Saturday, June 20, 2020
A Historical Thriller That Will Make You Wonder How It All Turned Out
Scott D. Parker
There's a moment in The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Killed America's 16th President - and Why It Failed where the President-elect hears dire warnings from two independent sources that his life is in danger and he takes action. He agrees to sneak out of a pre-Inauguration Day party in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, don a disguise, and be whisked away by train, all in an effort to thwart the plot to kill him in Baltimore. That moment consists of me breathlessly wondering: Is he gonna make it?
It's been 155 years since his death. There's a giant statue of President Lincoln in Washington, He's on the penny. He's one of the most famous Americans of all time. He might be recognized in nearly every corner of the world here in 2020. Of course he makes it.
But that's the testament to the writing skill of Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch: they weave the story and the details in such a way as to make history read like a thriller. And dang if this story won't thrill you.
We all know Lincoln's ultimate fate on Good Friday, 1865, but few know of the first plot to kill him before he even took office. I'll admit I learned about it back in grad school at the University of North Texas but it was only in passing. I knew it was foiled and that private detective Allan Pinkerton played a key role. But I never knew the details that fill over 350 pages in this remarkable book.
Much like they did with The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington (2019), Meltzer and Mensch dig deep into the details of this 1861 plan hatched by a cabal of Southern loyalists. They didn't want the president-elect—who carried no slave-holding states in the recent election—to take his place in the White House. At the time, the Republican Party was against the institution of slavery even if Lincoln himself tried to steer a narrow line between free and slave.
Following a tradition dating back to America's first president, Lincoln traveled from his home in Springville, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., in the weeks leading up to his inauguration. Two things gave the Southerners fuel for their plot: Lincoln's itinerary was published in many papers and the rail-splitter from the west would have to change trains in Baltimore. What made this transfer problematic was not only was Maryland a slave state, but the transfer wasn't merely changing trains in a single station. No, this change from one rail line to another involved literally moving a train car about a mile from one station to the next. In that time, with the expected throngs of Southern sympathizers clogging the streets, the president-elect's life would be in jeopardy.
Hired by one of the railroad men to protect threats against the railroad, Pinkerton and one of his agents, Kate Warne, uncovered the real plot. It was then Pinkerton urged Lincoln to change his plans. The new president demurred until a fateful night when word of the plot arrived from his recent rival and future Secretary of State, William Seward. Convinced of the threat, Lincoln finally allowed himself to be disguised and sneak into the nation's capital under the cover of darkness.
Like they did with their Washington book, Meltzer and Mensch write their prose in the present tense. It gives the story an immediacy, a will-he or won't-he vibe that's pretty darn exciting. Often, they'll recount a scene and then cut to a contemporary scene in another part of the country. You really get a bird's eye view of the whole situation.
If you are a fan of audiobook, preeminent narrator, Scott Brick, reads the book. He could read the phonebook and I'd pay to hear it. He narrates everything he does so well, and I especially like the timbre of his voice as he reaches the end of the book and reads the last lines from Meltzer and Mensch.
History isn't just names and dates, laws and wars, pop culture and events. It is people, real people, living their lives and making decisions based on the best knowledge they have at any given time. Some decisions are momentous: the outcome of the 1861 election, the secession of the Southern states, the foiled assassination in 1861 and the successful one four years later. This book peels away some of the veneer Lincoln now lives with in the American imagination in the 155 years since his death, showing us a real guy, beset by personal and national tragedy, who is doing the best he can. Ditto for Pinkerton, Warne, and the Southerners.
Books like these breathe life into history, and as a historian, we need more books like this so folks in the 21st Century can be entertained and learn a little something along the way.
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