More than 150 years after his attack on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, the actions of abolitionist John Brown are still being debated. Looking back, the venture looks ridiculously bound to fail. How could fewer than two dozen men expect to take the armory, distribute its weapons, and start a slave rebellion? They would have had to be highly effective men. But they were not. Steve Lubet profiles a key player in the event in his book John Brown's Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confessions of John E. Cook.
Cook had been the youngest child of a wealthy Connecticut family, raised mostly by indulgent sisters, never exposed to hardship. A bit of a dreamer, Cook was interested in poetry, adventure, guns, and women. Not succeeding as a lawyer, he was lured to Kansas by the abolitionist call for men to fight against pro-slavery raiders in the period leading to the vote on whether the state would be a slave state. There he met John Brown, who later sent him to assess the security of the Harper's Ferry armory and the likelihood that Virginia slaves would rise in revolt if encouraged. Not a serious spy, Cook spent a year in sport and pleasure, then told Brown what the abolitionist wanted to hear.
Much of John Brown's Spy focuses on the period after the attack: the chase to capture suspects, the trials of the accused, clemency petitions, and subsequent executions of those found guilty. The author recounts a couple of months of 1859 during which Cook's wavering allegiance to Brown was headline news.
Of course, the events at Harper's Ferry were still very much on the minds of American voters in 1860 when they elected a new president. John Brown's Spy is a welcomed addition to the library of books about the causes of the American Civil War.
Lubet, Steven. John Brown's Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confessions of John E. Cook. Yale University Press, 2012. 325p. ISBN 9780300180497.