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Looking to a Trusted Acolyte to Understand John Brown Raid

Book examines life of trusted spy who helped abolitionist in surprise attack at Harper’s Ferry

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October 22, 2012 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

CHICAGO --- Ever since John Brown's raid to free slaves in 1859, historians and pundits have been asking who was John Brown and exactly what happened when he launched the surprise attack on the Harper’s Ferry armory in West Virginia? 

To help answer that question, a Northwestern University School of Law professor has written a new book that examines the life of John E. Cook, the man Brown trusted most with the details of his plans to capture the armory.

The book by Northwestern’s Steven Lubet, the Williams Memorial Professor of Law, is titled “John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook” (Yale University Press, November 2012).

Cook was attracted to abolitionism and to John Brown’s charisma, but he was a swashbuckler (and a womanizer) more than an ideologue and might have been drawn to some other cause under different circumstances, Lubet said.

“It is not difficult to imagine Cook as an anti-war protester in the 1960s or in the more extreme wing of today’s Tea Partiers,” he said. “Cook was looking for adventure and romance, although ended up playing a major role in the greatest moral crusade in all of American history.”

To Brown, slavery was a state of war, and the raid was intended to start a liberation movement among enslaved African Americans. The raid was carried out by only 22 men, including Brown’s sons. Ultimately Brown was found guilty of treason and hanged.

The book uncovers significant new information about Cook’s role in the planning of the raid and sheds light on many other lives involved in this important incident in American history.

In the weeks leading up to the raid, Cook helped quell a near mutiny among Brown’s men. The big question is why Brown, a “straight-laced moralist” put so much faith in Cook, “an utter libertine” for his most sensitive mission, Lubet said.

“The short answer is that Brown was desperate for men -- he never attracted more than a couple of dozen followers -- so he had to accept everyone who signed up,” he said. “But I think there is also something more in the character of self-styled prophets that can lead them to ignore even their own better judgment.”

Cook lived for a year as a spy among unsuspecting Virginians, gathering intelligence in preparation for the raid that would alter American history. As a spy, he was essential to the execution of Brown’s plans. He provided maps of the area, plans for the buildings that Brown captured and a census of the local slaves whom Brown mistakenly believed were ready for rebellion. Cook also impregnated and then married a local woman, which earned him the hatred of Virginians once he was exposed as a spy.

 “Although John Brown is a well-known figure in American history, we know almost nothing about the men who comprised the small army that followed him,” said Lubet, a leading expert in the fields of trial advocacy and legal and judicial ethics “Cook’s life seemed like a perfect way to explore that story -- it has intrigue, eroticism, betrayal and redemption.”

Topics: People