The Editor and the Spy: Espionage and Poetry in Shepherdstown on the Eve of the Civil War

by Jerry Bruce Thomas

In 2012, Yale University Press published John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook, by Steven Lubet.  The book details Cook’s early life in New England and activities in Kansas and Virginia (largely in Jefferson County) leading up to John Brown’s abortive attempt in October 1859 to inspire a slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry and Cook’s subsequent confession and execution for his part in the plot.  One part of the Cook story left untold by Lubet and others who have written about these events is Cook’s connection with Shepherdstown.  To establish a local cover for his espionage activities Cook pulled the wool over the eyes of Shepherdstown Register editor John H. Zittle by appearing as a “literary character.”

Born in 1829 to a prosperous Congregationalist family in Haddam, Connecticut, the young Cook combined a love of tales and poetry with a devotion to guns and risky adventures.  He went to Yale at 20 to study law but never finished because, as a relative wrote, Cook “wandered in a land of dreams,” talking incessantly, writing sentimental verse for lady friends, and yearning for a bold undertaking.

He went to New York in May 1854.  There he found his cause, embracing a militant abolitionism, likely inspired by the sermons of Henry Ward Beecher of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn Heights and also by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the influential 1852 anti-slavery novel written by Beecher’s older sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Later in 1854 he joined the fight in Kansas over slavery in the territories.  A “dead shot,” he became known for recklessness, bravery, and womanizing, as his free-state forces fought pro-slavery militia called “border ruffians.”  There he also joined forces with John Brown.

More than a year before the Harper’s Ferry raid, Brown sent Cook to Jefferson County to gather intelligence and to compile a census of local slaves who might be ready to rise up against their masters and a list of prominent men of the area who might be useful as hostages.

Cook traveled about Jefferson and Berkeley counties and along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, identifying himself as a school teacher, canal worker, or book seller and ingratiating himself with local people. In the late winter of 1859 he came into Zittle’s office at the Shepherdstown Register claiming that he was a bookseller in town to make available to the public Joel Tyler Headly’s Life of Washington. Impressed by the striking young man of slight stature, blue eyes, and flowing blond hair, Zittle bought the book and gave Cook a plug in his newspaper, writing in the issue of February 5, 1859, “now is your chance getting a book worth having” and urged every Shepherdstown family to buy a copy. In succeeding weeks, Cook visited frequently, and several of his poems appeared in the Register.

In Harper’s Ferry, after courting several area women, he married his innkeeper’s daughter, Mary Virginia “Jenny” Kennedy, just a month before their child, John E. Cook, Jr., was born.

Cook talked to prominent slave owners in the county and to slaves. Brown later complained that Cook’s exaggerated and uncritical reports had misled him into thinking that the slaves were “ripe for insurrection.”

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown led a group of 21 followers to capture the federal arsenal and armory at Harper’s Ferry.  Cook and others captured Lewis Washington, a great -grand nephew of George Washington, taking him along with other hostages to Brown.  Cook also seized Washington’s heirloom sword, which he gave to Brown and an antique pistol, which he kept. Cook then crossed the Potomac to secure their Maryland base.  Brown and his surviving men ended up being captured in the engine house by U.S. marines under Col. Robert E. Lee.

About ten of Brown’s group were killed in the fighting, five escaped, and some six community people died, including the mayor, Fontaine Beckham.  Cook fled into Pennsylvania only to be quickly captured and returned to Virginia authorities.

In Shepherdstown, conflicting reports and rumors from Harper’s Ferry led to a panic. Editor Zittle now called Cook “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”  With other members of the local Hamtramck Guards, he rushed to Harper’s Ferry.  Shepherdstown mayor Dr. John Reynolds organized a patrol to secure the town.  Next day, hearing that a band of insurgents and slaves headed by Cook was on its way upriver to attack Shepherdstown, some of the oldest citizens quickly organized a company commanded by Col. Charles Harper and marched through the streets surrounded by the cheers of women and children.  After a mile of marching down the canal towpath, men on a passing canal boat told them that Cook had fled into the mountains. Later the same day the Hamtramck Guards returned from Harper’s Ferry to fifes and drums and the cheers and bouquets of the town’s ladies in an atmosphere that anticipated the early moments of the coming Civil War.

Seven captured raiders, including Brown and Cook, faced trials in Charlestown. Cook received legal advice from his brother-in-law Ashbel Willard, the governor of Indiana, and Willard’s friend,  Daniel Voorhees, United States Attorney for Indiana.  Rather than taking the high ground of affirming the effort to free slaves and protecting its supporters, as John Brown did in a brief and eloquent defense, they tried to save Cook by blaming John Brown and his Northern backers for misleading the young men Brown had gathered for the attack.  Cook made a last attempt to avoid his fate when, on the eve of their execution, he and a fellow prisoner, Edwin Coppoc, chipped away the bricks of the outer wall of their cell in a failed escape attempt.

The widespread fear and panic in Virginia and the South spurred the state to act quickly, convicting and hanging all of the captured raiders by March 16, 1860.  On December 16, 1859, two weeks after Brown’s execution for treason, murder, and conspiracy to inspire slave rebellion, Shepherdstown’s Hamtramck Guards escorted Cook and Coppoc from the jail to their executions in Charlestown. The Jefferson County Register of Deaths prosaically listed Cook’s cause of death as “gallows” and occupation as “adventurer.” Biographer Lubet says that Cook “was a casualty of the coming Civil War.”  His gravestone in Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn reads that “he died for the cause of human liberty.”  Because of the nature of his defense, his effort to escape justice, and his year of living as a spy among them, white Jefferson countians hated Cook the most.  Even in the week after his death, some blamed an outbreak of rural fires on unknown slaves whom Cook allegedly had influenced.

Civil war historian James M. McPherson writes that the Southern reaction to John Brown’s raid “brought to the surface a paradox that lay at the heart of slavery.”  Slave owners lived in fear of slave insurrection, but they also insisted that slaves were treated well and remained cheerful in bondage.  They felt vindication when few slaves joined Brown’s raid, but throughout the South when it became apparent that noted leaders of Northern opinion found nobility in Brown’s abolitionist goals, Southern anger grew and many prepared to fight.  Public reaction in the North was more complicated as many opposed slavery but abhorred the violence of Brown’s methods.

When the war came, Zittle closed his newspaper for the duration and was elected first lieutenant of the Hamtramck Guards, Company B of the 2nd Regiment of Virginia Infantry, later known as the Stonewall Brigade.  After the war, Zittle resumed publication of the Register and served several terms as mayor.  In 1882, he sold the Register to Harry L. and William Snyder.  Over the years he had also compiled a collection of comments and documents about the Harper’s Ferry raid, but it languished largely unknown until his widow, Minnie, had it published in 1906, five years after his death, under the title A Correct History of the John Brown Invasion of Harper’s Ferry.

In 1860, Jenny Cook returned to Harper’s Ferry to live again at her mother’s rooming house, but local resentment forced her to leave.  She later remarried and lived in Illinois.  Her son John E. Cook, Jr. became a prominent lawyer in New York.

Cook’s poems mirror the romantic, mystical, dark, and morbid musings of the age but reflect nothing of the cause for which he died.   Zittle’s Correct History contains six of the poems that Cook gave him and one that Cook wrote for his wife and child just before his execution.  The poems can be accessed in online versions of Zittle’s book.

(The following first appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of the Shepherdstown Good News Paper.  Harpers Ferry and Charles Town are spelled as they were at the time of the events.)