The Murder of Willie Lincoln is an exciting historical fiction debut by award-winning political journalist and Washington insider Burt Solomon (available February 21, 2017).
Washington City, 1862: The United States lies in tatters, and there seems no end to the war. Abraham Lincoln, the legitimate President of the United States, is using all his will to keep his beloved land together. But Lincoln’s will and soul are tested when tragedy strikes the White House as Willie Lincoln, the love and shining light in the president’s heart, is taken by typhoid fever.
But was this really the cause of his death? A message arrives, suggesting otherwise. Lincoln asks John Hay, his trusted aide—and almost a son—to investigate Willie’s death. Some see Hay as a gadfly—adventurous, incisive, lusty, reflective, skeptical, even cynical—but he loves the president and so seeks the truth behind the boy’s death.
And so, as we follow Hay in his investigation, we are shown the loftiest and lowest corners of Washington City, from the president’s office and the gentleman’s dining room at Willard’s Hotel to the alley hovels, wartime hospitals, and the dome-less Capitol’s vermin-infested subbasement. We see the unfamiliar sides of a grief-stricken president, his hellcat of a wife, and their two surviving and suffering sons, and Hay matches wits with such luminaries as General McClellan, William Seward, and the indomitable detective Allan Pinkerton.
What Hay discovers has the potential of not only destroying Lincoln, but a nation.
FEBRUARY 5–20, 1862
John Hay strolled to the double doors of the East-room. From his embroidered waistcoat he drew his grandfather’s gold pocket watch, with the delicate links in the chain. It was two minutes before ten o’clock. Hay was late, although not as late as he would have liked. President Lincoln’s assistant private secretary, just twenty-three years old, cottoned to nightlife of almost any description. But receptions in the Executive Mansion were simply work in a different dress—and for the gentlemen, not so different. Socializing in Washington City, Hay had learned, was not about pleasure.
Just outside the opened doors, the Marine Band played its absurd adaptations of operatic airs, its director having conferred with Madam President about the evening’s selections. The butlers hovered in their mulberry uniforms, made to match Mrs. Lincoln’s new set of china.
Hay glanced at himself in the gilded French looking glass and, as usual, liked what he saw. He could understand how his countenance might be mistaken for Edgar Allan Poe’s—more than one feminine admirer had told him so—before the poet’s descent into sweet wine and laudanum. Only, lighter in complexion and a dollop more debonair. His mischievous hazel eyes, the sparse yet raffish mustache, the nut-brown hair pomaded and parted fashionably to the side, the smile that Hay could turn devilish on command—the aesthete in him approved. His dainty chin and scrawny build were hardly his own doing and, therefore, no cause for shame. The same for his peach-blossom face, as innocent as an altar boy’s, which served to conceal the machinations within.
The grandest room in the Executive Mansion, the East-room was considered one of the finest (Hay shuddered to think) in Christendom. The high frescoed ceiling and the three glittering chandeliers told of a designer trying too hard. As did the new carpet of Belgian velvet, ocean green and embellished with roses, woven into a single piece, as lush and meticulous as a medieval tapestry—and nearly as expensive. Hay had handled the $2,575 invoice from Carryl and Brother, the Philadelphia merchants who were also responsible for the gaudy new bed in the Prince of Wales Room.
The East-room was less crowded than Hay had expected. He noted with satisfaction that the desperation for invitations among the city’s social aristocracy had evidently been unaccompanied by any actual desire to attend. Either that, or the Republicans who had conquered this southern, standoffish city had learned at last the politesse of a late arrival.
At the center of the room, the president and his wife stood back-to-back. They reminded Hay of a telegraph pole by a carousel, an asymmetry of shape that belonged onstage at Christy’s minstrels, after the Ethiopian songs and before the burlesque. “The long and the short of it,” Lincoln liked to say. Well-wishers stood in a line, concealing all but the apex of Mrs. Lincoln’s black-and-white flowered headdress, the crêpe myrtle drooping down. The president’s head and shoulders bobbed above the circle of guests, his swallowtail coat hanging on his angular frame, a white kid glove protecting his hand, as he bowed in mechanical greeting: “Good evening, Lord Lyons … Senator Sumner, a pleasure … General Doubleday, how do you do?” Hay strode in the Lincolns’ direction, meaning to relieve whoever was announcing the guests. A tedious duty, but a duty nonetheless.
He passed by Mrs. Lincoln, almost as near as the radius of her hoop skirt. Her face was plump, and her eyes were unnaturally bright—an untamable look. For an instant, Hay caught sight of what the Ancient must have seen in her once, a vivacity that was not exactly beauty but could fool a man into thinking it was. To-night, she was swathed in Mrs. Keckly’s simple and elegant gown of a dazzling white satin with flounces of black lace and a train a yard in length and a half yard wide. She showed her bare shoulders and daringly deep décolletage, leaving her milking vessels on display. This is what women do, Hay supposed, when they doubt their looks or worth.
Mary Lincoln swiveled toward Hay as if to shake another hand. When she saw who it was, she flinched. The president, in his magical way, noticed the awkwardness behind his back; turning toward Hay’s unspoken inquiry, he shook his head and sent his aide away.
Hay espied Nicolay standing along the back wall, by the liquid refreshments. As Lincoln’s private secretary, John George Nicolay was Hay’s immediate boss, as well as his roommate upstairs and his dearest friend.
Hay weaved his way between the couples strolling past. The candlelight from the chandeliers and the sconces reflected off the men’s silken vests and the ladies’ satins and jewels. Hay was careful not to step on the hem of any floor-length gown. He kept his eyes to the carpet so as not to be waylaid. (Faces were not Hay’s forte; nor were names, truth be told.) He listened hard to the snatches of chatter he passed through. About the congressional debate over the bill to issue another $100 million in greenbacks as legal tender. About the Senate’s two-thirds vote that afternoon to expel Bright of Indiana, an obstinate Democrat, for addressing a letter to Jefferson Davis as the president of the Confederacy—treasonable communication—before the war broke out. About the war, the war, the war, always the war. The departure of the Burnside expedition, its flotilla sailing along the Virginia coast, toward the Carolinas. The fifteen hundred Confederates who threw down their arms after the rout at Mill Springs in Kentucky. The Union army’s foray into Tennessee. The chessboard of a war that would surely end by springtime. Or by harvest time. Or by Christmas. Or never.
He had nearly reached Nicolay when he heard a voice like the chime of a crystal bell. A scrum of men, young and not so young, concealed its source, but Hay effortlessly pictured Kate Chase’s face—the taut ivory skin, the coquettish tilt of her head, the long eyelashes and sinuous neck, her features as delicate as a china doll’s, a pout ever poised at the corners of her impertinent mouth. Her round, sweet face that hid the venom beneath. Two manly backs parted, revealing the twenty-one-year-old daughter of the secretary of the Treasury, holding court. Her mauve silk dress, devoid of ornamentation, intensified her violet eyes. Her regal self-possession had excited the jealousies of every lady in Washington City, especially the one whom the correspondent for The Times of London had dubbed the First Lady.
“Good evening, Mister Hay,” Kate Chase said.
He felt himself blush. “A pleasure, as…” He hesitated.
“Always,” she finished.
He had intended to say usual. “As always,” he agreed, bowing low, too low, sarcastically low. “And lovely as always. And ever so kind as always, to all who love you.”
He glanced around at her worshipers. Hay had dismissed the rumors of her dalliance with a married young industrialist back home, in Ohio. But the thirty-one-year-old governor of Rhode Island posed more of a threat. William Sprague IV was not only a veteran of Bull Run, but his calico-milling millions could pull the presidency within Kate’s duplicitous father’s grasp; no greater ambition did Salmon—or Kate—Chase harbor. And should the Boy Governor come up lame, by the grace of a wretch’s God, there was the dashing young war hero who at present was standing stiffly at her side. Colonel James A. Garfield had a chestful of medals, a colonel-sized build, and an extravagant beard that hid half his face. One wooer was a millionaire, the other a certified warrior. How could a stone-broke civilian compete? She had caught his eye—indeed, every man’s eye—at the inauguration, and she had allowed him to accompany her to the odd senator’s dinner and to the Hell-cat’s Blue Room soirées. She would smile at Hay and lean her cheek in for a peck, or occasionally more, but for the most part kept him literally at arm’s length.
“Yes, kind above all,” she said. “That is my mission in life. That, and love.”
“Ah, love. ‘I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden. Thou needest not fear mine,’” Hay recited. “Shelley, as you are doubtless aware.”
“I am, sir. But please allow me to assure you that I fear nothing of the sort.” There was a tittering all around. “And you, Mister Hay, shall never need fear mine.”
A guffaw from Hay’s left.
“Then if you will excuse me, my dear Miss Chase, I shall leave you to your many suitors.” Hay struggled to hide his exasperation. “My sorrows need to be drowned.”
“As you prefer, Mister Hay,” she announced to his back. He could imagine her taunting smile. “As always.”
Ordinarily, things came easily to Hay. At Brown, he had rarely cracked a book, yet a Phi Beta Kappa key mingled with the ashes on his bedside table upstairs. He was equally adept at friendship; his apparent lack of need for it (which masked his longing) drew other men in. With women, however, everything was different. In his verbal duels with Kate Chase, why did he always finish second? Or possibly he failed to notice when he won. In either case, he kept returning for more. Hay was not the sort of man inclined to cozy up to pain, although he would accept it, or at least tolerate it, for a purpose. His purpose with Kate Chase, of course, was obvious to everyone, even to himself, and so was her advantage, the oldest known. No, not that—well, not only that. It was that he wanted her more than she wanted him—or wanted anyone, best he could tell. This was the source of her power, and not over Hay alone. In a kinder world, the knowledge that other men shared his plight would have eased his pain, but not in this one.
Hay made a beeline for the table in the back. The gigantic Japanese punch bowl was filled to the brim, twenty bottles of champagne mixed in unknowable proportions with rum and arrack. (Hay had seen those invoices, too.) He was scooping the ambrosial liquid into a crystal cup when Nicolay approached with a brotherly smirk.
“And how, may I ask, is the lovely Miss Chase?” he said. A trace of Bavaria, where Nicolay had spent his earliest years, still stiffened his diction. Orphaned at an early age, he had always toiled long hours to get by, and had never bothered to become an American citizen, as Hay alone was aware. Nicolay had no family and no confidants, save for Therena and Hay.
“Miss Chaste, you mean,” Hay said.
“I see nothing has changed. Except that you have learned, no doubt, your proper place.”
“Not this year,” Hay replied with a toss of his head. “Maybe next.”
“We can but hope.”
The cadaverous Nicolay was ordinarily the least fanciful and the most literal of men—taciturn, methodical, and oh so German. His head was shaped like an inverted teardrop; the V of a receding hairline topped an elongated forehead, deeply set eyes, and emaciated cheeks, then narrowed into a pursed mouth and a scraggly Vandyke. His reputation for seeming sour and aloof to the point of arrogance was not undeserved—and ever useful to a president who hated to turn anyone away. For the perpetual lines of job seekers who snaked up the stairs and into Lincoln’s reception room, hoping to gain (as they invariably protested) a scant five minutes of the president’s time, it was Nicolay’s job to impede them. He had a gift for saying no in the most disagreeable manner. But never to Hay.
“How ’bout this?” said Hay. He leaned his head to the side and started to compose:
Ill fares the man who vainly tries
To gaze into a woman’s eyes …
Not bad. Then, stalling, Hay gazed at the ceiling, trolling for rhymes in his mind—ties, fries, sighs, cries … Hmmm.
She will keep him … What—locked, sad, torn?… will keep him fraught—yes!—until he cries …
And gains the advantage of her … Hay paused, then grinned.… thighs.
Hay expected Nicolay to laugh—a rarity—but instead a faraway look entered his doleful blue eyes. He must miss Therena terribly; Nico’s fiancée was still in Illinois. That was where Nicolay had labored for Lincoln’s long-shot campaign as the journalist-turned-clerk in the Illinois secretary of state’s office, which was practically the state’s Republican headquarters. After Lincoln was nominated for president, Nicolay became his private secretary and asked Hay, his pal from earlier days, to help out. Hay was reading for the law in his uncle’s firm—on the same floor, in the same building, as the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office—and found any diversion desirable. Now, it was Hay who laughed instead. Then he gestured back toward the Lincolns and said, “No one?” Announcing the guests, he meant; they spoke in shorthand.
“No need.” Nicolay had returned to himself. “So sayeth the Ancient. He is on his own to-night.” From anyone else, Hay would have suspected sarcasm. But not from Nicolay, whose reverence for Lincoln was unabridged.
“The Hell-cat, too?”
“She invited these people, so she ought to know who in blue blazes they are. Those were his words. Out loud. Not in her presence, of course.”
“Eight hundred fifty of her closest friends,” Hay said.
“Precisely. So, Johnny, accept the manna when it falls.”
“Even at Maillard’s prices?” Mrs. Lincoln had hired the celebrated caterer of New York to create masterpieces of the confectioners’ art—the model of Fort Sumter, the frigate Union with forty cannons, Jackson’s Hermitage, a Chinese pagoda, a Roman temple, all of it spun from sugar, every spar and strut and swirl—burdening tables beyond the State Dining Room’s locked doors.
A half smile from Nicolay. It annoyed Hay how good that made him feel. Nicolay’s expressions of pleasure had to be earned.
Hay said, “Where is Bob?” The Lincolns’ eldest son, Robert, had finished his examinations at Harvard and arrived by train in time for the ball.
“Upstairs, I suppose. The covers over his head.”
“I envy him.”
Hay surveyed the hourglass-shaped women who paraded arm in arm with the men in black. A Noah’s ark of two-legged mammals, with hides in the most vibrant of hues—as in nature, Hay reflected, among the menfolk, too. The peacocks of generals with their rainbows of medals, embroidered cuffs, and brass buttons left stylishly unbuttoned. The diplomats, the deadest of deadwood, ennobled in plumes and gold lace. And the fairer sex—the congressmen’s consorts trying to out-crinoline the senators’ wives. The bejeweled doyennes who were secret secessionists but, for lack of courage or gold, had not fled south. Yet.
“Intolerable bores, all,” Hay muttered. “So, Nico, here is a game. Pick out the secret secesh.”
“Too easy, Johnny.”
“True. So, pick out the radicals.” He meant the fire-breathing Republicans in Congress who deemed Lincoln too passive about slavery.
Nicolay chortled. “Too easy.”
“Right again. Then this. The men of dishonor and their ladies.” Nicolay laughed so violently that a splash of colorless punch leapt from his cup and sank into the carpet. “And naturally I mean ‘ladies’ in the anatomical, not the poetical, sense.”
“How old did you say you are, Johnny Hay?”
Hay happened to glance back toward the president, who was engaged in conversation with a short, pudgy man doing most of the talking. Lincoln towered over him and cocked his head, paying close attention, then flailed his right arm overhead, toward the ceiling. At the floor above.
Abruptly, the shorter man swiveled and bolted toward the double door. The president followed in his awkward heron’s gait.
For five or six seconds, the East-room seemed frozen, oddly in suspense. Strains from La Traviata wafted in from beyond, unheeded. All eyes were on … her. Mrs. Lincoln flicked her ivory fan, its feathers dyed emerald green. Ever so slowly, she spun toward the spot where her husband had stood, and she wobbled like a child’s top about to tip. Then, with a visible effort, she straightened herself and suddenly swept toward the door. The ball-goers parted like the Red Sea and let her pass through, then flowed back into one.
“What on earth was that?” Hay said.
“Maybe Willie,” Nicolay replied. The boy had fallen ill the previous day, after riding his new pony along the canal. “Or Robert suffocated under his blanket. Or just Tad tearing up the place.”
“If it was Tad,” Hay pointed out, “the Ancient would never interfere.”
* * *
Day after awful day, eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln’s low, muttering delirium alternated with a stupor that occasionally lapsed into a coma. His mother never left his bedside. The president summoned every expert he could find. The swings in the boy’s symptoms bewildered the doctors, although with typhoid fever, they said—for such was their diagnosis—often the only pattern was no pattern. His fever came and went, but every time he got worse, he was worse than before. Willie was treated with astringents—acetate of lead, dilute acids—and belladonna. He was given Peruvian bark and beef tea and also doses of brandy and wine. Strong medicines, folk medicines, almost anything that might work. He was bathed in cold water containing chlorate of potash and took laudanum for the pain until it made him too groggy. President Lincoln had forbidden Dr. Stone from applying leeches or blistering to his middle son, although he did permit the calomel. Every four to six hours, Willie swallowed one of the grayish pellets, along with a grain or a grain and a half of Dover’s powder—a mixture of ipecac and opium—to curb the fever and diarrhea.
On the afternoon of February 19, a Wednesday, Willie returned from the land of the dying. Hay heard the yowls of laughter from his desk on the second floor of the Executive Mansion. Some of them sounded like the president’s. An opportune time, perhaps, to bring the most urgent of the correspondence to his attention.
Bud Taft, Willie’s most intimate playmate, was kicking a purplish ball against the scuffed walls of the drafty central hall. Ordinarily the most bashful of boys, he exulted in Willie’s revival. His next kick drove the ball directly at Hay’s groin. Hay jumped aside and blocked the ball with his knee and sent it skittering through the doorway into Willie’s sickroom.
Hay scurried in pursuit. Inside the Prince of Wales Room, the heavy curtains were partly drawn. The sunlight sidled in, lending a cheer to the purple French wallpaper flecked with gold. (That invoice had made Hay gasp.) Steam-heated air gurgled from the registers, to fight the chill. Willie was sitting up in the seven-foot-long rosewood bed, the pillows piled nowhere near high enough to hide the birds and tangled vines carved into the gigantic headboard. On the wall above his head, a cornet of purple silk, crowned in gold, held lacy white curtains that helped relieve the gloom. The president occupied a wicker chair beside the bed; a nurse sat at the foot. The bed was so big, Willie might have gone unseen had he not been babbling with delight.
“Look, Paw, I can eat!” Willie cried. He held a misshapen spoon that his father had whittled out of basswood on a rainy Sunday long ago. The boy slurped a whitish, viscous-looking pudding; a globule slid over the edge of the spoon and onto the sheet, settling like a blotch of decaying cod.
“I can see that, son.” Lincoln’s high, reedy voice quavered. “You are taking your medicine?”
“Oh yes, Paw. Every bit. I did.”
“And, Paw, may I see Nanko?” That was one of Tad’s goats. “Taddie could bring him upstairs.”
“Taddie is also ill, son.”
“Then you could. Please, Paw. I need to see him, Paw.”
“Well, maybe I can, my boy. Maybe I can.”
There was a luminescence about Willie. More than intelligence—a liveliness, a life force. Willie was not painfully reserved like his older brother, Robert, nor twisted or odd like Tad, who was eight years old but seemed younger. Tad was a brat, like a boy reared by wolves. He pulled on men’s beards, hammered nails into the carpets, sliced the knobs off drawers using the saw in his toolbox, rearranged the books in his father’s library, yoked both of his goats to a chair and pulled them sled-like through an East-room reception, all while stammering his baby talk—from a misshapen palate—that no stranger could understand. Hay knew who was at fault—both of them. Neither parent would reprimand Tad or Willie or deny them a thing, not after three-year-old Eddy had died. “Let the children have a good time,” they would say. So, of course the boys misbehaved. Who could blame them?
But somehow, Willie had learned to discipline himself. He was good-natured and direct, comfortable with both his pals and adults, willing and able to lead (in pranks, best of all) but content to follow. There was a sweetness in the curve of his cheeks and an audacity in his energetic blue eyes. He was a brave and happy boy with a spunk that stopped short of self-indulgence. Willie’s round face resembled his mother’s—not a surface of it was flat. But in manner, in habits of mind, even in gesture—carrying his head inclined slightly to his right—in his soul, Willie was his father’s son. They were astonishingly alike. Hay had once watched the president watching Willie puzzle through a problem; ten minutes of concentration produced a clasp of hands and a smile. “There, you have it now, my boy, have you not?” Lincoln had said. Then, to Hay, “I know every step of the process by which that boy arrived at his satisfactory solution of the question before him, as it is by just such slow methods I attain results.” Like his father, but no one else in the family, Willie led an inner life.
“But when, Paw, when?” The boy was still stuck on Nanko.
“Soon, son. As soon as you are better.”
“Oh, Paw, I know that the medicines ain’t gonna be enough.”
“Why do you say that, son?”
“Because everybody hushes so when they say my name.”
Lincoln opened his mouth and then closed it. Hay pitied Honest Abe, unable to muster a lie when he needed one most.
The president looked up at Hay with unfocused eyes. “And what can I do for you, John?”
Hay glanced to the foot of the bed. “Ma’am,” he said.
The nurse seemed not to hear.
“Please, ma’am,” Hay said, “if you would…”
“As you say, sir,” she drawled. The buxom nurse had severe black hair. Shoulders hunched, she crossed to the door and swept it shut.
“Sir,” Hay said. Lincoln disliked being addressed as “Mister President”—he preferred “Lincoln,” although Hay could not bring himself to presume such familiarity.
The president accepted the goose-feather pen like an obedient child. He signed an act of Congress appropriating $15 million more for gunboats. Hay figured the letters to the feuding governors of New Jersey and New York could wait. But Lincoln needed to learn of the morning’s scuffle between Seward and Stanton, the secretaries of state and war, the diplomat versus the brawler, over how splenetic a tone to strike in the president’s next epistle to General McClellan.
“Nonsense, I will decide,” Lincoln said, waving his hand before turning back to Willie, whose spills now resembled a map of Abyssinia.
Hay had turned toward the door when Robert rushed in, a bowl of pudding in his hands. “Here, Willie, for you—brown charlotte.”
It was heartening to see Robert so nice to his younger brother—to Tad, too. Robert was eighteen years old and always seemed sad, an intruder in his own family. Hay had known him at preparatory school back in Springfield, the Illinois capital, and they palled around whenever Robert visited Washington City. The semester had started at Harvard, but Robert showed no signs of hurrying back. He seemed to like it here; the boys idolized him and would do anything he asked.
“I already have some,” Willie said.
“Oh, but this is so good!”
Hay took his leave. He grieved for this family enduring the saddest of times. In the hallway, neither the nurse nor Bud Taft was in sight.
* * *
Hay tensed for the punch that never came, so he threw one instead. The best defense was a good offense, or so Hay had decided after suffering a blackened eye—it kept the other fellow too busy to punch back. Hay’s hard right cross found the Irishman’s broad chin, but the man shook it off like a horse’s tail shoos away a horsefly. Hay’s knuckles cracked—he needed to remember to pull his punches, finger bones being more fragile than jaws. Hay never remembered anything while he was in the ring, not even to breathe, much less to relax. How could he? Someone was trying to hit him.
To-night, it was a large-ish someone. Maybe Hay should feel flattered that his boxing instructor considered him worthy to fight the chesty, ruddy-faced redhead. True, the Irishman had never properly sparred before, hewing to the London prize ring rules. So, Hay determined to teach him a lesson or two. He snapped a jab, which the Irishman parried, then a second jab and a third, each time stepping forward as the man backed away. A fourth jab and a fifth pressed the Irishman into the ropes, and then Hay’s right cross got his attention. He followed with a left into the fellow’s jellylike belly and a left hook to the ear. Hay marveled at his own capacity for … what, exactly? Manliness? Savagery? Courage, mock or genuine? Freedom from—or indulgence in—fear?
Hay was always jittery, his stomach knotted, before climbing into the ring. He liked having sparred better than he liked the sparring. Did that make him a coward? No, he had decided: Without fear, courage had no meaning.
This lesson had been unexpected. He had taken up pugilism in Providence in pursuit of acceptance, to fit in among the Easterners who disdained his rough Western dress and his long hair coiled around his ears, like a Roundhead’s. The university had deemed boxing too uncivilized, too déclassé, to taint the campus, so Hay and fistic-minded schoolmates had hired a “professor of pugilism” in the city’s seedier section, who taught them how a gentleman could thwack blackguards and stand up for himself. Knowing he had the guts to face a bigger man in the ring had made Hay less afraid of the world.
Hay had learned other things, too—for one thing, that he could take a punch, which in this capital of ruffians was useful to know. That, and how to respond when the Irishman, recovering, started jabbing back at him, driving Hay back across the ring. His fellow students of the manly art were cheering him on—damn if he would embarrass himself in front of his mates. As the Irishman kept coming at him, Hay pivoted to his right and punched him in the temple, then drove a left fist up into the undefended chin. The big redhead toppled onto his back, ending the round.
Hay’s second delivered a bottle of water to his corner and sponged off his face and chest. Josiah was Hay’s only true pal at the boxing gymnasium. The street urchin with straw-colored hair had no notion of where Hay lived and worked, and Hay reveled in his not knowing. This shabby place, on the wrong side of Pennsylvania avenue, was as distant as the moon from the Executive Mansion. Its denizens lived in a separate world, quite to Hay’s delight. He could come here without being noticed, and when life grew too unyielding, nothing satisfied him more than to pound away on something hard, whether inanimate or human. The Ancient as well as the Hell-cat would be aghast to know his whereabouts, especially as Willie lay ill. Even Nicolay might look at him sidewise. No matter. Hay needed this. Not only as an escape from the cauldron of the Executive Mansion but also from his own lingering sense of duty shirked. Rare in Hay’s acquaintance was the young man of unasthmatic constitution who had not yet volunteered to take up arms for the Union. Yes, it was true, he was probably more useful to winning the war by passing paper to the commander in chief than by ducking minié balls on a muddy field. But still: A red-blooded young man ought to show his mettle in the time-honored way. Here, in the ring, Hay could punch away any feelings of shame.
The thirty seconds of rest expired, and the referee called the fighters back from their corners. Hay felt wobbly, but his opponent looked worse—until they were told to resume, and the Irishman advanced suddenly and plowed his right fist into Hay’s solar plexus. The pain radiated through his torso and doubled him over. Then came the punch to his mouth, and it was Hay’s turn to tumble back onto the canvas. The second round, all of ten seconds, was over.
Hay sat up quickly and shook his head, and the pain faded—rarely did it take more than a few seconds to pass—enough that he could climb to his feet. He staggered to his corner, and as he arrived, his left leg sagged. Just barely did he land on the stool.
Josiah handed him water and whispered, “Do what you know how to do.”
That was the nicest thing he could have said to Hay. Useful, besides.
When the thirty seconds ended, Hay was first to reach the scratch line and also the first to throw a punch. But this time he switched to a southpaw stance, and his jab, jab, jab left the discombobulated Irishman open to a cross from Hay’s left. Then came a hard right hook to the Irishman’s head. The chess-like quality to boxing—each punch set up the next—kept Hay’s mind engaged along with his instincts, before and after the sparring if not in the midst of it.
“Good hook, Mistuh J.,” Terrance called from beyond the ropes. The proprietor, a freedman, was Hay’s new professor of pugilism.
At Hay’s hard right uppercut, the Irishman’s mouth opened in a perfect O—a look of surprise, as if the Virgin Mary herself had descended into the ring—and then it closed to a point, just as his torso pitched sideways onto the canvas.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Hay blurted.
“There is no ‘I’m sorry’ in boxing!” Terrance exclaimed.
Actually, Hay was not sorry in the slightest.
* * *
That night, Willie took a turn for the worse. His pulse grew rapid and weak, and he sank into a coma. A pall settled over the Executive Mansion. Hay occasionally ventured into the central hall and saw the president or Mrs. Lincoln or Dr. Stone rush in or out of the Prince of Wales Room. Dr. Stone said Willie was unlikely to last until morning.
Hay was surprised to be awakened by the sunlight—he and Nicolay had forgotten to draw the frayed curtains closed. But now, he dreaded leaving his bed. He persuaded himself to peek from under the quilt: Nicolay had gone. That Teutonic sense of duty put Hay to shame.
He must have fallen back to sleep, because when he opened his eyes, Nicolay was hovering over the bed, reporting that Willie was fine—in any event, better. The boy was sitting up and eating a little, “in thrall to yet another winter’s day.” It was unlike Nicolay to wax poetic.
Late in the afternoon, Hay was working at his upright mahogany desk, his eyelids drifting shut. For hours the rain had pelted his windows; the fireplace threw off too little heat. Hay huddled over the untidy piles of correspondence. Pleas for office, applications for pardons, diatribes from lawmakers, religious exhortations, unsolicited counsel, slander against public men—such an omnium-gatherum was the president’s mail, of which three or four out of a hundred he would show to the president. Into the willow basket at his feet Hay tossed a Rhode Island senator’s arrogantly worded appeal to reconsider his brother-in-law’s bid (twice rejected by the War Department) to supply the army with used bandages. Then he remembered the senator’s artful equivocation on the legal tender bill and retrieved the letter and placed it on the pile requiring a reply. Hay was reaching for the next envelope when a guttural wail erupted outside, in the waiting room that separated Hay’s office from the president’s.
Hay leapt for the door. He knew whose wail it was, although he had never heard it before.
Lincoln was stumbling the length of the waiting room, past his own office door and in through Nicolay’s, at the end on the right. As Hay rushed across the waiting room, a woman screamed beyond the folding double doors. Someone—no, two someones—held a torso by the shoulders and guided it into Mrs. Lincoln’s bedroom.
Nicolay’s office was narrow and dark, like a passage to purgatory. Nicolay lay on the sofa, propped up on his elbows, half-awake. Lincoln stood by the window, swaying, his body bent.
“My boy is gone,” he wailed into his big, bony hands. “He is actually gone!”
Then he burst into sobs and rushed past Hay and out the door.
The burning behind the eyes before the tears arrive—Hay’s entire body felt that way. On the verge of … something unfathomable. He loved the boy—that, he knew—and the father, too. Hay simply could not believe what he had heard. Yet he knew in his bones it was so.
* * *
It occurred to Hay, and not for the first time, that the extent of clutter on a man’s desktop was directly proportional to the orderliness of his mind. He liked to think so, anyway, given the jumble of papers that covered both of his desks. But still, he had done what needed doing, whatever Nicolay had no time for—dispatching messengers to the cabinet secretaries and congressional leaders, wiring the president’s political friends in Springfield, notifying the diplomats. He was in a fog; he felt nothing at all. Yet phrases leapt into his mind. Hay reached for a pen and tore off a scrap of foolscap.
Tearless & calm in the grave he shall sleep,
Weary & worn on the earth we shall weep …
Too plain, he judged—boring. Maybe:
Death’s thick trailing veils of miasma will rise …
No—too … too … something, but definitely too. It was hell being a better critic than a writer. Still, writing it down relieved him of the need to think about it. Dealing with death must get easier with practice—everything else did. Hay had known little enough of death in his score and three years—two grandparents, an ancient aunt, an elderly neighbor, all in the natural order of things. And the sister he had been too young to remember. Even his grandfather was still alive, who had been patted on the head as a nine-year-old by George Washington himself because his father had served under the general’s command.
Hay stuffed the foolscap into the satchel that hung from a peg on the wall. It was a gift from his father for passing the Illinois bar exam just days before Hay accompanied the president-elect and his entourage to Washington City. An envelope jutted from the outside pocket—he had not seen it there before. Occasionally, Nicolay used the outside pocket for a message too private to consign to Hay’s chair, but he would have positioned the envelope precisely perpendicular to the lip. This envelope was furled—crumpled, almost—and shoved in at a provocative angle. By someone in a hurry.
Hay reached for the envelope and grasped the corner. He laid it along the front edge of his desk and pressed down the corner that begged to curl up. The oyster-white envelope had a crinkly grain that suggested age or wear. It had no postmark or return address. Across the back, in thin black ink, written in a shaky hand, was the name of the addressee:
MR. TRAITOR LINCOLN
Hay had seen countless letters of hatred and threats to Lincoln’s life. And to Mrs. Lincoln’s—he remembered one that showed a noose around her neck. The president would brush them aside, explaining that his fate was out of his hands, instructing his secretaries to dispose of the letters without bothering him. Hay was about to discard this one, unopened, when a question popped into his mind: If Nicolay had not jammed the envelope into the satchel, who had?
Using his bone-handled knife, Hay slit open the envelope and removed a single page of blue foolscap. The roughly textured paper had been folded over twice. Hay flattened it, best he could, across the uneven topography of his desktop. Four lines of a crude cursive slashed across the page, but the boldness of the strokes did not prepare him for the words they spelt.
Poor Willie Lincoln
There was one named Barabbas,
who had committed murder
in the insurrection.
He read the note four or five times. Hay’s relationship with the Scriptures was incurious at best. But no one could live for long in any hamlet in the West without acquiring at least a passing acquaintance. Hay knew Barabbas as the bandit whom the crowd of Jews had chosen to free from crucifixion, in Jesus’ stead. Hay remembered nothing, however, about any insurrection, much less a …
The noun caught in his throat. What could the note possibly mean about a … a … murder? Much less a murder in an…? Now, there was an insurrection; there was news of it night and day. What insurrection had Jesus known?
Hay’s ignorance about such things was profound, but he knew who would know.
* * *
Thomas Stackpole sat slack-jawed by the president’s office door.
“You still here, Mister Stackpole?” said Hay. Stupid question.
Three hundred pounds of corpulence draped over the doorkeeper’s chair, but the heavy folds of his cheeks betrayed nary a quiver. His linen suit was laughably out of season; he reminded Hay of the white whale in that implausible yarn by the author of Typee and Omoo. Stackpole was usually sedentary, but he was agile when required. Now was not such a time.
The door to Lincoln’s office was shut. Hay stepped toward it and raised his fist.
“Not here,” Stackpole said in his sweet tenor.
Stackpole’s neck swiveled toward an indeterminate spot along the central hallway.
Hay said, “Where?”
“Where he passed.”
It took Hay a moment to understand. Then he crossed through the double glass doors and down the hallway. A candle was lit at the far end. The silence seemed like midnight; his pocket watch said half past nine. The door to the Prince of Wales Room was open. Hay heard voices inside.
A single lantern turned the purple wallpaper into the walls of a cavern. Mrs. Keckly stood by the foot of the bed. More than Mary Lincoln’s seamstress, the stately mulatto had become her aide-de-camp, even her friend. A blue-and-white bowl was in the crook of her arm, a soft cloth in her hand, tenderness on her face. She was bathing the elfin form outlined by the white linen sheet on the oversized bed. Hay remembered that Mrs. Keckly’s only child, George, had been killed just last August at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, in Missouri.
Lincoln was leaning over the bed, his back bowed at a painful angle. He lifted the covering and exposed his son’s face. The round cheeks were still wet; the lips looked lush. Lincoln’s gaze was earnest and long.
“Oh, Madam Elizabeth,” Lincoln moaned. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so.” The president’s thin voice cracked. “It is hard, hard to have him die!”
Lincoln buried his head in his hands, and his tall frame shook. Hay felt embarrassed at the nakedness, but Mrs. Keckly seemed serene.
After the president regained his composure, Hay said quietly, “There is something I should show you, sir.”
* * *
Stackpole was gone from the president’s door. Lincoln lit a candle and took the low seat by the window. Hay unfolded the note, and the president gazed at it without a flicker of recognition, as if it were written in Mandarin. Hay took it back and read the message aloud.
At the first three words—Poor Willie Lincoln—a shudder passed through the president, and with trepidation Hay recited the rest. He hardly needed the paper; he knew it by heart. There was one named Barabbas, who had committed murder in the insurrection. Lincoln stared through the window into the night.
A minute passed, then a second, and Hay was wondering if he should leave when Lincoln, dry-eyed, said, “Mark fifteen-seven.”
“The Gospel according to Mark, chapter fifteen, verse seven. The passage about Barabbas. Your father was remiss, I can see.”
“In many ways, sir.”
“‘And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection.’”
It always startled Hay how much of the Bible Lincoln had committed to memory. A benefit, he supposed, of a life devoid of burlesque.
“What insurrection?” said Hay.
“The rebellion of the Jews against the Romans. Barabbas was no common thief, nor an evil man. Not if you believe the Jews had a right to live free from Roman rule. Barabbas rebelled openly against Caesar—a brave man, he was—while Jesus preached his own path to the Almighty, peaceful but definitely traitorous. Subversives, both of them, and for their crimes they were sentenced to be crucified, side by side.”
So, Barabbas was a rebel—a secesh, from the Roman empire. Hay said, “So why was Barabbas set free, and not Jesus?”
“It was Passover, when the Jews celebrate their liberation as slaves in Egypt. As slaves! The custom was for one prisoner to be released. Pontius Pilate left it for the crowd to decide. Jesus was a man of peace, who posed no threat to Roman military might. But Barabbas was a Zealot, accused of murder, and thus beloved by the rebels in the crowd. So it was Barabbas they spared, the man of violence. The prince of peace they left to die on the cross.”
“Who did he kill, Barabbas?”
“Scripture says nothing. Not a Roman, or his fate would have been sealed. Another Jew, then. Probably a turncoat for Rome—a traitor to the Jews.”
“Or a traitor’s son.”
Lincoln winced. He pointed to the note in Hay’s hand and said, “Who sent this?”
Lincoln looked puzzled.
“Nobody sent it. It was not sent. It was delivered—by hand.” Hay explained how he had found it shoved into his satchel. “No postage stamp. No postmark. Someone put it there.”
A long pause. Then, in a voice soft yet firm, Lincoln said, “Find … out.”
“Find out what?” said Hay, although he already knew.
“Who put this”—Lincoln slapped at the foolscap—“into your satchel. And therefore who … might have…” His voice broke, and he turned his head away. “Tell me, John”—Hay was one of a handful of people whom Lincoln addressed by Christian name—“do you believe this is possible? That Willie was … was…?”
“I wish I knew.”
Lincoln’s prominent brow hid his eyes. “But it is possible, yes?”
That Lincoln was seeking reassurance from him—Hay could not decide whether to feel flattered or frightened. Both. “Anything is,” Hay said.
Then, in a lawyerly cadence, Lincoln asked him to keep the investigation secret from everyone but Nicolay or Allan Pinkerton. The Chicago detective had smuggled the president-elect into Washington City in the dead of night, past Baltimore’s murderous plug-uglies. “I know you dislike him,” Lincoln said—Hay did, though he could not recall saying so—“but he can help you. Pinkerton, Nicolay, others if you think it strictly necessary. Otherwise you would be wise to remember what people would think … in the South … yes, and in the North … if they thought that … that the president’s son had been…” Lincoln stopped, then continued in a raggedy voice. “The hatreds would grow even uglier, John. And where on this bloodstained earth would they ever end?”
Silence again, and then Lincoln spoke in a different voice, flat in tone yet filled with suppressed emotion. “‘And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus to be crucified.’ Mark, chapter fifteen, verse fifteen. Surely that one you know, John.”
Hay recognized the jab as a jest and was relieved to hear it.
“So, who is our Barabbas?” Lincoln said, more to himself than to Hay. “And who, pray tell, is our Jesus?”
To that last question, Hay feared he knew the answer. He was staring up into his face.
Copyright © 2017 Burt Solomon.
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Burt Solomon is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and National Journal, where he has covered the White House and many other aspects of Washington life. In 1991 he won the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency. He is also the author of the acclaimed Where They Ain't, a history of baseball in the 1890s. Solomon, his wife, and their two children live inside the Beltway. The Murder of Willie Lincoln is his first novel.