John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook

  • Steven Lubet
  • Yale University
  • 316 pp.

A compelling narrative presenting the story of John E. Cook, the accomplished liar and quick thinker who served as advance man for abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

Reviewed by Robert I. Girardi

Almost everyone familiar with the Civil War era knows of John Brown’s infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry, on October 16, 1859, which served as a catalyst for the Civil War. The enormity of the raid and its implications made Brown a fascinating study, the subject of numerous biographies and narratives about the raid and its meaning.

Brown was a notorious abolitionist and zealot who did not shy away from murder and intrigue to further his ideological aims. Convinced that the only way to purge slavery from the United States was with the sword, Brown organized a provisional army to seize the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and arm the slaves, creating an army of freedom fighters intended to march across the South. The raid failed, and Brown and his cohorts were killed or captured. The survivors were tried and executed. Brown succeeded even in failure, though, by becoming a martyr for his cause when he was hanged in December, 1859. Thousands of Union soldiers would march to war 16 months hence singing “John Brown’s Body.”

Less well known is the story of the men who accompanied Brown on his infamous raid. Author Steven Lubet, Williams Memorial Professor of Law at Northwestern University, has done much to fill that gap in our knowledge. Brown, already infamous for his bloody efforts against pro-slavery settlers in the Kansas Territory, conspired with prominent abolitionists who helped him organize and fund the raid. However, none but the most zealous went with him; even Frederick Douglass could not bring himself to take an active role. Yet 21 followers did partake in the raid, comprised of a mixed lot of Brown’s family and his most ardent supporters and admirers.

One of the most important players in the raid would be John E. Cook, who was ordered to be an advance scout at Harper’s Ferry. Cook’s role was to learn the lay of the land, and to gain the trust of the locals while monitoring and reporting on security measures and routes of access and escape. His selection for this role was an oddity. Usually, such a mission would only be entrusted to a discreet and closed-mouth man. But those words could never be used to describe the 30-year-old Cook. In Lubet’s words he was “a poet, a marksman, a boaster, a dandy, a fighter, and a womanizer,” hardly the best candidate to trust with advancing a dangerous plot and spying on the community targeted for a raid.

Employing a narrative style as compelling as in an adventure novel, Steven Lubet presents the remarkable story of Cook and his involvement in the raid. Cook emerges as a fascinating, if not necessarily likeable, figure. Cook, a veteran of Brown’s activities in Kansas, was an expert marksman, a demagogic talker, an accomplished liar, and a quick thinker. But these very qualities helped Cook successfully fulfill his mission and kept him one jump ahead of the hangman.

Cook was able to spy on the community, familiarize himself with the customs of the guards and security measures, and gather supplies for the raid. He was not able to keep his mouth shut or control his libido, however, and engaged in a romance with Virginia Kennedy, a local girl, whom he impregnated and later married. Rather than arousing suspicions, his loose tongue and morals served to his benefit. He was liked and accepted by the locals, who befriended him.

On the day of the raid, Cook was taking captives and was not pinned in the arsenal as were Brown and most of the other conspirators. Once the futility of the raid was apparent, Cook and several other conspirators fled across country. Cook’s identity was well-known as a result of his preliminary activities and he was immediately named as a fugitive. Yet it was up to him and his quick tongue to scout ahead and try to evade the many bounty hunters eager to claim the lavish reward on his head. On the 10th day of flight, his luck ran out.

Once captured, Cook did not miss the opportunity to try to save his own life by offering to bribe his captors, and when that failed, by informing upon his co-conspirators, giving a detailed confession and using a battery of lawyers to plead his case. Lubet’s depiction of the trial and the various strategies and arguments employed is riveting and reveals much about 19th-century jurisprudence, and the effects of the raid upon the South, the Harper’s Ferry community, and the conduct of the trials. From beginning to end, his story is at once compelling and enlightening.

Drawing upon a commendable number of primary sources, including contemporary newspaper accounts, letters, and the court transcripts, including Cook’s confession and other writings, Lubet presents an unforgettable story. One cannot help but be drawn into the account, whether one agrees with the purposes of the raid or not.

An added benefit to the reader is an appendix of the persons appearing in the narrative, making quick identification possible. A full bibliography completes this important work. This book offers fresh and revealing insights into the character of the men who took part in one of the most infamous episodes of the Civil War era. It is a valuable addition to the literature on John Brown’s raid.

Robert I. Girardi is a past president of the Civil War Round Table of Chicago. He is on the Board of Directors of the Illinois State Historical Society and has written or edited 10 books on the American Civil War, including The Military Memoirs of General John Pope, and Gettysburg in Art and Artifacts.

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