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Monday, October 09, 2017

BlogFriend Entry: Finding Mary Cook, the Wife of John Brown's Spy

Richard Smyth, BlogFriend Contributor 

           My hobby is researching and locating the final resting places of historic people. Standing at a grave you are six feet from history. For the last few years I have been looking for anyone connected with John Brown, from his days in Kansas to the raid on Harpers Ferry and beyond. This has been both challenging and rewarding and a whole lot of fun!  I have been successful in locating over four hundred graves, but there are some that have eluded me. On my hit list is Hayward Shepherd, the black baggage handler for the B&O Railroad, who was shot and killed by Brown’s men; Francis Jackson Merriam, one of the raiders who survived only to die in his hotel room in New York City after the Civil War; Jennie Dunbar Garcelone, the love interest of Raider Aaron Dwight Stevens; and lastly, John E. Cook’s wife, Mary Virginia Kennedy Cook, who was pregnant when she married him in Harper’s Ferry, prior to the raid.

There is no extant image of John Cook's wife, Mary
(Cook image, West Va. State Archives)

            The search for Mary Cook’s resting place proved to be one of the most difficult and time consuming. What was known about her is that she had moved around quite a bit after the death of her husband, who was hanged in 1860. First, she stayed with Cook’s family in Haddam, Connecticut, and then moved in with her sister-in-law in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Then she returned to Harpers Ferry to stay with her mother, but remained only a short time at the scene of the raid before spending the summer of 1861 with the Brown family in North Elba, N.Y.  Afterward, Mary moved to Boston where she obtained a job working for “Secret Six” member Dr. Samuel Howe. For a while she also worked for a weekly abolitionist newspaper edited by John Brown’s first biographer, James Redpath.1

            Mary had received her last touching, farewell letter from her husband on December 16, 1859, in which John wrote that he expected to be reunited with his young wife in the afterlife, writing that he was “going to meet my comrades, and wait and watch for You.” If he was successful in meeting his wife in the afterlife, Cook may have been surprised when she showed up with another husband and family tagging along.  In 1865, Mary had married a Union army veteran named George A. Johnson, who was of Scottish descent, born in New York, and two years older than her.
Cemetery record for Mary and her husband George.
Note children Minnie and Robert in the same plot

(R. Smyth)
        There was no further information about Mary until Katherine Mayo, who as an assistant was helping Oswald Garrison Villard prepare his book, John Brown 1800–1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (1910) interviewed Mary in Chicago in 1906. By that time she was a widow. One thing that created confusion for me was the variant spelling of her last name, as I searched for additional information about her life between the time she married George and the interview by Mayo. The 1900 census shows Mary as a widow, with her last name spelled as Johnston.  At this point she was living in Chicago with her daughter Grace, twenty-four-years old. The 1910 census contains the same information.
       After her death on May 8, 1916, Cook County issued a death certificate for Mary Johnston with the notation that her remains were sent to Bloomington, Illinois for burial. Mary was seventy-three-years-old.  Her death certificate identified her as “housewife” -- far different from her first husband John, whose occupation was listed as “Adventurer.”2
          I was aware of the problematic variant spelling of the last name, but thought that the death certificate ended the issue. I was wrong. Continuing to search for information on Mary, George, or Grace Johnston using census records and ancestry sites proved futile. I also contacted every cemetery in the Bloomington area that I could locate with similar results. For a while I thought that there just was not anything else to uncover and her final resting place may be lost to history.
        Moving on to other projects I finally revisited my Mary Cook file to take a second look. I decided to search for Johnson rather than Johnston, something I should have thought of earlier but neglected. This would prove very time consuming due to the commonality of the names, George, Mary and Johnson.  One day while searching the 1860 census, I lucked upon a George and Mary Johnson living in Virginia with two children; George M. Jr. (1866-?) and Minnie Eva (1867-1873)—although I was not yet confidant that I had located my Mary Cook.
          By 1870, the couple, still listed as Johnson, had relocated to Bloomington, Illinois, where Mary and her husband lived on Lincoln Street with George Jr. and Minnie, with two additional children, Grace (1874-?) and Robert (1876-1904). George was listed in various censuses as a clerk and a bookkeeper. Mary kept house. The Bloomington connection was exciting as the death certificate listed Mary remains as being sent there for burial, while the birth date of Grace coincided with later records.
Mary Virginia “Jennie” Kennedy Cook Johnson, grave,
Evergreen Memorial Cemetery – Bloomington, Ill.
The only writing on the marker is “Mother.” (R. Smyth)
            Now tracing this family through later census records, I found that by 1900, Mary was living on Oakwood Boulevard in Hyde Park, Chicago with daughter Grace, who was working as a hotel cashier.  By the time of her death on May 8, 1916, Mary had moved to 52 East 50th Street in the city.3

            Now that I had established a connection with this Mary and Bloomington, Illinois I again began once again checking that area. The census told me that the family lived on Lincoln Street. Checking Google Maps, I located the street and followed it west then reversed and followed it east where I discovered that a few blocks from their home was a cemetery, Evergreen Memorial. I called the cemetery office and spoke to Tina Crow, the manager. She said she would be back in the office in ten minutes and would call me. Exactly ten minutes later I received the call.  Yes, she told me, she did have a Mary V. Johnson buried there in section F, Lot 628. Needing to confirm that this was indeed Mary Cook, I asked if there was anyone else buried in the plot. Tina responded “Yes, a George A. Johnson, who had died on April 29,1876, along with Minnie Eva Johnson, listed as ‘child,’ and Robert Johnson.”4 This was it! There was now no doubt that I had located the final resting place of Mary Virginia Kennedy Cook Johnson or Johnston.5

Now, onto Hayward Shepherd, Francis Jackson Merriam, and Jennie Dunbar Garcelone!

Richard Smyth


1 Steven Lubet, John Brown’s Spy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 259-60.

2 The 1870 census has the family listed as “Johnson” and in addition to George A. and Mary V. there were two children, George M. (age 4) and Minnie (age 2). The 1880 census has not corrected the spelling of the last name and lists two additional children; Grace (age 6) and Robert (age 4).

3 The 1900 census shows Mary V. with the spelling of her last name as Johnston and “widowed.” By this time she was living in Chicago with twenty-four-year-old Grace. The 1910 census contains the same information.

4 The address of the cemetery is 302 East Miller Street, Bloomington, Illinois. The cemetery sits along East Lincoln Street where Mary and husband George raised their family.

5  Jefferson County Register of Deaths as reported in Lubet, John Brown’s Spy, p. 245. The Cook County death certificate lists her as Johnston.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I am a descendant of John E. Cook on my father's side. Thank you for identifying where Mary Virginia Cook Johnson's grave is located. Do you know anything more about the son, John, that she had with John E. Cook? Occupation? Did he marry? Children? Where is he buried? I would be so appreciative of any information. I am trying to connect the dots between him and my Grandmother, Grace Catherine Cook, born 1/6/1899.
Thank you,
Kim Hansen