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John Brown's Spy

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

Steven Lubet
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    John Brown's Spy
    Book Description:

    John Brown's Spytells the nearly unknown story of John E. Cook, the person John Brown trusted most with the details of his plans to capture the Harper's Ferry armory in 1859. Cook was a poet, a marksman, a boaster, a dandy, a fighter, and a womanizer-as well as a spy. In a life of only thirty years, he studied law in Connecticut, fought border ruffians in Kansas, served as an abolitionist mole in Virginia, took white hostages during the Harper's Ferry raid, and almost escaped to freedom. For ten days after the infamous raid, he was the most hunted man in America with a staggering $1,000 bounty on his head.

    Tracking down the unexplored circumstances of John Cook's life and disastrous end, Steven Lubet is the first to uncover the full extent of Cook's contributions to Brown's scheme. Without Cook's participation, the author contends, Brown might never have been able to launch the insurrection that sparked the Civil War. Had Cook remained true to the cause, history would have remembered him as a hero. Instead, when Cook was captured and brought to trial, he betrayed John Brown and named fellow abolitionists in a full confession that earned him a place in history's tragic pantheon of disgraced turncoats.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18263-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    John Brown sat on a narrow cot in a Charlestown jail, wondering whether John E. Cook had become a traitor. Less than two weeks earlier Brown had commenced a military campaign to free the slaves of the South by leading a small armed band into the sleeping town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Although he commanded only twenty-one men, he believed that his guerilla strike would soon rally hundreds of slaves to his cause, thus placing him at the head of an unstoppable army of emancipation. The first step in Brown’s bold plan was to seize control of the United States...

  5. ONE Kansas
    (pp. 12-40)

    John E. Cook was born in 1829 to a prosperous New England family of old Puritan stock.¹ His parents, Nathaniel and Mary, lived in a sturdy frame house in Haddam, Connecticut, where they held interests in a quarry and several tracts of land, placing them among the small town’s more affluent and stable citizens. Although John always had an impetuous side, there was little in his early upbringing that seemed to presage his later exploits with John Brown. As devout Congregationalists, the elder Cooks probably found slavery distasteful, but they were never known to express any abolitionist sentiments.

    Nathaniel and...

  6. TWO Harper’s Ferry
    (pp. 41-59)

    Harper’s Ferry was far from the heart of Virginia’s agricultural slave country. Located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers—about 165 miles from Richmond and 65 miles from Washington, D.C.—the town was primarily a manufacturing and transportation center for rail, canal, and river traffic carrying passengers and freight between eastern cities and the western frontier. Most important to the local economy were the federal armory and arsenal, where thousands of rifles were manufactured and stored for use by the United States military. The small urban black population included domestic servants and a significant number of free...

  7. THREE Insurrection
    (pp. 60-74)

    It was only on Saturday, October 15, 1859, that John Brown announced to his twenty-one followers that they would begin the war on slavery the next night. Until then, six or seven of the men had never been informed of the full scope of the plan, still believing they were about to participate in another lightning raid to bring slaves to the North, rather than an extended guerilla campaign in Virginia. Only on Sunday morning was the Provisional Constitution read to them, after which Brown distributed printed commissions to those “who were to hold military positions in the organization.” Brown...

  8. FOUR Escape
    (pp. 75-95)

    It would be a long time before Cook and his fleeing companions fully learned what had happened to John Brown at the siege of Harper’s Ferry. At the very time when J. E. B. Stuart’s men were taking control of the armory, the five fugitives were huddled anxiously on a mountainside and wondering how they could escape to freedom. Maryland was hostile territory and southern Pennsylvania was not much better. The nearest refuge was probably close to one hundred miles away by road in western Pennsylvania, but of course they could not take to the roads. Their ultimate objective, the...

  9. FIVE Jailed
    (pp. 96-119)

    Although he was only thirty-one years old, Colonel Alexander Kelly McClure was already one of the most prominent antislavery men in Franklin County and probably the person most willing and able to make the needed arrangements for John Cook. Originally a Whig activist, McClure had been awarded an honorary military title when he served on the staff of William Johnson, the first Whig governor of Pennsylvania. He was later appointed a deputy federal marshal by Millard Fillmore, the last Whig president of the United States. Like many northern Whigs, McClure had opposed the Compromise of 1850 with its enhanced Fugitive...

  10. SIX Charlestown
    (pp. 120-142)

    John Brown had been seriously wounded when he was captured on Tuesday morning, slashed and stabbed several times by Marine Lieutenant Israel Green. Fortunately for Brown, Green had forgetfully worn his lightweight, ceremonial sword that day, rather than his real saber. That mistake saved Brown’s life. Green later explained that his dress sword was so dull that it could not do any lasting damage, although his saber was as sharp as a razor. Even so, Brown was bloodied and stunned from Green’s beating, unable to stand on his own. There were four other survivors of the raid. Aaron Stevens—who...

  11. SEVEN Confession
    (pp. 143-164)

    John Cook’s sisters rushed into action as soon as they learned the alarming news that their brother had been implicated in the terrible events at Harper’s Ferry. Although John had been out of touch with his relatives for well over a year—leaving them worried that he had been killed in Kansas—the Cook sisters still loved their baby brother deeply, and they were determined to come to his assistance. Robert Crowley, the wealthy merchant who was married to Fanny Cook, departed for Harper’s Ferry even before Cook had been captured, dispatched by his wife in the hope of locating...

  12. EIGHT Intrigues
    (pp. 165-181)

    Following the convictions of Green and Copeland, Judge Parker ordered a recess until 10:00 a.m. on Monday, November 7. When court opened that morning, Cook’s case was immediately referred to a grand jury, which spent the next two hours hearing evidence from twelve witnesses—including the kidnap victims Lewis Washington and John Allstadt—before returning a five-count indictment on the usual charges of treason, murder, and conspiracy.¹ By then, Cook had been working on his confession for over a week, on the assumption that a deal was in the works for a transfer to the federal court (as the first...

  13. NINE Defense
    (pp. 182-198)

    Cook’s confession was sufficient to convict him of murder and conspiracy, but it did not resolve the charge of treason or settle the question of punishment. There would still have to be a trial on those issues, meaning that witnesses would have to testify. It was after dark, however, by the time Hunter finished reading the confession, so the court adjourned until the next day.

    Despite the usual uproar from the gallery, Cook appeared to be in unusually good spirits as he took his seat between Governor Willard and Robert Crowley on Wednesday morning, leading one reporter to speculate that...

  14. TEN Repentance
    (pp. 199-219)

    Despite the best efforts of Daniel Voorhees, little had gone favorably for John Cook in Charlestown. For all of his cooperation with the prosecution, Cook had obtained neither a transfer to federal court nor a favorable recommendation from his jury. As matters stood on Thursday morning, Cook was legally not much better off than Shields Green, John Copeland, or Edwin Coppoc, none of whom had confessed.

    Cook’s one advantage had been the quality of his lawyers, who had argued persuasively that their client could be convicted of murder and yet spared execution. To a slight extent, that seemed to have...

  15. ELEVEN Eternity
    (pp. 220-245)

    As his implicit pardon message made painfully clear, Governor Wise held Cook in absolute contempt, and not only because he was a criminal. In Wise’s view, Cook was a dishonorable man who had first abandoned and then informed on John Brown. Cook was also a scoundrel who had exploited the friendship of Lewis Washington, and who had probably taken callous advantage of an innocent young girl and her unsuspecting family. Or at least it seemed that way in Richmond. Cook’s fellow prisoners knew him better. They recognized, at least, that Cook had not run away from the fight, and that...

  16. TWELVE Forgiveness
    (pp. 246-262)

    John Cook’s body was not easily laid to rest. The Adams Express Company did its job promptly and efficiently, delivering the coffin just before midnight on Saturday, December 17, at a railroad terminal in Jersey City, but things did not go well afterward. Willard and Crowley were waiting with a hearse at the depot, but they had second thoughts about transporting the notorious Cook’s remains in so visible a vehicle. Fortunately, they were able to arrange quickly for a freight wagon, in which they proceeded to the Hudson River. The ferry operator, however, refused to take them across to New...

  17. APPENDIX: Personnae
    (pp. 263-268)
  18. NOTES
    (pp. 269-303)
    (pp. 304-312)
    (pp. 313-314)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 315-325)