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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

From the Field--
A Thrilling Adventure in the Speculative Use
of the Conditional Verb Tense

by H. Scott Wolfe*

Well, the holidays are over, and Santa’s sleigh has disgorged a number of gifts for yours truly, the epitome of the unworthy. Of course there was the requisite case of “Moose Drool Brown Ale,” brewed in my college town of Missoula, Montana, and necessary for the physical alignment of my brain cells and the proper lubrication of my aging joints. And, in addition, Old Saint Nick provided me with a generous armful of the more recent publications relating to Old John Brown.
The first to be drawn from the stack was an eagerly anticipated volume written by Steven Lubet, a Professor of Law at Northwestern University. Entitled John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook [Yale University Press, 325 pp.] it seeks to tell “the nearly unknown story of John E. Cook, the person John Brown trusted most with the details of his plans to capture the Harper’s Ferry armory in 1859.” And, oh yes, it also seeks to tell the story of the “full confession that earned a place in history’s tragic pantheon of disgraced turncoats.” In other words: Benedict Arnold, move over….

Now, as I have indicated in prior posts, I have devoted decades to the pursuit of the lives and deaths of the men of John Brown’s “Provisional Army.” These soldiers are much more than historical window dressing…their individual stories provide much insight into the varied motivations central to the antislavery cause. But alas, virtually all are but mere twinkling stars…totally dominated by the intense sunlight of their Commander in Chief, John Brown. Admirably, Lubet himself recognizes that Brown’s men were not merely “spear carriers,” and have “seldom been described …as independent moral actors.”

Biographical accounts of these twenty-one soldiers are rare. There has been a slim volume produced in regard to the life of their Secretary of War, John Henrie Kagi. Tony Horwitz, in his book “Midnight Rising,” briefly introduces the men with some useful annotation as to primary sources. But, all in all, John Brown’s soldiers remain essentially ignored. So when I heard of a new full-scale biography of Captain John Edwin Cook, I jumped at the chance…and Santa delivered.

Daguerreotype of John E. Cook
Kansas State Historical Society Collection

This biography can be divided in two parts…based upon the components of its subtitle: Cook’s “Adventurous Life,” and Cook’s “Tragic Confession.”  But as I began to delve into the book, I soon discovered that it is short on adventure…and long on confession. To be perfectly honest, the story of Cook essentially begins on page 96.

The early pages outline Cook’s upbringing in Haddam, Connecticut…his brief occupation as law clerk and needle salesman…along with a survey of his varied character traits. Lubet touches all of the Cook-stereotypical-bases: the politically connected Yalie;  those long, blonde curls surrounding an “effeminate face;” the consummate lady killer; the crack-shot with pistol and rifle; and, especially, his “Loose Lips Sink Ships” persona.

It is when the story reaches the origins of Cook’s adherence to the antislavery cause…and his eventual removal to Kansas…that Lubet assembles one of the most extensive aggregations of conditional verbs and adverbs ever before seen on this planet. I have never seen the like since I once paged through an unabridged dictionary during high school detention. His book actually states that there is “no precise record” of Cook’s antislavery conversion, but that does not preclude a virtual Hurricane Sandy of speculations.

Cook was “no doubt inspired” by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a man to whom he “certainly would have been drawn.”  He was “surely also attracted” to the social life of Beecher’s Plymouth Church. “It would not be surprising if” Cook gave shooting demonstrations. The imprisonment  of the Amistad slaves, thirty miles from Haddam, “may have been” Cook’s first exposure to the meaning of slavery. His racial awareness “could only have been” heightened by the Kansas Nebraska Act. Lubet eventually speculates that Cook’s emigration to Kansas occurred because he was “within earshot” of Beecher’s call for men to support the antislavery cause.
Portrait of Cook, Frank Leslie's
Illustrated News, 
Nov. 18, 1859

The first half of the book is replete with such conditional musings. “He may have planned”….”It may be that he”…”It is quite possible that he”…”He must have been aware of”….”He might very well have been.” The deluge persists with torrents of “likelys,” “evidentlys,” and “probablys” bouncing off my historical umbrella. That act was “entirely possible”…He “could not have” performed in that manner…It “had to be” his intention.

I’m sorry folks, but being elderly enough to remember the television police drama “Dragnet,” I have always been a proponent of Sergeant Joe Friday’s admonition to all future historians and biographers: “Just the facts, ma’am.” No probablys…No evidentlys…No likelys. “Just the facts, ma’am.”

The book’s Reader’s Digest-version of the Kansas conflict and John Brown’s actions therein is, I regret to report, also quite weak and harvests freely the spoiled fruit from the Tree of John Brown Misinformation. Once more we are regaled with that miraculous message of Sumner’s caning, which reached The Old Man on the plains of eastern Kansas…through the instrumentation of some ancestral “Fed Ex Overnight.”…and thereby sent him off in a “crazy” state to Pottawatomie Creek.  Did Brown really rout “a large contingent of United States cavalry” at the Battle of the Spurs? And was the Old Man to be found roaming the streets of Harper’s Ferry, adorned with “the heavy white beard by which he is now usually characterized?”

And Lubet’s seeming fascination with Cook’s physical appearance and sexual libido often takes charge of the entire story.  Even his initial interview with his Chambersburg lawyer is described as “almost erotic.” His natural attraction to women…spurred by a female-dominated upbringing…is undeniable. Yes, he impregnated a woman during the Springdale winter (He was not the only one. Brown’s men were not celibate priests, but rather, red-blooded American boys.) and underwent a shotgun wedding while residing near Harper’s Ferry. But true history need not be bent to fit the story. The winter lectures at district school houses near Springdale were frequent activities…enjoyed by all of Brown’s trainees…and were not merely vehicles to allow Cook “to court his students’older sisters.” And Cook’s supposed leap through a window at the Kennedy farmhouse, facilitated by the fact that he was “already adept at silently climbing in and out of bedroom windows,” is pure sarcasm, not biography. Perhaps it’s a shot at humor, but the gun jammed.
Historical marker of Cook's capture, Mont Alto, Pa.
(photo by H. Scott Wolfe, 2006)

Now you may remember that when I formerly produced a review of Horwitz’s Midnight Rising, I began with several questioning remarks…such as I have in the paragraphs above. But then I mellowed, and complimented the work as a whole. Such is the case with Lubet’s “John Brown’s Spy.” The holidays may be over, but their aura of good will and benevolence still surround me. And gossamer strands of altruism still cling to my notably stooped shoulders.

I mentioned above that this book essentially begins on page 96. It is here, with the post-Harper’s Ferry capture of Captain John E. Cook, that the author finally finds firm footing amidst the shifting sands of his subject’s life. And this makes perfect sense…for the story of Cook’s capture, rendition, confession and trial more soundly strike the “sweet spot” on the keyboard of a Professor of Law at Northwestern University.

It is in the final chapters that the story of John Edwin Cook reaches its fascinating climax. The documentation is also richer, with admirable usage of excellent sources ranging from the “Memoirs” of  Alexander McClure, the ill-starred antislavery attorney who took charge of Cook in Chambersburg; to the interviews with Jenny Kennedy Cook,  who was compelled to endure the trauma of being married to the second-most hated man in the State of Virginia.

These chapters of the book are also good history because they are based upon a great story. From the moment that Cook stumbled from the woods into the hands of local bounty hunters…to his Keystone Kop-like opportunity for escape in Chambersburg…to his rendition to the State of Virginia…the book begins to capture the reader and say: “Guess what will happen next?”
Cutaway from sketch of Cook and fellow raider,
Edwin Coppoc, in their Charlestown jail cell
(New York Illustrated News, Dec. 24, 1859)

And then there is the story of Cook’s famous “Confession.” This strange, evolving document was created through the machinations of two fascinating characters…both Northern proslavery Democrats (“doughfaces,” was the derogatory term in use at the time). One was Cook’s own brother-in-law, Ashbel Willard, the Governor of Indiana…and the other was Daniel Voorhees, trial lawyer, honey-tongued orator, and soon destined to become one of the most annoying stones in the shoe of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. These men, with the assistance of prosecutor Andrew Hunter, induced Cook to pen a full confession…the purpose of which was twofold.

First, by coming clean with his own involvement AND identifying prominent moral and financial backers in the North, it was hoped that Cook could receive leniency in his sentencing from Virginia Governor Wise. And second, his legal team sought to have his trial transferred to a Federal court in Staunton, Virginia…where the long arm of the national government would be able to issue subpoenas to question the really big fish to be fried: men such as Fred Douglass, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Gerrit Smith…all implicated in the confession itself.

But all such legal and political wrangling went for naught. Yet the trial of John Cook is to me the most fascinating of all the others held in the Court House in Charlestown. It certainly was the most dramatic of any held for the Harper’s Ferry conspirators…John Brown included. The Old Man wanted to die. John Cook wanted to live. Martyrdom to the cause held no charms for him. But the result was the same…he was convicted and sentenced to hang…and all hopes for a commuted or lessened sentence were futile.

 Cook was a despised man, particularly in Jefferson County, where his trial was held. He was “one of the deepest dyed villains that ever planted foot upon the soil of our State…whose hospitality he has basely violated…” He was the spy…the sneak…the recreant.  He had ingratiated himself with the local populace…married one of their daughters…broken bread at their tables…and even plinked tin cans with the great-grand nephew of George Washington himself. So the chances of John Edwin Cook receiving a reduced sentence in the State of Virginia were about equal to the chances of General William Tecumseh Sherman being later popularly elected as Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia.


So what is Cook’s legacy? He certainly appears to be one of the least likable of the members of Brown’s Provisional Army. His sincere commitment to the antislavery cause is often questionable. His early lawyer, Alexander McClure, called Cook “a sincere fanatic, with mingled humanity and atrocity strangely unbalancing each other…” Lubet himself considers him more of a “thrill seeker” than a “do-gooder.” Perhaps the most apt description was anonymously given in the Jefferson County Register of Deaths, following Cook’s execution on December 16, 1859.  It simply lists his occupation as “adventurer.”

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District and now a regular correspondent and contributor to this blog. He has devoted many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.  

Postscript: A Room with a View

Not having read John Brown's Spy, I am particularly grateful for Herr Wolfe's contribution.  However, I did happen to note one interesting oversight on the part of author Lubet that is worth noting here, if only because failing to do so might rob the narrative of a most poignant moment.  Lubet rejects the description provided by James Redpath (in his biography of Brown)which states that Cook had an unobstructed view of Brown's hanging from the window of his jail cell.  According to the Redpath book, Cook "watched his old Captain until the trap fell and his body swung into mid air, when he turned away and gave vent to his feelings."  Lubet disdains this "poignant vignette," saying that it never happened, and pointing out that Cook even wrote a letter about the hanging and never mentioned that he watched it, "--which in any case would have been impossible from his cell." (See Lubet, p. 254 and note 10, citing Redpath, Life of Captain John Brown, p. 404).

Actually, it is more likely that Professor Lubet is wrong in this case, and that the "poignant vignette" is worthy to preserve as part of the narrative.

To be sure, it is interesting that Cook did not mention that he had seen Brown's hanging, but the fact that he made no mention of it in one instance of writing does not itself disprove that he had seen it from a distance.  More to the point, Lubet fails to observe that Redpath's remarks on page 404 were not his own words, but actually are enclosed in quotation marks.   Unfortunately, Redpath did not provide a citation for the quotation, although in this case it was from the New York Tribune--evidently a very reliable source, since the Tribune had an undercover journalist in Charlestown with good access to the jail.  This journalist reported many details that otherwise would have been denied to anti-slavery northern newspapers.  Interestingly, though, Redpath omitted some parts of the report, including some key descriptions that provide explanation of Cook being able to see the gallows from his jail cell window.   In fact, the report says that the place of  Brown's execution was not more than a half mile from the jail; it also says that “from the windows of his cell in the second story . . . Cook had an unobstructed view of the whole proceedings.  He watched his old Captain until the trap fell and his body swung into mid-air, when he turned away and gave vent to his feelings.” (“John Brown’s Invasion.  Further Interesting Incidents of the Execution,” New York Tribune, 6 Dec. 1859, p. 6.)   The jail in Charlestown in Brown's day was a two-story house with rooms made over as jail cells.  Cook and the other raiders, with the exception of Brown and Stevens, were incarcerated on the second floor of the jail.  To err is human, and historians are humans.   However, as we have seen somewhat recently, when it comes to the theme of John Brown, some scholars may confuse cynicism with objectivity, while others may dismiss the studied but sympathetic scholar as a mere panegyrist. Lubet seems to be a conscientious scholar, and armed with Herr Wolfe's review, I look forward to finally reading this fine book.--LD


Unknown said...

I am nearly finished with Mr. Lubet's book and I have to heartily concur with Mr. Wolfe. Lubet's speculative use of the conditional verb tense has been driving me crazy. He obviously did a lot of research and utilized documents and sources many of us have not previously seen, but every time he speculated on something my reaction was "ach! there he goes again!" Not good history! It's interesting because it's all layered between what IS good history, and fascinating history. The trial section is very interesting, utilizing the speculation less than the lead up to it. I am looking forward to the rest. Despite its flaws, I feel it's still a good book to add to the John Brown library, telling a story previously not elaborated upon, giving us yet another perspective on the saga of John Brown and his men.

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