Finding John Brown

Solving the mystery of a lost masterpiece in the Tufts art collection

One day a few years ago, Laura McDonald had an idea. McDonald, who is the art collection registrar at Tufts, was conducting her annual inventory at Fine Arts Enterprises, the South Boston storage facility where the university used to keep 300 of its artworks before moving them to a new space in 2011.

Since joining Tufts in 2007, McDonald had become familiar with two mystery busts that for decades had been strapped to a pallet, wrapped in plastic and tucked away out of sight. The busts, made of marble and weighing a couple hundred pounds each, were identified in school records as simply 1998.50 and 1998.51. There was no information about who they depicted, who had made them, or how they had come to be in the university’s possession.

So in the middle of the inventory, McDonald got her idea. Why not take a moment and get a closer look? McDonald pulled back a bit of the plastic and peeked inside. The busts were in rough shape—scraped, scribbled with ballpoint pen, and streaked with what appeared to be rust stains.

Even in that condition, though, one of the sculptures, 1998.51, commanded her attention. Its face was marked by a thick beard, an intense expression that bordered on the fierce, and a nose that had broken off and gone missing. “The piece had clearly been through some difficult times,” McDonald recalled, “but you could see that it had been quite spectacular.”

McDonald returned the plastic to its original position over the statues and got back to her inventory. She wouldn’t think again of the bust with the broken nose until years later, when a graduate student presented her with a letter, written more than half a century earlier, that would set her off on what would become the most important project of her career, and that would return a lost masterpiece to its rightful prominence at Tufts.

Meeting of the Abolitionists

There’s a plaque on College Avenue in front of Cousens Gym that you’ve probably walked by a thousand times without stopping. Next time, pause and read. It marks the area where a man named George Luther Stearns lived, in a brick mansion on a 26-acre spread known as “The Evergreens.”

Stearns, who was born in Medford in 1809, was a merchant and industrialist, a shy man who built a mill near the Mystic River and eventually branched out into other businesses, selling lead pipes and ship supplies. One morning in April 1852, Stearns stumbled upon a stowaway slave in a boat near his office. Stearns helped the slave catch a train to the safety of Canada, and from there on out, the Evergreens would be a stop on the loose network known as the Underground Railroad.

The Evergreens, the Stearns 26-acre estate, with Tufts just barely visible atop the hill in the distance. Painting: Tufts Permanent CollectionThe Evergreens, the Stearns 26-acre estate, with Tufts just barely visible atop the hill in the distance. Painting: Tufts Permanent Collection

As the country’s divide over slavery widened, Stearns became close with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lived in nearby Concord, and began to meet with opponents of slavery, including Frederick Douglass. In time, Stearns became a central figure in the movement to free slaves. Which is how, in early 1857, he came to meet the famed abolitionist John Brown, who had come north in search of financial support for his work.

Brown met with both Stearns and his wife on a number of occasions over the next couple of years. Brown was as fiery as Stearns was reserved, and the relationship between the two men could fairly be described as awkward, and even, at times, strained. But they trusted and believed in each other.


Mary Stearns, George’s wife, was also taken with Brown. More outspoken and political than her husband, Mary once woke George in the middle of the night to tell him that they should sell their estate and give the money to the anti-slavery movement. He talked her out of the idea. However, the Stearns continued to provide financial support to Brown, and George eventually became part of a group known as the Secret Six that was created to help Brown.

So when Brown came up with his idea to raid the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in the hopes of launching an armed slave revolt, it was Stearns who provided 200 rifles for the cause. He also requested that the Massachusetts state legislature provide $100,000 to back the raid. (It wouldn’t.) The 1859 uprising proved unsuccessful, of course, and Brown was captured and sentenced to death. Of more immediate concern to Stearns, the authorities learned the names of the Secret Six. Fearing prosecution, he fled to Canada.

Down to Harpers Ferry

Mary Stearns remained behind at the Evergreens. She understood that Brown didn’t have long to live and wanted to find a way to honor his legacy. Around that time, she was contacted by the artist and sculptor Edward Augustus Brackett, who was also committed to the abolitionist movement.


Brackett, whose work can today be found at such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, was known for his portrait bust sculpture, and he’d been hoping to see Brown one last time before his execution in order to begin the process of memorializing him with a bust. So Stearns and Brackett settled on a plan for the sculptor to travel to the Virginia jail where Brown was being held so that he could take his measurements. Mary Stearns provided $120 in gold coins to pay for the trip.

Brackett likely left for Virginia sometime during the first week of November 1859. He checked into a tavern and then set out to visit the jail. Getting to Brown would not be easy. There were troops everywhere, and the mayor had urged outsiders to leave town. Brackett was initially denied a visit with Brown, but a guard and one of Brown’s defense attorneys, Hiram Griswold, eventually agreed to sneak him in.

Brown “was sitting in a chair with both hands chained, and his feet chained to the floor,” Brackett would later tell a Brown University researcher. “Only those who saw him in that miserable prison can have any adequate conception of the moral grandeur of his presence! Everybody and everything was dwarfed in comparison.”

When Griswold relayed the reason for Brackett’s clandestine visit, Brown at first refused. “Nonsense, all nonsense! Better give the money to the poor,” he said. So Brackett made it known that he had been sent by Mary Stearns. “As he listened, I could see signs of interest mingled with surprise in his face; then a grace thoughtfulness,” Brackett recalled. “Presently his hands dropped at his side and he seemed lost in thought. Then, lifting his head and straightening himself up, he said with emotion, ‘Anything Mr. or Mrs. Stearns desires. Take the measurements.’”

Keeper of the Collection

As Tufts’ first-ever art collection registrar, it is Laura McDonald’s job to know where everything in the university collection is at all times. Registrars are often unknown to the public, but they’re essential in the museum world. There, among swashbuckling curators, blustery collectors and a host of other larger-than-life figures, they are the high school principals. They live by rules and structures and systems. When someone pitches a fundraiser cocktail party in the Impressionist gallery, who but the registrar will foresee all the disasters that could result? Who else will set things up so that a donor at that party, in the midst of a passionate yarn, doesn’t splash Pinot on the Pissarro?

Besides staying on top of everything that’s known to be in Tufts’ art collection today, Laura McDonald works to solve mysteries of the past. “She’s kind of like the Indiana Jones of the office,” said exhibitions coordinator Lissa Cramer. Photo: Alonso Nichols Besides staying on top of everything that’s known to be in Tufts’ art collection today, Laura McDonald works to solve mysteries of the past. “She’s kind of like the Indiana Jones of the office,” said exhibitions coordinator Lissa Cramer. Photo: Alonso Nichols

And should anyone snicker at a registrar for being too careful, too sober—remember what happens when they aren’t. Casino moguls punch their elbows through Picassos. (The billionaire Steve Wynn unintentionally did just that, causing $40 million worth of damage to Le Rêve, the artist’s 1932 portrait of his mistress.) Other works get lost in shipping crates. (Wellesley College mislaid Woman and Child, a prized painting by the French cubist Fernand Leger, after it was returned from a show in Oklahoma, and some have even speculated that it was accidentally thrown out.)

Tufts, too, has suffered its share of damage and losses to its art collection over the years. It’s always had a collection, of course, but until McDonald was hired no one individual was tasked exclusively with its safekeeping. That was especially challenging because overseeing the Tufts collection is unusually complex. Rather than keep its art and artifacts in just one location, Tufts likes to spread them throughout the entire community. “The best thing that has happened is we have a full-time registrar in place now,” said Lissa Cramer, Tufts’ exhibitions coordinator. “This is their job—to keep track of that stuff.”

McDonald’s job may be heavy on recordkeeping and accounting, but she brings an artist’s perspective to it. An artist herself, working mainly with wood and stone, she grew up in Virginia with antique-collecting grandparents. She earned an art degree from Framingham State University in 2000 and went on to work as a curatorial assistant at the Danforth Museum, also in Framingham, for four years. Then, before coming to Tufts, she spent three years as the collections manager at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut.

As a girl, McDonald loved to read Nancy Drew, and it’s easy to see something of the sleuth in her as she goes about her business. One recent morning, she stumbled upon a massive, unopened safe in the basement of Ballou Hall. A few minutes later, she had talked herself into former provost Sol Gittleman’s first-floor office and peppered him with questions about what might be inside. Soon after that, Gittleman, his own curiosity piqued, was phoning a long-retired colleague to see if she could remember the combination. (She couldn’t.)

Besides staying on top of everything that’s known to be in the collection today, McDonald also works to solve mysteries from the past. What happened to a piece that went missing years ago? What is the provenance of a particular painting that Tufts owns? And, often enough, her drive to get to the bottom of a case pays off. Take the Rodin sculpture in the Tufts collection, long thought to be a posthumous copy.

In 2013, McDonald and Tufts archivist Susanne Belovari, through a search of historic documents on and off campus, were able to trace its ownership history and prove that it was cast in the artist’s lifetime. That meant ferreting out everything from its casting in 1902, to its purchase by Henry Adams, to the moment 65 years later when Helen Amory Homas and Carl Joyce Gilbert, at one time the chairman of the board of Gillette, gave the artwork to Tufts.

“She’s kind of like the Indiana Jones of the office,” said Cramer. “And she’s driven me nuts about John Brown.”

The Unveiling

On December 2, 1859, less than a month after Edward Brackett took his measurements in a Virginia jail, John Brown was executed. Brackett began work on the bust of Brown soon after their meeting, creating bronze and plaster versions as well as a marble one. The bronze went to Haiti, where a state funeral was held for Brown in 1860. Mary Stearns sent a plaster bust to her fellow abolitionist Wendell Phillips when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

The marble version of the bust, meanwhile, spent a couple of years on view at the Evergreens and the Boston Athenaeum, before a formal unveiling on New Year’s Day 1863, at a party to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and to honor Brown. There were readings by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Julia Ward Howe, the poet best known for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and then Phillips lifted a blue cloth decorated with silver stars, revealing the sculpture.

The work was met with wide acclaim. Harriet Tubman admired it, as did the abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lydia Maria Child. “In this bust of Brown, the character of the man looks through the features wonderfully,” Child wrote. “Any good judge, that might examine it without knowing whom it was intended to portray, would say, ‘That is a man of strong will and lofty courage; kindly of heart, and religious to the very core of his being.’”

The marble bust was displayed at the Evergreens. It was joined in 1879 by a posthumous one that Mary Stearns commissioned of her husband, who had returned from Canada in 1860, and faced inquiry into his relationship with Brown, appearing before the Senate Select Committee on the Harper’s Ferry Invasion. The year after that, the Civil War broke out. As it wore on, George Stearns contributed to the Union effort by recruiting soldiers for the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment—the first U.S. regiment consisting entirely of African Americans. It’s the military unit portrayed in the 1989 film Glory and memorialized in the bronze relief sculpture at the edge of Boston Common. Stearns died in 1867.

When Mary Stearns died in 1902, she left the entire estate to Tufts, although it wasn’t until 1919 that the school actually took possession of everything. At that point, the busts of Brown and Stearns were displayed together in the old Eaton Library—though no one can say for exactly how long, because somewhere along the line, they disappeared.

Remembering John Brown

The last moment that it can be definitively determined that Tufts had possession of the Brown and Stearns sculptures was in 1950, when President Leonard Carmichael sent a letter to an art conservation firm. “Some time ago, in an accident,” he wrote, “the nose was broken on this bust. Would it be possible for someone in your organization using contemporary photographs of John Brown to prepare a new nose that could be cemented to the bust?”

An intact plaster copy of the John Brown bust (in the background) was used as a model to help restore the damaged marble original. Photo: Alonso NicholsAn intact plaster copy of the John Brown bust (in the background) was used as a model to help restore the damaged marble original. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Twenty-seven years after that, someone in, most likely, the Tufts purchasing or auditing departments produced a handwritten note indicating that a comprehensive search for the pieces was under way.

“They were clearly looking for the busts at the time,” Laura McDonald said. “There’s a checklist on page two of the note that references some of the places where they looked, places where things were tucked away through the years. It says ‘basements, Chapel, Miner and Cohen’—those are all spots where things were occasionally placed. And C. Russell de Burlo, who was a Tufts vice president then, seems to have also suggested Carmichael, Miller and Houston—also viable options.”

Alas, the search for the busts was unsuccessful, and the note provides a clue as to why it was ultimately abandoned. “Mr. Raymond called,” the note reported, “said De Burlo said that bust of Brown might have been stolen in 1952!”

In the many years that followed, the busts faded from the university’s institutional memory. It wasn’t just that they’d gone missing, it was that no one was aware that they’d existed in the first place.

Then, in 2014, McDonald had a graduate assistant, Jessica Camhi, G16, help out with a project to update information in the art collection database. At the conclusion of the project, in August 2015, Camhi gave McDonald a stack of documents relating to artworks that weren’t accounted for in the university’s database.

One of those documents was Carmichael’s letter from 1950 asking for help with a marble bust of John Brown that had sustained a broken nose. McDonald’s mind shot to item number 1998.51, the mystery marble bust with the broken nose that had been stashed away in storage for decades. “Oh my God,” she thought, “I wonder if it’s John Brown.”

After some poking around on the Internet, McDonald found an image of the Brown bust on a “cabinet card” that Mary Stearns had created. Then McDonald went to the Somerville facility where Tufts now stores much of its collection. Rather than wait for the pallet with the two busts to be taken down with a forklift, she scaled a ladder and wedged herself into a small shelving bay. She cut away the plastic around the pallet just enough to get a profile view of the bust and took photos with her cellphone.

“I knew at that moment that the bust was the same as the one on the cabinet card,” she said. “I could not believe that this object, which had been lost to history, was just lying on the pallet.”

The next week, McDonald returned to the storage facility with John Rossetti, the assistant art collection registrar. They removed the plastic and got a closer look. In addition to the broken nose, the Brown bust had damage to the head; a broken right eyebrow; eyeballs that had been colored blue with ballpoint pen; and rust stains on the chest. McDonald then contacted Rika Smith McNally, a local conservator, about restoring the piece.

From there, McDonald and a graduate assistant, Christian Whitworth, spent months researching the bust and the complex relationship between Brown and Stearns. They were also interested in how it was that the busts had come to be lost in the first place. McDonald came to believe that sometime after Carmichael sent his letter, the busts were placed into an informal storage space, perhaps by the buildings and grounds department, which was then responsible for the university’s art collection.

The rust stains on the marble seemed to suggest that the busts had been pushed up against a heating pipe. McDonald ran that possibility by Ray Santangelo, Tufts’ senior manager of project administration, and they decided that perhaps, at some point, the pieces had been stored in Ballou, maybe in the steamy boiler room in the basement, or in a crawl space between the second and third floors.


By the time the busts were finally hauled out of wherever it was that they were being housed, and were at last strapped to a pallet together, cataloged as 1998.50 and 1998.51, and placed into the university’s fine arts storage facility, no one made the connection with the missing pieces.

With the Brown bust again accounted for, its historical significance can be fully appreciated. “I don’t know if we have much else from that time of Brown’s capture at Harpers Ferry,” said Spencer Crew, the former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “I would think Tufts is going to treasure it.”

Certainly the woman who solved the mystery will. “Here you have a sculptor whose other works are in the Metropolitan Museum and the Smithsonian,” McDonald said, “and then there’s this one of his that was lost and kind of shoved away for more than 50 years. It’s sad.” McDonald said she tends to throw herself into her work—“I guess I get wrapped up in the emotional intrigue of whatever the piece is”—but there was something particularly rewarding about this project. “John Brown,” she said, “is my new boyfriend.”

With the identity of the busts firmly established, McDonald laid out a plan to once again display them at Tufts. The process began with hiring McNally to carefully clean and restore them. Fixing the nose and eyebrow, though, was complicated. Through her research, McDonald discovered that the Boston Athenaeum had a plaster copy of the Brown bust.

The marble Brown bust with its new nose and eyebrow attached. The work is currently on display with the bust of George Stearns at the Tufts Art Gallery. Photo: Alonso NicholsThe marble Brown bust with its new nose and eyebrow attached. The work is currently on display with the bust of George Stearns at the Tufts Art Gallery. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Using the copy, Sean O’Reilly, who runs the Boston-based 3D Printsmith, was able to produce a plastic nose and eyebrow via a high-resolution 3D printer. Plaster replicas of the facial parts were then created, and attached last month by McNally. The Brown and Stearns busts will be on display at the Tufts Art Gallery until December 4. After that, McDonald plans to move them to the Tisch Library and display them “together, as they should be.”

The Brown bust may have a replacement nose now, but that hasn’t stopped McDonald from wanting to find out what happened to the original. Recently, she went looking for it with Ray Santangelo, starting in the Ballou Hall boiler room. Nothing. So they walked up a couple of flights to the small doors that lead to two crawl spaces between the second and third floors. They were locked, so Chris Covelle, the university locksmith, had to come by and open them.

Crouching, McDonald and Santangelo scoured the spaces. In the first, there were file cabinets, a ceiling fan and a stack of empty boxes. In the second, cardboard boxes and Styrofoam pieces all over the floor. Everything, it seemed, but what they were looking for.

That was the end of that, but McDonald was back in the crawl spaces a couple of months ago to show a visitor where it was that she had searched. In the middle of the tour, McDonald got distracted. She began poking around, bending over and lifting cardboard. “I feel like the nose has to be somewhere,” she said.

Geoff Edgers, A92, is the Washington Post’s national arts reporter, covering everything from fine arts to popular culture.

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