Don Ackerman, consignment director for the auction house, said historians had to sift through a lot of “murky family lore” to verify the shackles are authentic. Among the stampings are the initials ER, for a well-known Shepherdstown locksmith, Elijah Rickard.
Boling’s ancestor served with the First Maine Volunteers in the Civil War and was in Charles Town at some point, perhaps to put down the rebellion, Ackerman said.
At least four newspaper articles published between 1889 and 1893 reported that Atwood obtained Brown’s leg irons from an elderly black woman, providing her a substitute pair that he bought for $8.
The shackles were briefly exhibited at the Portland Historical Society in Maine after Atwood returned home. When he died, his widow gave them to his brother, James N. Atwood.
They later ended up at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., where the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher stomped on them during sermons about slavery. Beecher was the brother of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Hezekiah Atwood Sr. had been a Congregationalist minister.
“When you’re talking about historical objects like this … it’s not always possible to say with absolute certainty that it is what is,” Ackerman said.
But “deductive reasoning” and the evidence he’s reviewed provide 99 percent certainty. Nor has there ever been a contradictory claim of ownership.
“I’m satisfied that everything matches and makes sense,” Ackerman said, starting with the fact that the same family has had the artifact for generations and that family was connected to Charles Town. The maker’s marks appear genuine, linked to a well-known family of local locksmiths the jail would likely have used — and the jail acknowledged the shackles had been “liberated” after Brown’s execution.
“All of those taken in totality,” he said, “it’s fairly convincing to me that these are the ones.”
Online bidding ends Friday at 10 p.m. Central. Live bidding starts Saturday morning but can also be done by phone or through the Heritage website.