Author Steven Lubet NU Photo

The Book

With his new book, “John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook,” Steven Lubet applies his unique skills and interests to another event in  history that impelled the United States closer to Civil War. The previous book of the Evanston writer, legal ethicist, Williams Memorial Professor of Law and director of the Bartlit Center for Trial Advocacy at Northwestern University, “Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial,” addressed three cases that arose from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Here, he looks at militant abolitionist John Brown’s raid of Oct. 16, 1859, on Harper’s Ferry, Va. (now Harpers Ferry, W. Va.), taking as his focus one of Brown’s men, John E. Cook.

Originally, says Mr. Lubet, he had thought “the theme [of this history book] would be betrayal, the story of the man who betrayed John Brown, but he became a richer, deeper character.”

Brown trusted Cook, whom he had made a captain in his Kansas Provisional Army several years before, completely; he sent him to Harpers Ferry to learn about and report on troop and train movements, telegraph wire locations, and on the readiness of slaves to rebel as a crucial component of Brown’s plan to take over the federal armory at Harpers Ferry and free local slaves to take part in insurrection. Ultimately Cook gave Brown faulty information about the numbers of slaves ready to join their provisional army. Mr. Lubet offers evidence that this was not intentional, that Cook’s personality led him to offer a romantic fiction when he liked it better than the truth. Brown did not, apparently, recognize this trait in his officer, though others remarked on Cook’s tendency to talk a great deal – and to talk himself up.

Cook lived in Harpers Ferry “undercover” for over a year, came to know many of the residents, and even married a local woman with sincere affection.  He nevertheless carried out his role during the raid, and was of course recognized by those he took prisoner. He is on record as having been civil to them, even letting a schoolteacher escort a frightened child home after promising to return, but they were, naturally, outraged: Cook had lived among them and accepted their hospitality and even friendship. When he was caught nine days after the failed raid, during which nearly all Brown’s men had been captured or killed, the people of Virginia were, says Mr. Lubet, very ready to see him hang. For a short time, the author says, John Cook “was tremendously famous.”

Even before he got to Charles Town, where the trials would take place, Cook differed from his companions another way: He readily betrayed them. “Cook began,” Mr. Lubet says, “to inform on his comrades as early as the wagon ride … to [jail in] Chambersburg, when he attempted to ingratiate himself with his captors and negotiate for his release.”  Shortly after, in jail awaiting trial, he wrote a full confession at the urging of his sister’s husband, Ashbel Willard, the governor of Indiana, including the names and descriptions in detail of the few of his companions who had managed to get away,

With a governor’s connections behind Cook, his case was handled significantly differently from those of the other men. For example, all were charged with treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia through some extension of “constructive treason.” The Northern attorney made a successful case for the two black men that treason could not apply to them because they were black. Cook was the only one of the white raiders for whom the charge was set aside, despite the fact that he was clearly the only one for whom the charge truly made sense. Despite his infamy in the eyes of most Virginians, Cook might even have been freed, had one or another of the plans his supporters worked on come to pass – or had he not been so eager to confess everything.

The story of the raid and its aftermath as Mr. Lubet recounts it is fascinating. He has imbued the events and the people involved in both with a terrific amount of life. This is true not only for John Brown. As Mr. Lubet says, “In most of John Brown historiography, the supporting players are overshadowed. John Brown
is such a blinding luminescence, you see the others only in the shadows.” He says he “wanted to look for the others’ perspectives.”

The author does this superbly for all of the men who made up Brown’s tiny, 21-person army; the people of Harpers Ferry; the attorneys who brought their learning, skill (or lack thereof), opinions and personalities to the table to defend or condemn the perpetrators, relatives of the prisoners and more.

Regarding Brown and his men themselves, Mr. Lubet brings them to life partly through their journeys to their deaths. He gives each man individual consideration in biographical background, his history with abolitionism and with Brown, how he understood what they were about to do before they set out, and whether and how he was killed, caught, or escaped. Most compelling is the section of the book that describes the trial of each of the prisoners – every one charged with murder, conspiracy, and treason – and its outcome. Mr. Lubet’s sensitivity to the fact that each character in this story was a real human being, and his ability to communicate that through his dexterous use of language, along with his extraordinary use of suspense throughout, make this book very hard to put down.

 This is history as it should be written. It is multi-layered, informed by the personalities of those who enacted it, and best of all it is not dry. Concomitant with a suspenseful, exciting account is its support: Mr. Lubet’s notes are detailed; his references to newspapers of the time, letters, unpublished manuscripts, books, etc. could not be more complete; his index is thorough.The book comes as close to portraying actual events and repercussions as it is possible to do with words.

The Author

Steven Lubet was born in greater Chicago, but it is clear he considers Evanston his real home. He says he “has lived in Evanston this time for 33 years.” He came to Evanston first as a 17-year-old undergraduate and has lived here on and off since 1966.

Doris, Mr. Lubet’s mother, grew up in Winnipeg. She came to the U.S., he says, as “part of the great Winnipeg diaspora – you’ll meet them wherever you go.” It was his father, Fred, “one of the last great autodidacts,” who influenced him as a writer. Mr. Lubet senior was a magazine editor, originally from Pittsburgh, who worked on such trade magazines as “Professional Builder” and “Monument Builders Monthly.“ Mr. Lubet (the younger) reminisces that “after about 11 or 12, I helped him with the copyediting” with blue pencils on long galleys. He says his father was “very important to me as a writer.  Dad edited everything I ever wrote. It was galling, but a wonderful education. I learned pretty much everything I know about writing from my father.”

Steven’s two brothers, Dana, now a dentist in Madison, Wis., and Alex, a University of Minnesota ethnomusicologist, attended Evanston Township High School.  His and wife Linda Lipton’s kids went to ETHS, too.

And “NU is our family school,” Mr. Lubet says. Everyone in the family attended Northwestern, including a cousin and a nephew. His daughter went there and his son went to summer school at NU, Mr. Lubet says. 

Ms. Lipton is also trained in law; she earned her JD at the University of Pennsylvania. She did an MBA at Kellogg and is currently the development director at the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. She worked previously as a civil rights litigator with the Children’s Defense Fund.

After graduating from Northwestern in 1970, Mr. Lubet says, he spent three years in Berkeley at law school, during the time of the peace movement, when students were fighting also for civil rights. He says with a smile that he “doesn’t remember much,” but “I have the degree so I know I was there.”

He came back to Chicago right after graduation and took a job as staff attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago for two years. Among the jobs he has had before and while teaching law at NU are consumer representative for the Federal Trade Commission, special education hearing officer with the Illinois Office of Education, Northwestern Legal Clinic. In fact, he says during his first 12 years of teaching he was principally a litigator and he still consults on cases that concern legal ethics, or the ethics of law practice.

One of Mr. Lubet’s interests is the art of when, in trial, to present critical information about the event. That is, he has examined how and when in the course of a trial an attorney should present the “inciting incident” – the occurrence and those of its features that has brought the parties to court. A central mistake, he says, is not getting to the inciting incident quickly enough for the jurors – get there too slowly and one loses them; too quickly and not enough power is lent to what the attorney hopes will affect them the most.

This is true also in writing, says Mr. Lubet. With, for example, “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed into a gigantic insect,” Kafka gets right to the heart of it; in “Tom Sawyer,” on the other hand, a lengthy exposition before the main adventure works to get the reader involved, he says.

Mr. Lubet’s next book, he says, will focus on John Copeland, the young, free, educated black man from Oberlin who was also executed after the Harpers Ferry raid. “Every story can be told from multiple perspectives,” he says. Even when “everybody agrees. … By shifting perspective you tell a different story.”

It comes as no surprise that in one of Mr. Lubet’s courses – enticingly titled “Narrative Structures: Law, Literature, Journalism, Film” – “Rashomon,” the Japanese 1950 classic film about perspective and point of view by Akira Kurosawa, is required viewing.