For 10 days, this unlikely spy was “among the most wanted fugitives in the history of the United States.”
The son of prosperous Connecticut parents, John Cook tried his hand at law, clerking and sales before attaching himself, more out of romance than principle, to the abolitionist movement. He fought under the notorious militia of Capt. John Brown in Bloody Kansas. In 1858, Brown dispatched Cook to Harper’s Ferry to gather information crucial to the plan to seize the federal arsenal, liberate slaves and take slave owners hostage. Following his capture after the failed raid and throughout the course of his trial, Cook’s betrayal of the locals (he fathered a child and married during his time in town) earned him an enmity exceeding even that felt toward Brown. When it became clear that he would repudiate Brown and name the old man’s “aiders or abettors” to save himself, Cook lost any support he might have received from Northern sympathizers. In this first full biography of any of Brown’s followers, Lubet (Law/Northwestern Univ.; Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial, 2010, etc.) is especially effective at capturing the courtroom drama surrounding Brown, Cook and their captured confederates. With sharp portraits of the lawyers, clear explanations of their various machinations and evocative descriptions of the legal proceedings, he brings to life the charges of treason and murder, the pleas for mercy and the poignancy of Cook’s pathetic confessions, insufficient for the prosecution, too little for the purposes of his defense, too shameless for Cook to maintain dignity, too detailed for Brown’s idolaters to bear. At age 30, the reckless Cook was hanged, mourned only by his wife and still-loving sisters.
A crisply told tale fleshing out one of American history’s more intriguing footnotes.