In books and movies, the life and times of our 16th president, whose birthday we commemorate on Wednesday, has been turned inside out.
By EDWARD M. EVELD
The Kansas City Star
And inside. And out.
Then there’s the crime of Lincoln’s death, supposedly a senseless and spur-of-the-moment act by a mediocre actor with a small handgun. The murder is no cold case. John Wilkes Booth done it.
But when historian David O. Stewart comes to Kansas City on the president’s 205th birthday to talk about the assassination, it will have a new twist — as a mystery.
Stewart’s debut novel, “The Lincoln Deception,” is a departure for the distinguished nonfiction writer. Rather this exploration is a full-blown historical fiction that employs real and imagined characters, questioning for whom the dispatching of Lincoln actually make very good sense.
The story’s true-to-life fulcrum is a terrible secret, one that would risk “the survival of the republic” supposedly confessed by an assassination conspirator.
Here are edited excerpts of our conversation with the author.
Q. The first question could be, ‘Wait, another book about Lincoln?’ But you’ve zeroed in on the assassination here.
A. I absolutely think the dominant narrative is that John Wilkes Booth woke up one morning and said, “I’m going to shoot the president.” I don’t think it’s a sensible narrative, but over the years it has really taken over.
What sparked this for you?
I was working on another book, an earlier history book on the (President) Andrew Johnson impeachment trial (“Impeached”). There was a central figure in that story named John Bingham, the congressman from Ohio. I discovered a pretty obscure biography of him that recounted this episode at his death bed.
Bingham had been the prosecutor in Lincoln’s assassination. Eight of them were convicted of conspiring with Booth. When Bingham died 35 years later, he described when one of the defendants, Mary Surratt, told him this terrible secret. Bingham told his doctor he was taking the secret to his grave.
It’s hard to miss the dramatic quality of that. I walked around for a couple years wondering what I could do with this.
Do most folks realize there were accomplices and a bigger plan, including taking out other officials along with the president?
The effort was to kill the president, the vice president, the secretary of state and the commanding general of the army. That’s not so much an assassination as a coup d’etat. Most of the conspirators had ties to the Confederate Secret Service, a fact that’s really not in dispute, but people sort of ignore.
These conspirators lived for months leading up to the assassination, Booth for almost a year, without income. In 1865 that was just as hard to do as it is today. So somebody was paying their bills. Mary Surratt ran a safehouse for the Confederate Secret Service, and her son, John, was a spy. They didn’t all get together because they were in the same bridge club.
What was the purpose of the secret service?
There were agents throughout the country, through the north. They focused on troop movements, but toward the end of the war they tried to foment uprisings at prisoner of war camps. There was a nest of Southern spies in Canada, in Montreal. Booth went to Montreal and met with them.
No doubt there are lots of unproven theories, for the conspiracy-minded.
Some people suspect Andrew Johnson because he became president and he was a southerner, from Tennessee. Another theory held that Edwin Stanton, secretary of war, was behind it. It’s a silly claim. Based on what we know about Stanton, he loved Lincoln.
Was there no way to do this book without the fiction?
A turgid review of the evidence wasn’t going to grab people’s imagination. Bingham’s secret stayed a secret, so the only way to write about it was to make the story as true and plausible to the time as I could, but I would have to call it fiction.
I’ve always admired an historical novel by Josephine Tey, “The Daughter of Time,” in which she takes on the notion that Richard III of England had the little princes strangled in the Tower of London. She resifts through all the evidence through her character, a detective in the 1950s, and comes up with a very persuasive case that Richard III was framed.
I thought it would be fun to try that.
Where did you take flight from the historical facts?
My central characters, the two investigating the assassination, are inspired by real people, but they’re not real. For the real figures in the book, I describe them as accurately as I could based on what we know. Mrs. Grant (Ulysses S. Grant’s widow) is in it, and John Wilkes Booth’s nephew. But when you make people talk and have them moving around the page, you start to make stuff up. That’s the fun part.
Why place your investigators in 1900?
I had the Bingham story, and I wanted my investigators to be inspired by it, and that put it at 1900. And I liked that at that time there were still people around from the assassination.
Why pick this country doctor from Ohio, Dr. Jamie Fraser, as the man to take on the mystery?
In the real-life story, it’s the doctor who hears about the secret, so I thought I should stay true to that. But I thought it would be important for the doctor to have a partner in this investigation, partly because it allows him to have someone to talk to, to go over the evidence.
But why is his partner, Speed Cook, a black American?
He was inspired by a real historical character, Moses Fleetwood Walker, the last black man to play in professional baseball, in the 1880s, until Jackie Robinson. Fleet Walker understood that America in 1900 was a very hard place to be a black person.
At some level the black character has a lot more at stake in this than the others do. They were subject to random violence — the lynchings that went on into the 1940s and 50s. It’s an ugly part of our history but it is a part of our history.
Is there more fiction in you?
I have a book about James Madison that will come out this time next year. But it turns out that when you write a mystery, there’s a question they always ask: “Is this a series?” And there’s only one answer to that. I’m about to outline the next adventure of Jamie Fraser and Speed Cook.