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

Steven Lubet, Yale University Press

John E. Cook is the damnedest guy you’ve never heard of. Thank goodness Steven Lubet has. In fact, without Cook you might never have heard of John Brown. At 30, Cook was a man of many parts: a poet, student of law, womanizer, skilled marksman and, most important, a dedicated abolitionist. Described by his peers as a man of epicene qualities, he was known for his fancy hand-tooled weapons. “His comrades,” Lubet writes, “laughingly called him ‘a walking arsenal;’ and teased him for burnishing his weapons at all hours of the day.” It’s impossible to imagine anyone less likely to have been a confidante of John Brown, yet Cook—one of the most intriguing scoundrels in American history— was absolutely essential to Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry.

Cook seems to have been as much of an actor as John Wilkes Booth—albeit one who demonstrated his courage while fighting Confederate “border ruffians” in Kansas. Using letters and journals, court records and period newspaper accounts, Lubet reveals that Cook lived for nearly a year in Harpers Ferry, supplying Brown with maps and intelligence without which the raid that changed the course of American history could never have happened.

A law professor and author of a superb account of the aftermath of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Lubet is a rigorous historian with a storyteller’s gift for the odd detail (e.g., Lewis Sheridan Leary, a free-black follower of Brown’s who died during the raid, had fathered a daughter who became the mother of playwright and poet Langston Hughes). After Harpers Ferry, Cook almost escaped, but was captured and brought to trial. At the time, Lubet writes, “he was among the most wanted fugitives in the history of the United States.” Faced with death, he became a turncoat, revealing the names of others involved. His confessions did not deliver him from his fate, however, though some abolitionists, such as Dr. Samuel Howe, Julia Ward Howe’s husband, forgave Cook because of his earlier dedication to the cause.

John Brown’s Spy is the first volume to examine in depth any of the men who followed Brown on his ill-fated mission. “John Cook’s life and his engagement with John Brown,” according to Lubet, “tells a story of moral complexity writ large.” Lubet is definitely the historian to handle such moral complexity. The only remaining question is whether Johnny Depp is now too old to play Cook in the inevitable movie version of this book.

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.