remains, she might meet foul play. Miller McKim wanted a brawny man to accompany her. Sarah McKim suggested the husband of one of her friends, Hector Tyndale. It was an odd choice. Although he hated slavery, Tyndale was not—and had never been—a true abolitionist. Yet, Tyndale’s wife, Julia Nowlen Tyndale, counseled him to go. It did not matter what Brown had done, Julia Tyndale explained, no widow should have to face the hatred of her husband’s killers without adequate protection. With that logic, Tyndale made haste to Virginia. His mission: retrieve the body of John Brown.
Hector Tyndale, the man who retrieved John Brown's body, shown here as bvt. major general. John McLaughlin, A Memoir of Hector Tyndale (1882)
Tyndale’s abolitionist entourage arrived at Harpers Ferry that evening, and there, the four northerners patiently awaited the return of the remains. Tyndale paced all morning, and at one point, he heard the crack of a gunshot and the zip of a bullet. Spinning around, he saw no one, but knew he had barely escaped assassination. At 9:00 P.M., Sheriff James Campbell arrived with a crude coffin, and Tyndale insisted that it be opened so that Mrs. Brown could identify the remains. The sheriff unleashed an oath of imprecations, wrathfully complaining that Tyndale dared to suggest that he or anyone associated with the hanging had removed or defaced the body. Tyndale remained resolute. Campbell opened the casket. Mrs. Brown identified the corpse as that of her husband, and with that morbid task accomplished, the funeral cortege sealed the coffin a second time, setting off the next morning, December 3.
The train bearing Tyndale and Brown’s body rumbled into Philadelphia at 12:45 P.M. When Tyndale looked outside, he saw Mayor Alexander Henry and a squad of police there to meet him. Mayor Henry explained that a large crowd had assembled outside the depot, apparently eager to see the corpse, for good or ill. An ugly scene occurred. Henry demanded that the body leave Philadelphia immediately, but Tyndale argued that it would be indecent to issue such an order. Pushing Mayor Henry aside, Tyndale invited Mary Brown to lean on his arm, and with her face covered in a plaid blanket shawl, they exited the train, followed by the McKims. Tyndale and Brown passed through the crowd unnoticed, entered Washington Avenue, walking as far as Eleventh Street, where they caught a railway car that took them to the residence of Edward Hopper, an abolitionist who lived on Arch Street.
This left Mayor Henry with the grim task of dealing with the unruly crowd, some of whom wanted to vandalize the body. Henry expected the passage of John Brown’s remains through Philadelphia would “lead to a scene of indignity and indecency, extremely discreditable to our citizens, and painful to the friends of the deceased.” He executed a curious plan, one that had been devised by Tyndale, apparently. Henry instructed his officers to requisition a wagon from the rail yard. The policemen put a tool box into the flat-bed and covered it with a horse blanket, such that it now bore the appearance of a sealed coffin. The officers took position on the wagon and drove it down Broad Street. A reporter explained, “The scene was one of ludicrous description. It seemed as if all the boys and negroes in town were in full speed. A number of women were in the crowd and joined in the hue and cry.” The crowd pursued the wagon as it wended its way to the Delaware River. It came to rest at Walnut Street Wharf, where those who persisted in following it discovered the mayor had hoodwinked them.
Mayor Alexander Henry, the politician who resisted the arrival of John Brown's body into Philadelphia. Frank H. Taylor, Philadelphia in the Civil War (1913)
Meanwhile, Mayor Henry accompanied the real coffin to Camden Depot, where Tyndale, Mary Brown, and a committee of five abolitionists joined him. One member of the committee, Reverend William H. Furness, insisted that Brown’s body spend the night in the hands of an undertaker, but Mayor Henry repeated his plea that it leave immediately. Tyndale tried to resist the mayor a second time, but now he relented. He and Miller McKim agreed to accompany Mrs. Brown and the remains to its ultimate destination, a farm house in North Elba, New York. With that, they boarded a new train and sped off. When Tyndale returned later that month, he faced public ostracism. Although he had never known John Brown personally, and although he had never voiced approval of the raid on Harpers Ferry, Tyndale became a pariah. Some friends—people who had known Tyndale for years—utterly refused to speak to him. He had never been an abolitionist, but by 1860, he was now a de facto member of John Brown’s army. In July, he left for Europe, and stayed there for a year, returning in May 1861—at some pecuniary loss—to join the war effort. Perhaps Tyndale then realized the mere act of consoling a grieving widow had altered his life forever.