A Mystery About an Engraving of John Brown

John Brown Woodcut
Engraving of John Brown from The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, May – Oct 1883

A Mystery About This Engraving of John Brown

While organizing my prodigious piles of John Brown related papers, photos, postcards, artwork, letters, notes, and memorabilia, I uncovered an article I purchased on eBay years ago. The seller dissected a copy of The CENTURY Illustrated Monthly Magazine, May 1883 to October 1883, and sold me pages 399 – 416, the front-piece engraving of John Brown, and page 477 with the open letters, originally printed in the July 1883 magazine. Included in these pages are the essays “Reflections of the John Brown Raid” by Alexander R Boteler, and “Comment by a Radical Abolitionist” by F. B. Sanborn. According to the Index of the consolidation of the May to October issues (excerpt shown below), the front-piece portrait is by Seldon J. Woodman.


The CENTURY Magazine
Excerpt from The CENTURY Illustrated Monthly Magazine Index May – Oct 1883


The CENTURY had an interesting way of listing illustrations. They listed all artists, in the order their work appeared in an article, and then the name and other information about the artwork. So above it reads that Selden J Woodman is the artist of the Frontispiece Portrait, but I have found evidence that contradicts that information.

The last paragraph of Sanborn’s essay mentions the engraving, “The generous, immortal traits which these words portray in Brown and bespeak in Emerson, are those which the artist has caught in the remarkable engraving of my old friend in this number of THE CENTURY*.”  a note from the editor follows, “*See “Woodman’s Portrait of John Brown,” in the department of “Open Letters,” in the present number.” (emphasis mine)

Why if he was mentioning the Woodman, wouldn’t he say Woodman? His words imply he did not know who the artist of the engraving was.


Woodman’s Painted Portrait of John Brown

The “Open Letters” section contained letters from Selden J Woodman, artist; Poet and Abolitionist John G. Whittier; and Mary Brown, John Brown’s widow. These letters are all referring to the painted portrait that the engraving in The CENTURY is based on. The West Virginia State Museum, Charleston, West Virginia, houses the painted portrait of John Brown, by Selden J. Woodman.

In his letter, Woodman states his inspiration came from a long neglected, old photograph from the collection of Governor Thayer.

Woodman goes on to say ” Using this as a basis upon which to build, I added to it every essential point of likeness in the others, and produced the portrait…aided by my memory of Brown, with whom I once held a very animated conversation in the hallway…”

John G. Whittier’s letter praises the portrait. “…It is the man – not only the physical man, but his inner self also. It is him at his best and truest.”

Mrs. John Brown’s letter is brief and to the point, “I have seen Mr. Woodman’s portrait of my husband. I think it a very good likeness of him, and the more I see it, the more I like it.”

The Engraving of John Brown in The Century

T. Cole Signature

While reviewing the engraving, I noticed that there was a signature on the bottom right, and that signature does not look like Selden J. Woodman, it looked more like T. C something. Aha, a mystery is afoot. So, I started to do some digging.

Timothy Cole was a prolific engraver employed by The CENTURY for 4 decades. Squinting at the signature with my magnifying glass showed it is T. Cole in the bottom right corner.

I set about researching Timothy Cole, the engraver.

From Timothy Cole’s Wikipedia page

Timothy Cole (1852 – 17 May, 1931) was an American wood engraver.

Born in London, England, his family emigrated to the United States in 1858.

In 1875, he moved to New York City, finding work on the Century (then Scribners) magazine. Cole was associated with the magazine for 40 years as a pioneer craftsman of wood engraving.

He immediately attracted attention by his unusual facility and his sympathetic interpretation of illustrations and pictures, and his publishers sent him abroad in 1883 to engrave a set of blocks after the old masters in the European galleries. These achieved for him a brilliant success. His reproductions of Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Flemish and English pictures were published in book form with appreciative notes by the engraver himself. Old Dutch and Flemish Masters was one of the books that Cole had contributed his wood engravings.

He received a medal of the first class at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, and the only grand prize given for wood engraving at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St Louis, Missouri, in 1904. In 1906 he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate Academician, and became a full Academician in 1908.

So why would an engraving by a well known engraver,  based on a Selden J. Woodman portrait, be tagged as by Woodman.

I had to dig deeper.

I continued searching for reasons how this T. Cole engraving was attributed to the wrong man in the 1883s, and why today it is still attributed to Woodman. I have seen references that  credited Woodman with the engraving, and referenced Mary Brown’s letter praising the Woodman Portrait, as praising this engraving. But her letter was about the painted portrait, not this engraving based on the portrait.

While the engraving is an impressive portrait of my great-great-great-grandfather, there are major differences between the painted portrait and the engraving. In the painting, Brown’s head and body are turned towards the viewer, we see his left ear, and his face is fuller. The collars are different, as are the eyes. While the eyes of the engraving have a wise and caring look, the portrait eyes capture you and hold you tightly, leaving you knowing this is a man of action as well as caring. I can see why Mary was so taken by the Woodman painted portrait of her strong, forceful, and infamous husband.

Could It Be an Editing Error?

Then I had a breakthrough. I found the Index for the original monthly copy of The CENTURY from July 1883.  And look what I found relating to the John Brown Engraving:

Engraving of John Brown
Index for the July 1883 edition of The Century Illustrated Magazine


Portrait of John Brown. Engraved by T. Cole, after the painting by Selden J Woodman, Frontispiece. 

So, in the originally published monthly magazine, T. Cole received credit as the engraver of the John Brown portrait after (based on) the Selden J. Woodman portrait. When the individual monthly magazines were bound into an omnibus that sold at a higher price, was the true artist of the engraving omitted?

Compare the brown colored index (original individual month publication) with the white index (omnibus publication).

Compare of The Century Indexes


Whoever made the changes to the index during the layout for the omnibus incorrectly credited Selden J. Woodman as the artist of the engraving, when it should have been credited to Timothy Cole.

Mystery Solved.

I wonder if The CENTURY printed a retraction some time later, or if this mistake was just ignored?  I would think that T. Cole would be upset that his work was credited to another artist, but maybe he never realized that the error occurred. We may never know.

I encourage you to follow the links above to view the Selden J. Woodman painted portrait. It is truly mesmerizing. I have added it to my list of John Brown “stuff to see” as I travel around the USA.

Hope you enjoyed this mystery. Let me know what you think in the comments below.


5 thoughts on “A Mystery About an Engraving of John Brown

    • amecoy75002@yahoo.com says:

      Thank you. I really enjoyed the chase. Seems there is always another mystery to solve related to John Brown and his descendants.

      • I bet that is true! Ms. Jean Libby has entertained some of my theories about my search for my enslaved ancestors from Washington County, MD. The chase is exhilarating, especially when progress is made. I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a couple of hours in the Kennedy House in April 2017, speaking with Sprigg L. about John Brown. Fascinating! I enjoyed reading about your thought process on figuring out who was the creator of the engraving.

  1. Dear Alice,

    This is great detailed analysis. I agree with Mary Brown that the Woodman painting, which she viewed at her first (and only) visit to Kansas in 1882, is an excellent portrait. The more I see it the more I like it, too.
    How would you like to uncover another layer, the original photograph that the portrait is based on? The closest available version is a tintype by Winnie of Topeka at the Kansas Historical Society. The Secretary of KHS F. G. Adams wrote to the editor of Century Magazine on October 31, 1882 that “the photograph which Mr. Woodman used for his portrait of John Brown was procured by [KHS] with the collection of materials of Kansas History made up by Dr. Thomas Webb, of Boston, Secretary of the Kansas Emigrant Aid Committee….” The Winnie tintype is in life view, indicating that it was probably made from the original daguerreotype, which is in reverse view. Tintypes also make reverse view images, hence the life view.
    Meanwhile, back in Boston in 1857 when the original daguerreotype was one of four made between December 1856 and April 1857, who was the original photographer? This is discussed extensively in the John Brown Photo Chronology published in 2009, pages 38-39. The forensic anthropologist Eileen Barrow of LSU remarked that Brown’s face is still thin, reflecting the period of deprivation that was incurred for most of the year 1856 in Kansas. I stand by my 2009 conclusion that John Adams Whipple is the attributed photographer, buttressed by the patronage of Dr. Thomas Webb of the Boston portraits following the first one sponsored by Amos A. Lawrence in December 1856.
    Please notice that biographer Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. identified the relationship between the Winnie tintype and the Woodman portrait as the one in Century Magazine in 1883 in his book John Brown: the man who lived (2009:38). Your contribution of the engraver identified as Timothy Cole, omitted from the magazine publication is significant. Thank you.

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