- John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook by Steven Lubet
Twenty-two paths led a diverse band of abolitionists to Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859. One path conducted a grim-faced patriarch named John Brown. The other twenty-one did not. Yet Brown’s imposing figure has overshadowed his followers, and John Edwin Cook’s exploits, though not ignored in previous scholarship, have received less attention than they deserve. Most studies of Harpers Ferry place Brown under the microscope, focusing on important but well-worn debates about his faith, strategy, or sanity. With Brown in our peripheral vision, however, other aspects of the raid and its ramifications come into clearer view. By foregrounding one of Brown’s most trusted—and least trustworthy—confidants, Steven Lubet adds to our understanding of Harpers Ferry and its place in antebellum history.
This is the first full-length study of any of Brown’s men, and Cook’s story is a biographer’s gold mine. Born in Connecticut in 1829, he embodied the restless, romantic spirit of the era. After dropping out of Yale, Cook drifted between New York and Philadelphia, devoting more time to marksmanship, poetry, and ladies than to a career. Eventually, Cook’s thirst for adventure drew him to radical abolitionism, a “natural home of thrill seekers as well as do-gooders” (20). Lubet does not deny Cook’s idealism, but abolitionism was also an outlet for grander aspirations. Indeed, Cook—with his fondness for Sir Walter Scott and penchant for violence—strikingly resembles southern contemporaries who dreamed of Caribbean imperialism and Confederate independence. In September 1855, Cook headed west to resist slavery’s extension into Kansas. Two years later, he joined Brown’s [End Page 586] company as a captain and helped recruit other warriors into the abolitionist band.
Brown, the taciturn, unyielding patriarch, and Cook, the loquacious libertine, were a study in opposites. Nevertheless, Brown entrusted Cook with more details of his plan than anyone else and in mid-1858 dispatched Cook to Harpers Ferry to collect intelligence. Espionage, however, did not suit Cook’s temperament. His open abolitionism attracted attention, as did his dalliances with a local girl named Virginia Kennedy, which resulted in pregnancy and hasty marriage. Cook did gather information on potential hostages—including Colonel Lewis Washington, the fi rst president’s great-grandnephew—but also reported that local slaves were ripe for insurrection. During the tense months leading up to the October attack, Cook encouraged wavering comrades and enthusiastically endorsed Brown’s plan to seize the arsenal, rally an army of bondsmen, and hole up in the mountains.
Lubet highlights Cook’s oft-overlooked role in the strike. While Brown and his men clashed with militia and marines in Harpers Ferry, Cook led a smaller party through the countryside to seize hostages, including Colonel Washington, and rally slaves to join the uprising. When the insurrection collapsed, Cook fled northward with four companions, including one of Brown’s sons, Owen. After an exhausting trek, Cook was captured near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, by local slave catchers. Cook almost finagled his freedom by bribing one of his captors but could not close the deal before being extradited to Virginia.
The coverage of Cook’s incarceration and trial is superb. Lubet guides readers through the nineteenth-century legal system, brings the dramatis personae to life with memorable character sketches, and emphasizes historical contingency. What if Cook had secured his release in Pennsylvania? Or if a sentinel’s untimely arrival had not thwarted a subsequent escape attempt on the eve of his execution? Only a run of bad luck ensured that Cook was tried, convicted, and hanged. But Lubet also situates Cook’s trial within its broader context. Brown has been credited with sparking the Civil War, but his abortive insurrection had serious political consequences because he was not a lone gunman. Cook’s willingness to identify conspirators, including fellow raiders and backers such as Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith...