Even those with the most casual familiarity of American history know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated just weeks after his second inauguration as U.S. president.
But not many are aware that if a group of Maryland white supremacists had their way, he would have been killed before he ever had the chance to set foot in the White House.
The foiled plot to assassinate Lincoln in 1861, while on his way to his first inauguration, forms the basis of The Lincoln Conspiracy, the newest book from thriller author Brad Meltzer and documentary producer Josh Mensch. A follow-up of sorts to their previous book, The First Conspiracy, it’s a fascinating and extremely readable account of a group of Southern sympathizers who came disturbingly close to changing the course of American history.
The book’s first chapter introduces readers to a young Lincoln learning of the death of his beloved sister, years after he lost his mother, likely to milk sickness. It’s a sobering story, meant to establish a horrible pattern in Lincoln’s life: “His adult life will be characterized by shocks of violence and suffering even greater than those of his youth. … It’s as if he’s haunted by tragedy upon tragedy, from which he’ll never truly escape.”
Meltzer and Mensch alternate chapters among three main perspectives: Lincoln, whose nomination for president in 1860 came as a seismic shock to the nation; Allan Pinkerton, the legendary private detective; and members of Baltimore-based groups called the Knights of the Golden Circle and the Constitutional Guards.
The latter two groups were determined to prevent Lincoln, the president-elect who was due to be inaugurated in March, from ever leading the United States. Their plan initially involved seizing Washington, D.C., but quickly evolved into a plot to carry out “an act of political violence designed to shock the country, create chaos and disorder, and single-handedly change the direction of the nation.” Their motivations were clear: The groups were dedicated to “supporting white Southern pride and white Southern rights.” They considered Lincoln a threat to the continued existence of slavery, an institution they held dear, and planned to sabotage the train that would carry him to the nation’s capital.
But a railroad executive named Samuel M. Felton caught wind of the plot and summoned Pinkerton, the detective (and longtime foe of slavery), to investigate. Pinkerton assembled a group of his employees — including Kate Warne, the nation’s first woman private eye — to infiltrate the groups and put an end to their conspiracy.
They didn’t have much time, but they got to work quickly, crafting “alternate personas from scratch” and learning to speak in Southern accents. The detectives were able to win the confidence of some of the white supremacists, just in time to foil their deadly plot.
Considering Meltzer’s literary background, it’s no surprise that The Lincoln Conspiracy reads like an expertly crafted thriller. What’s remarkable about the book is that Meltzer and Mensch are able to sustain the suspense even though the reader knows how it ends. (Spoiler alert, we guess: The plot to kill Lincoln didn’t work, and he was inaugurated president.)
They’re able to pull that off because of their gift for pacing and because of the structure of the book — it has short, punchy chapters, each of which teases the next. As was the case with their book about George Washington, Meltzer and Mensch do have a tendency to end each chapter with somewhat breathless prose, not unlike the way some television shows end each act with a cliffhanger.
And while that may annoy readers with a taste for more academic history, it’s an effective technique that’s likely to pique the interest of more casual history fans. That’s not to say the book isn’t well researched; it is, very much so, with nearly 50 pages of endnotes drawn from Lincoln’s and Pinkerton’s papers. Meltzer and Mensch have clearly done their homework, and they prove to be experts at rendering history in an urgent, exciting way.
The Lincoln Conspiracy is, despite its dark subject matter, relentlessly fun to read. Meltzer and Mensch are refreshingly unpretentious authors who prove gifted at providing essential context to the main storyline — they deftly paint a picture of 19th-century America, taking deep dives into Lincoln’s life and the prevailing attitudes toward race and politics at the time. It’s an expertly crafted book that seems sure to delight readers with an interest in lesser-known episodes of American history.