Friday, May 3, 2013

Just Finished Reading - John Brown's Spy

Since becoming interested in the impact of John Brown on America's history, I have often wondered why more scholarship has not been completed on Brown's raiders individually. Almost every book has brief mentions of the men-more on some of them than others-but little has been done to fully explain their personal histories. Finally, their stories are being told.

Steven Lubet's John Brown's Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook explores the intriguing story one of Brown's most compelling raiders.

John E. Cook was born in 1829 to a rather well-to-do Connecticut family. After studying law and clerking in Brooklyn, Cook eventually made his way to Kansas to fight against slavery. There he met the man that would change his life forever-John Brown. Cook, a crack shot, joined up with Brown in June 1856.  In 1858, Cook traveled with the old man to Canada, where he was privileged to Brown's bold plan to attack the United States armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. In fact, Brown chose Cook to go to the small town a year in advance and gather information.

In Harpers Ferry, Cook worked a variety of jobs, and his smooth talking and gregarious personality helped ingratiate him to the community. He used his winning personality to gather information Brown needed such as  the best avenues for attacking the armory and the number of slaves in the area, which the two men hoped would flock to their cause once the attack came off.

Cook boarded in Harpers Ferry at Mary Ann Kennedy's. There he met Virginia Kennedy, the landlord's daughter, who he impregnated. They married in April 1859, and a son was born a month later. Cook's smooth talking must have been difficult to dismiss. He had previously gotten a woman pregnant in his days in Kansas and Iowa, but that child was stillborn.

During the fighting at Harpers Ferry, Cook was stationed outside of town and instructed by Brown to move weapons from the raiders' base to a school house closer to town. When Cook saw that he could not make it into town he fired on the gathering townspeople and militia in attempt to draw fire away from the raiders in the fire engine house. After taking a nasty fall in the firefight Cook determined he could help no further and fled with two other raiders. After wandering through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, the always confident Cook attempted to gather some food, relying on his loquacious skills, but was arrested near Chambersburg.

Cook was extradited to Virginia and placed in jail with Brown and the other surviving raiders. And, like his cohorts, he was tried and convicted. In effort to save his life the confessed the details of the raid and implicated others that were involved. The attempt did not work though and Cook was sentenced to hang on December 16, 1859. Cook and fellow raider Edwin Coppoc attempted a breakout of jail the night before their execution, but were quickly caught. Before Brown's execution on December 2, the old man showed his disappointment in Cook's confession by chastising his lieutenant on his way to the gallows. Cook's body was turned over to family who had it buried in Brooklyn.

Cook's hatred of slavery is obvious. From his days in Kansas, to his firm commitment to the plan at Hapers Ferry-witnessed by his spy work there-Cook was determined that the institution would die in the United States. However, his tragic confession has landed him among the so-called turncoats in American history. It is difficult to blame a man though who knew his life was in peril and sought to save it.

I highly recommend John Brown's Spy to anyone wanting to know more about John Brown's raid and the men that made the attempt on Harpers Ferry.  Lubet has produced a book that is very readable and well researched. On a scale of one to five, I give it a 4.75.

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