John Brown’s Spy

Title:                      John Brown’s Spy

Author:                 Steven Lubet

Lubet, Steven (2012). John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

LCCN:    2012019509

E451 .L83 2012


  • Kansas — Harper’s Ferry — Insurrection — Escape — Jailed — Charlestown — Confession — Intrigues — Defense — Repentance — Eternity — Forgiveness.


Date Posted:      March 21, 2016

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden.[1]

A time-honored axiom of military strategy is that good intelligence is essential to success. As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War in sixth century B.C.[2], “ … if you know your enemies and know your-self, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.”

Although John Brown had no formal military schooling, he learned the value of intelligence while waging a one-sided guerrilla campaign against pro-slavery settlers in Kansas in the 1850s. Then he conceived a far more audacious scheme: The seizure of a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.[3] Brown’s goal was to touch off a mass revolt of slaves, who would be armed with rifles seized during the raid, and establish a “free state” in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Desiring specific intelligence on his chosen target, Brown chose as his clandestine agent a somewhat flashy and eccentric soldier from his ranks named John Edwin Cook, who he saw as an ideal spy. Steven Lubet’s John Brown’s Spy is a sprightly—and often spicy-portrait of Cook.

Thirty years old in 1859, and the son of a prosperous New England farm family, Cook studied law in Connecticut before joining Brown for raids into “Bloody Kansas.” Short and slight, Cook was “affable and outgoing, easy to talk to and quick to make friends … well educated and well spoken,” writes Lubet, who teaches law at Northwestern University. One neighbor said that “he had all the nice little graces of a gentleman.” People delighted in welcoming the boyish Cook into their homes.

But there were other parts of Cook’s persona that made him a questionable choice. He loved to make himself the center of attention, “sometimes boasting well beyond the point of toleration;” the author writes. He spun fanciful stories· of hunting buffalo on the western plains. He wore gaudy outfits and carried fancy firearms that he liked to show off to friends and strangers alike. Friends laughingly called him “a walking arsenal.”

Successful intelligence officers very often have traits in common with con men. In the instance of Cook, his knack for ingratiating himself with strangers “made it easier for him to deceive the Virginians of Harper’s Ferry,” Lubet writes.

Thus Brown gave him an essential intelligence task: Take up residence in the Harper’s Ferry area, obtain maps of the town and the surrounding roads, assess the number of slaves who might be attracted to a rebellion, and identify prominent citizens who might be taken hostage. As Lubet writes, “Without that critical intelligence about the region, Brown would have been at sea when he arrived in the summer of 1859.”

Cook arrived in the Harper’s Ferry area in June 1858, taking a room in a boardinghouse in the adjacent village of Bolivar. He found teaching and tutoring jobs. He also took an immediate interest in the landlady’s comely daughter, and she soon became pregnant. Rather than abandon his spying mission, Cook wed the woman.

To his credit, Cook did obtain much of the desired intelligence, which he funneled to Brown by mail and couriers. Brown rented a small farm in Washington County, Maryland, to serve as a base of operations. Most importantly, he made friends with Colonel Lewis Washington, a prominent slave-holding landowner and the great-grandnephew of George Washington, seeing him as a potential hostage.

Brown arrived at the staging area with only 21 men at his command, far from the vast army he had boasted of recruiting. The entourage included three of Brown’s sons and a son-in-law. (Mainstream abolitionists disdained Brown because of his bloody slaughter of unarmed settlers in Kansas, including one attack where he murdered five defenseless men and ordered his sons to chop up their bodies with swords. At least publically, mainstream anti-slavery figures kept a distance from him.)

The raid itself, on the evening of Sunday, October 16, 1859, initially went as planned, with Brown’s men gaining control of the arsenal. Brown kidnapped Colonel Washington and another planter. But a Virginia militia unit and a contingent of U.S. Marines stormed the arsenal the next day. The death toll included 10 raiders, four townspeople, and a marine. Cook managed to flee into Pennsylvania, where bounty hunters seized him and collected a $1,000 reward.

Brown, Cook, and the other captured raiders were taken to the Jefferson County seat of Charlestown for trial.[4] Strong public feelings made death penalties likely. Luckily for Cook, his family had the political and financial means to attempt to keep him off the gallows. Sister Caroline Cook was married to Indiana Governor Ashbel Willard. Another sister, Fanny Cook Crowley, was the wife of Robert Crowley, a wealthy merchant in New York. Both men hurried to Virginia to try to broker a deal that would save Cook’s life. They were joined by United States Attorney Daniel Voorhees, considered Indiana’s premier trial lawyer.

Now emerged a nightmare of a legal tangle. Virginia authorities wanted evidence that northern abolitionists were behind Brown’s scheme, with the aim of prosecuting them. Documents were found among Brown’s papers listing six persons who supposedly gave him financial assistance. So authorities wanted a statement from one of the raiders that would allow them to try at least one of the defendants in a federal court in Virginia. As Lubet writes, “Federal warrants and subpoenas could be served [by federal marshals] throughout the nation, which meant that witnesses could be compelled to travel to Virginia from any northern state. The trial of one conspirator could thus be used to amass evidence against others.”

Governor Willard, who was friends with his Virginia counterpart, Governor Henry Wise, pleaded for sympathy toward Cook, calling him a “wild, erratic boy” who was led astray by Brown. Cook would cooperate with prosecutors in the hope of escaping the death penalty.

And Cook did just that, up to a point. He hand-wrote a 20-plus page statement detailing how Brown planned the raid. He gave detailed descriptions that enabled officers to track down four raiders still at large. But, significantly, Cook could not provide firm evidence that northern abolitionists had anything to do with Brown’s raid. And indeed Brown’s act had been condemned by abolition leaders. William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, the leading anti-slavery publication, called the raid “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.” Ohio Governor Salmon Chase decried Brown’s “insane attempt” and called him a rash criminal.

Thus, the limited confession was not enough. Harper’s Ferry residents considered Brown a viper who posed as a friend, and they brought heavy pressure on Governor Wise to show him no leniency. Brown was hanged.

Brown had realized from the very beginning that he was doomed. As did every state in the Union at the time, Virginia adhered to what was called “the interested party rule,” which prohibited a criminal defendant from testifying in his own behalf. The rule was thought necessary to avoid the temptation to commit perjury, but it also prevented defendants such as Brown from appealing directly to the jury.

Brown could only speak in the sentencing phase of the trial. (The jury had deliberated briefly before finding him “guilty of treason, and conspiring and advising with slaves and others to rebel, murder in the first degree.”) Claiming that he had a mandate from God to end slavery, Brown declared, “If it is deemed necessary that I shall forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.”

As Lubet writes, “In less than half an hour, he had transformed himself from a murderer to a martyr who would, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, ‘make the gallows glorious as the cross.’”

But public opinion castigated Cook. Frederick Douglass denounced him as the only one of Brown’s contingents who “sought to save his life by representing that he had been deceived, and allured by false promises,” George Sennott, a Brown defense attorney, said that “Cook failed in courage, and has gained by it the contempt of all mankind,”

In the end, Brown achieved his desired martyrdom. Within months of his death, Union soldiers were marching to the refrain of “John Brown’s Body,” written by abolitionist Julia Ward Howe. By the end of 1861, she had added new words and a new title to the song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the fifth stanza of which was “a poignant evocation that could apply equally to Jesus Christ and John Brown: ‘As he died to make men holy/Let us die to make men free.’”

[1] Joseph C. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, and other publications and this review appeared in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, pp. 118-119). Most of the reviews above appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times. Joe Goulden’s recent book is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications

[2] See Griffith, Samuel B. (1963). Sun Tzu: The Art of War. New York: Oxford University Press

[3] Harper’s Ferry became part of West Virginia in 1863; the post office eliminated the apostrophe in the early 20th century.

[4] The town is now known as Charles Town, West Virginia

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