Approaching the noose, Edwin Coppoc said, “Be as quick as possible.” He was about to be hanged for treason.
Edwin Coppoc was the son of Samuel and Anne Coppock (Edwin dropped the “k”), born June 30, 1835, in Butler Township, Columbiana County. The town of his birth was home to a congregation of Quakers who practiced pacifism and vehemently opposed slavery.
Samuel Coppock died in 1842, leaving a wife and six children, and in the spring of 1842, Edwin was placed with a farmer named John Butler. Coppoc helped Butler move runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad from one station to another in New Lisbon, New Garden, Hanover (later changed to Hanoverton) and Salem.
At age 15, Edwin joined his mother, who lived with her second husband, a man named Raley, in Springdale, Iowa. John Brown came to town in December 1857 on his way from Kansas to Canada preparatory to the attack on Harpers Ferry, Va., where he planned to capture federal arms stored at Harpers Ferry and inspire slaves to rise against their masters. Brown stayed the winter and was popular with the anti-slavery Quakers in Springdale. He returned in February 1859 with 11 blacks he had freed in Missouri, and before he left, Coppoc and his brother Barclay promised to join the Harpers Ferry raid. Such was the Quakers’ opposition to slavery, they were willing to set aside their pacifism, one of their deepest convictions.
In October 1859 Brown’s men congregated a few miles north of Harpers Ferry on a Maryland farm rented from the heirs of Dr. R.F. Kennedy, just off the road connecting Boonsborough and Sharpsburg, Md. Of 21 men who gathered, 18 went on the raid. Barclay Coppoc was one of three who stayed at the farm.
On the night of Oct. 16, 1859, Brown’s men seized the federal arsenal and armory and barricaded themselves in the fire engine house. Coppoc, a lieutenant, was in charge of the armory. The militia from nearby Charles Town, Va., arrived at 10 a.m., and the Hamtramck Guards and Shepherdstown Troop arrived that afternoon. Coppoc killed Harpers Ferry Mayor Fontaine Beckham, who was walking back and forth at the railroad trestle, trying to see the action.
Around midnight Oct. 17, 90 United States marines under Col. Robert E. Lee arrived. Brown’s men made their last stand in the engine house on Oct. 18, when the marines battered down the oak doors. Ten raiders, six citizens and a marine were killed; five raiders were captured; and the rest, including the three at the Kennedy farm, escaped. Edwin was among those captured and was taken to jail in Charles Town to await trial. He was convicted of treason and hanged on Dec. 16.
His uncle Joshua Coppock took the body home, and a quiet Quaker funeral was planned for Dec. 18 in the Friends burying ground that climbs the hill behind the meeting house, home to many Coppock graves, in the town that was named Winona in 1869. A crowd of about 2,000, however, gathered to mourn the hero. The people of Salem, a center of the abolitionist movement, were irked that this hero was buried in a simple wooden criminal’s coffin from a slave state, so the prominent men of the city had the body exhumed, placed in a metal coffin, and buried on Dec. 30 in Hope Cemetery on North Lincoln Avenue in Salem in a public funeral attended by at least 6,000.
John Brown didn’t free the slaves in 1859, but his hanging made him a martyr and focused northern attention on the slavery issue. Slavery still flourished when Coppoc was hanged, but Coppoc went to the noose believing it was doomed. In a letter to his uncle dated Dec. 13, the young Quaker from the town that nine years later was name Winona described his thoughts on slavery:
“Thank God the principles of the cause in which we were engaged will not die with me and my brave comrades. They will spread wider and wider and gather strength with each hour that passes. The voice of truth will echo through our land, bringing conviction to the erring and adding numbers to that glorious army who will follow its banner. The cause of everlasting truth and justice will go on conquering, until our broad and beautiful land shall rest beneath the banner of freedom.
“I had hoped to see the dawn of that glorious day. I had hoped to live to see the principles of the Declaration of Independence fully realized. I had hoped to see the dark stain of slavery blotted from our land and the libel of our boasted freedom erased, when we can say in truth that our beloved country is the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
The Ohio HIstorical Society has a lock of Edwin Coppoc’s hair on its website at http://ohsweb.ohiohistory.org/ohiopix/Image.cfm?ID=2562.
Information for this article was taken from “Winona Centennial 1869-1969 Looking Back Over the Years” and from Dale Shaffer’s “Salem — A Quaker City History,” published in 2002 by Arcadia Publishing.
The Salem Historical Society offers a driving tour of Underground Railroad Buildings. The buildings are private residences in most cases, but a brochure offers background on them. See www.salemhistoricalsociety.org. The Ohio Underground Railroad Association website is www.ohioundergroundrailroad.org. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center site is http://freedomcenter.org. The Haines House in Alliance, Ohio, served as a station on the Underground Railroad. The site is http://www.haineshouse.org.