John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook by Steven Lubet. Yale University Press, 2012. Cloth, ISBN: 0300180497. $28.00.
In the past 20 years no less than three significant monographs, each written by a capable scholar, have documented and analyzed the life of abolitionist and insurrectionist John Brown or the famous raid he led at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. David Reynolds’ John Brown: Abolitionist, Robert E. McGlone’s John Brown’s War on Slavery, and Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising each offer something different. Horwitz’s work is admittedly more popular, while McGlone’s is the most scholarly of the three. None however have looked at central figures in the raid itself outside of Brown. Steven Lubet’s John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook corrects one portion of this oversight. Lubet explores the life of John E. Cook, but creatively deviates from a strictly biographical approach by tying in elements of legal history.
Lubet’s skill lies in making Cook’s story interesting. At first glance Cook appears unremarkable as an abolitionist. Born in 1829, Cook hailed from a wealthy family of Puritan stock. His father and mother might also be labeled perfectly normal nineteenth century New Englanders. Cook’s father, however, often told stories to his children. His imagination masked an energetic and even restless mind, for Cook’s father suffered from his inability to organize his accounts and business. One wonders how the family remained prosperous. During his preparatory education John Cook acquired a reputation for audacity, a trait not always welcome in taciturn New England but one that served him well as an abolitionist spy. The tenants of learning in the academy included a heavy emphasis on moral education. Cook’s morality proved to be more fluid than that of his peers. Late in his adolescent years, Cook’s teachers sometimes worried over his audacity and penchant for storytelling. This convinced his parents of Cook’s readiness for the legal profession and, in 1854, Cook moved to Brooklyn to study law with attorney John Stearns. While in Brooklyn, Cook also attended Plymouth Congregational Church. Plymouth Congregational was, for its time, an excellent choice for a young lawyer. The congregation was large, politically and socially prominent; their pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, brought celebrity to his church. He also offered a litany of guest speakers, including many of the Union’s most prominent abolitionists. Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, Sojourner Truth, among others, graced the pulpit of Plymouth Church, exhorting parishioners of the evils of slavery and their Christian duty to help end the institution. Lubet asserts that while religious motivations certainly played a part in radicalizing Cook, he (and many other northerners) looked at the South’s aggressive pro-slavery actions during the mid-1850s and feared that northern freedoms and free state politics were under attack. Of course, Cook’s powerful longing for adventure also contributed to his desire to join free state militias.
Cook took Beecher’s calls to action particularly seriously. He cut short his legal career in 1855 and headed west to Kansas. His actions stunned and enraged his parents. His father called him self-willed and wayward; his mother begged and pleaded. Cook made his mind up and no one could talk him out of his decision to become a free state militiaman, known in Kansas as a Jayhawker. The actions of pro-slavery “Ruffians” in Kansas spawned outrage amongst abolitionists and anti-slavery northerners. Cook arrived after the most violent episode perpetrated by John Brown and his band, the Pottawattamie Massacre, but nevertheless joined in violent raids, particularly one against the Carver family.
Far and away the most interesting point of tension between Cook and John Brown lay in Cook’s unapologetic womanizing. While willing to use violence in the pursuit of human freedom, Brown remained rigidly principled in his personal conduct. A strict Calvinist, Brown hoped to not only create a free society in the South, but a righteous one as well. He drew up a provisional free constitution for Virginia, which included legal codifications of decent behavior. Lubet asks the intriguing question of why Brown, who knew Cook’s behavorial tendencies, allowed him to pursue the more clandestine work needed to further Brown’s goals. Brown dispatched Cook on the most sensitive missions involved in the entire enterprise
Cook traveled to Virginia with Brown and his band. His duties as a “spy” actually included ingratiating himself with enslaved Virginians and Carolinians who might be interested in joining Brown’s uprising. He went to meetings for Brown in small towns in Virginia and Maryland. Cook’s main interest in these towns was their potential for amorous rendezvous instead of possible logistical assistance they might add to Brown’s tiny corps of liberators. After the infamous raid, the pace of Lubet’s story quickens considerably. For ten days federal authorities hunted Cook, the only escapee from Brown’s inner circle. Eventually caught, Cook’s sisters sprang into action, using every possible tool and source of influence to manage a potential freedom or acquittal if Cook’s case came to trial. His sister Carolina was in an especially fortunate place to assist her brother. Caroline’s husband, a pro-slavery Democrat named Ashbel Willard, moved to help his brother-in-law. Willard’s participation spoke of his wife’s influence, for he had no reason whatsoever to involve himself in Cook’s defense. Cook eventually confessed, establishing guilt on the murder charge. But that did not mean he was necessarily guilty of treason. Lubet is on his best ground in the final chapters’ discussion of the legal wrangling over what exactly Cook’s confession meant. Ultimately, Virginia convicted Cook and sentenced him to death.
Lubet’s work will no doubt fascinate Civil War buffs and historians alike and contribute a much-needed work of legal history to a crowded Civil War Era historiography. The courtroom drama is an excellent one, and Lubet should be commended for providing such a clear picture of the workings of this singular trial and this unique conspirator.
Miles Smith is a doctoral student in History at Texas Christian University.