Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, the Civil War's Most Daring Spy

Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, the Civil War's Most Daring Spy

by Gavin Mortimer

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After an elderly man jumped from New York's Pulitzer Building in 1911, his death made the front page of the New York Times: "World Dome Suicide a Famous War Spy." By then Pryce Lewis had slipped entirely offstage; but, as Gavin Mortimer reveals, the headline did him justice, speaking to the dramatic, vitally important, and until now untold role he had

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After an elderly man jumped from New York's Pulitzer Building in 1911, his death made the front page of the New York Times: "World Dome Suicide a Famous War Spy." By then Pryce Lewis had slipped entirely offstage; but, as Gavin Mortimer reveals, the headline did him justice, speaking to the dramatic, vitally important, and until now untold role he had played in the Civil War.

Emigrating to the United States in 1856, Lewis was soon employed as an operative by Allan Pinkerton in his newly established detective agency. Early in the Civil War Pinkerton offered the agency to President Lincoln as a secret service, spying on Southern forces and insurrectionists. Civilian spies proved crucial to both sides early on; indeed, intelligence gathered by Lewis helped give the Union army its first victory, three days after the defeat at Bull Run. Within a year, though, he and fellow Brit Timothy Webster, another Pinkerton operative, were captured in Richmond, and their high-profile trial and conviction in a Confederate court changed the course of wartime espionage. Lewis was spared the hangman's noose, but Webster was executed, and thereafter spying was left to military personnel rather than civilians.

Narrative history at its best, in recounting Pryce Lewis's gripping story, Double Death offers new angles on the Civil War, illuminating the early years of the Pinkerton Agency and the shadow world of spying throughout the war, as well as the often overlooked impact that Britain had on both sides.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this often, but not always, sprightly picaresque, journalist Mortimer (Chasing Icarus) presents the exploits of a Welsh-born Pinkerton detective and Union spy as a kind of high-wire theatrical. Pryce Lewis's greatest role was as a wealthy English dandy taking the waters in Virginia in the war's early days. Resplendent in a carriage and red leather shoes and imperiously barking orders at the long-suffering Pinkerton colleague who played his coachman, while dazzling Confederate officers and backwoods militiamen alike, Lewis was invited to tour rebel army camps and gave rousing speeches to the troops, promising British help to the South. Mortimer credits his intelligence reports with a crucial role in the Union's first significant victory. Lewis's exploits crossing enemy lines, bluffing patrols, and sussing out Southern operatives in Washington have their share of tension, but don't quite fill out the book, so Mortimer's meandering narrative visits tangential topics like Confederate female agents and military observation balloons. The tale sags a bit after Lewis is caught in Richmond and thrown into prison, but parts of the book read like a spy thriller written by Mark Twain. 8 pages of b&w illus. (Aug.)

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Walker & Company
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The True Story of Pryce Lewis, the Civil War's Most Daring Spy


Copyright © 2010 Gavin Mortimer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1769-6

Chapter One

"Little Molehills from the Green Sea"

In 1849 the author Samuel Lewis published his Topographical History of Wales. Few of the places he visited on his extensive tour of the country had enchanted him as much as Newtown, a small town nestling in a beautiful valley on the banks of the river Severn in North Wales, approximately 180 miles northwest of London, and sixty miles north of Cardiff, the Welsh capital. Newtown was able to trace its origins back to the thirteenth century, but for centuries it had been nothing more than a pretty but insignificant settlement of a few hundred souls. Then at the end of the eighteenth century Newtown began to prosper thanks to the wool that came from the sheep feeding on the valley grass. The Industrial Revolution enabled Newtown's workers to produce more wool, and by 1841—the year of Britain's first official census—the town's population had exploded to 4,550.

Eight years later, in 1849, Samuel Lewis visited Newtown and found it to be flourishing with its substantial bridge, its gas lighting and its good soil. That didn't stop him from putting down Newtown on a couple of points, namely, the town's rather shoddy paving and the pervasive whiff of soot that came from all the coal burning. But they were minor cavils; all things considered, the author found Newtown delightful.

That same year a tall young man, eighteen years of age, was working in Newtown as a flannel weaver. He had bold brown eyes and wore his thick brown hair wavy at the sides, in part to hide his oversized ears. Handsome, healthy and quick-witted, perhaps he already sensed that one day his personality would outgrow Newtown and demand fresh stimulation.

But for the time being his attention stretched to not much more than pretty girls and foaming ale.

The young man's name was Pryce Lewis (he and the author were unrelated), born in 1831, the fourth son of John and Elizabeth Lewis. On the surface they were an ill-suited couple; John was thirty years older than his wife, and while she could read and write, John could do neither. When they married in November 1825, he signed his name with a cross. Elizabeth came from the village of Berriew, nine miles northeast of Newtown, and her father, Thomas Nock, was a farmer. It might have been that John Lewis was employed by Nock as a weaver in the winter and a harvester in the summer, and that one day he wooed the farmer's daughter as they toiled side by side. Another possibility, however, is that John and Elizabeth were doing things in the field other than harvesting, things that necessitated a sudden wedding. Six months after their marriage Elizabeth gave birth to twins, George and Arthur.

When Britain undertook its census of 1841, the fifteen-year-old twins had four brothers: Richard, thirteen, Pryce, ten, Thomas, seven, and the runt of the litter, five-year-old Matthew. That year the Lewis family was living in the south of Newtown, in one of the cramped dwellings built in the backyards of existing houses to accommodate the woolen weavers and their families. John Lewis gave his occupation as "woolsorter"—a skilled job that required separating the various grades of wool from the fleeces to ensure that only the best quality was used—but in 1841 he was sixty-five, bent double by a lifetime of grind. Fortunately he had the twins to carry on the family tradition. "Woolen weavers," replied George and Arthur, when the census taker asked their occupation.

But the twins would have little wool to weave before the censor reappeared in 1851. Newtonians called the ensuing decade the "Hungry Forties" as the woolen industry suffered a severe depression. While northern English cities such as Bradford, Rochdale and Leeds produced flannel more cheaply than their Welsh rivals, the wealthy manufacturers in Newtown continued to increase the rent of the weavers' cottages.

So while the author Samuel Lewis might have been charmed by what he found in Newtown in 1849, he probably saw only what the town's officials wanted him to see. He made no mention in his book of the poverty, the inequality, the squalid living conditions endured by hundreds of the town's inhabitants or the regular cholera outbreaks that swept through Newtown.

John Lewis died in the winter of 1850 at the age of seventy-three. He was laid to rest on December 2, and the burial record stated that he had been living with his family above the White Lion public house in Penygloddfa. Perhaps it was cholera that claimed him, or maybe just the ravages of time and toil. Whatever the reason, his demise threw the Lewis family into turmoil. Approximately six miles to the southwest was the Newtown workhouse, dubbed the "Bastille" by locals, who likened its high walls and barred windows to the infamous French prison. It was home to 350 wretched paupers, and Elizabeth Lewis was determined that she and her family wouldn't add to the numbers. The fifty-year-old mother of six found work as an assistant in a grocer's store on Commercial Street, took in a lodger and secured a position for seventeen-year-old Thomas as a junior clerk with a Newtown attorney.

When the census taker returned in 1851 he found the Lewis family well situated. One of the twins, twenty-five-year-old George, had emigrated to the United States, and the other, Arthur, had also left home, though he hadn't headed west with his brother. Richard, twenty-three, was a groom, Thomas a clerk, and fifteen-year-old Matthew a schoolboy. The only one of the six brothers who seemed unsure of what to do with himself was twenty-year-old Pryce. He told the census taker he was a flannel weaver, but Mrs. Lewis must have sighed at the description.

She knew Pryce was the most gifted of her brood. He had excelled at the school he attended in a room above the Green Tavern in Ladywell Street. The teacher, Edward Morgan, was also the innkeeper of the tavern, but he never touched a drop hence his nickname, "the teetotaler." He was a good teacher, but Pryce was also a good learner, a boy with a boundless curiosity, a robust humor and a love of reading. He could be a little opinionated, but that was offset by his abundance of charm.

The aimless Pryce continued to test his mother's patience well into the 1850s. At some point Matthew Lewis joined George in America, and Richard headed to London to learn the butcher's trade, but Pryce remained in Newtown. One can only speculate why he stayed in this remote rural town while one by one his brothers broadened their horizons. Perhaps it was a love affair, or perhaps Pryce was the son who didn't wish to desert his mother. Elizabeth Lewis was clearly a remarkable woman; tough (not only did she survive six labors, but none of her children died young, a rare accomplishment in working-class Victorian Britain) but intelligent, resourceful and resilient. She was a survivor, and though in some measure she passed on her genes to all her children, it was Pryce who most inherited his mother's vigorous character.

But in the early summer of 1856 Pryce decided it was time to fly the family nest. He was now twenty-five, and life was passing him by. George and Matthew were well settled in America—both in Connecticut but leading separate lives—and an increasing number of Newtonians were making the trip across the Atlantic in search of a better life. A great many ended up in Blackinton, near North Adams in western Massachusetts, trading an ailing woolen industry for a burgeoning one. But Pryce Lewis had no intention of working in one of Blackinton's many woolen factories, grinding out long hours for low pay. He saw America as the opportunity to start afresh, create a new identity for himself, one that was more purposeful than the dreary existence he had hitherto led in Newtown.

In May 1856, Pryce Lewis kissed his mother good-bye. Through the tears and the hugs there would have been whispered promises of return, but neither would have been fooled. Elizabeth Lewis was in her late fifties, while her son was embarking on a voyage fraught with peril. In just the first two months of 1856 three ships, each crammed with excited emigrants, had perished in the pitiless Atlantic. The largest of the three, a clipper ship called the Driver, had sailed from Liverpool bound for New York on February 12 with 370 passengers and crew. Somewhere en route it sank to the bottom of the ocean.

The name of the ship on which Lewis sailed from Liverpool in May 1856, is unknown but it wasn't the Thornton, which departed the same month and arrived safely six weeks later. But as there was a rich diversity of emigrants on board the Thornton, so there would have been on Lewis's vessel. Irish, Scottish, Welsh, English, a few Scandinavians, the odd German. They were young and old, male and female, mainly poor. The Thornton's passengers included farmers and masons, carpenters and clerks, makers of dresses and makers of shoes, a confectioner, a milliner and a dozen or more laborers. Different trades but the same dream: a new life in America.

In the final hours before their ship sailed, passengers would spend the last of their pence on a hot meal of the best possible quality, for during the next few weeks they would have to survive on a diet of stale bread, bad meat and a foul, watery soup.

Then came the harrowing moment of departure, in many cases the eternal severance of a familial bond. A reporter for the Illustrated London News witnessed one such moment in 1850. "As the ship is towed out, hats are raised, handkerchiefs are waved, and a loud and long-continued shout of farewell is raised from the shore, and cordially responded to from the ship. It is then, if at any time, that the eyes of the emigrants begin to moisten ... the most callous and indifferent can scarcely fail, at such a moment, to form cordial wishes for their pleasant voyage and safe arrival."

The last link to be severed between the emigrants and their previous life was the tow boat's rope. Once that was gone, it was out into the open sea and a voyage of discomfort and, more often than not, rank terror. Sixteen years before Pryce Lewis sailed for New York, a thirty-year-old Charles Dickens had undergone a similar journey. Dickens was then at the height of his powers, but when he found himself in a mid-Atlantic storm he would have willingly traded all his fame and wealth for the security of dry land. "The laboring of the ship in the troubled sea on this night I shall never forget," he wrote in his account of his American odyssey. "Thunder, lightning, hail and rain, and wind, are all in fierce contention for the mastery ... every plank has its groan, every nail its shriek, and every drop of water in the great ocean its howling voice ... Words cannot express it, thoughts cannot convey it. Only a dream can call it up again, in all its fury, rage and passion."

But Dickens survived, as did Lewis, who must have stood on deck and witnessed his new home take shape before his eyes. Perhaps Lewis had read Dickens's American Notes and was familiar with the author's description of his first glimpse of America resembling "little molehills from the green sea." But perhaps Lewis's memory failed him at such a fantastic moment, and instead he just gawked with his fellow passengers. There before them was the United States of America, a young and dynamic country with so much more to offer than jaded, bitter, played-out Britain. There one needed money and influence to succeed, but in America all men were created equal.

Chapter Two

"A Detective! Me?"

PRYCE LEWIS ARRIVED IN AMERICA with only his leather valise. He was twenty-five years old, a good age to begin again. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do, except he knew he wanted nothing to do with the burgeoning community in Massachusetts that was intent on re-creating Welsh life in a little plot of northeast America. He hadn't crossed an ocean for that. Nor was Lewis particularly attracted by Connecticut and the prospect of building a life alongside his two brothers: thirty-year-old George, who now had a family of his own, and lived in Torrington; and twenty-year-old Matthew, who resided in Litchfield, six miles south of his brother. Matthew was working and living on a farm owned by the Hoig family, James and Eliza and their three young children. Nonetheless Pryce traveled to Connecticut and caught up with George and Matthew. Doubtless there were letters to pass on from their mother, and gossip, too, of dear friends and old sweethearts.

While browsing a Connecticut newspaper one day, Pryce saw an employment notice that took his fancy. The London Printing and Publishing Company was soliciting responsible men to sell its publications across the country. As instructed in the notice, Pryce mailed a letter to Samuel Brain at the company's headquarters in New York, and received in return further information along with a catalog of its books.

He was asked to attend an interview with Mr. Brain at the company's office on Dey Street. The well-read Lewis got the job and for nearly two years sold the books of the London Printing and Publishing Company throughout northeastern America. The job entailed a lot of traveling, endless hours on the railroad, so Lewis became intimately acquainted with his employer's products: he was an expert on the British problems in India thanks to Charles Ball's History of the Indian Mutiny, and he became something of a grammarian after plowing through Thomas Wright's Universal Pronouncing Dictionary and General Expositor of the English Language: Being a complete literary, classical scientific, biographical, geographical and technological standard. But the book he liked best was the company's most recent acquisition, Henry Tyrrell's three volumes of the History of the War with Russia: Giving full details of the operations of the Allied Armies.

The Crimean War of 1854–56 had captured the imagination of the British people, and the Victorians had appropriated the war for themselves. The roles of France and the Ottoman Empire in helping to defeat the Russian forces had been all but dismissed. In their place was Florence Nightingale, "the Lady with the Lamp," as the Times of London christened the nurse whose devoted care had alleviated the suffering of the wounded British soldiers, along with the glorious and futile cavalry charge during the Battle of Balaclava, immortalized in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade." Within weeks of the poem's publication in 1855, there were few people in Britain unable to recite it by heart. Henry Tyrrell's three volumes might have been less florid than Tennyson's poem, but running to nearly 1,100 pages they were considerably more substantial. Pryce Lewis devoured them with gusto as he traveled through Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and as far west as the Mississippi River.

But by the spring of 1859, Lewis had grown tired of this job and its monotonous routine. He quit and moved to Chicago, where he found employment as a clerk in a grocery store run by David Erskine and his wife, Grace. David Erskine was a thirty-six-year-old Scot who, before coming to America, had lived in the West Indies, where two of his three children were born. Lewis lasted a year with Erskine, but by early i860 his feet were feeling restless. It was nearly four years since he'd left Wales, yet here he was, twenty-nine years old, a grocery clerk in a small Chicago store. Hardly the life he'd imagined when he crossed the ocean.

And yet all around him in Chicago there was tantalizing evidence of what was possible, the rewards on offer for those immigrants who embraced their new home with both hands. Since i840 the population of Chicago had ballooned from 4,450 to 109,260. In 1842 it had been just a dirty dot on the shores of Lake Michigan, too insignificant for Charles Dickens, whose extensive itinerary had stretched from Lake Erie in the North to Richmond in the South. But by i860 Chicago was a booming city, the economic epicenter of northwest America. The Illinois and Michigan Canal connected Lake Michigan to the Mississippi and enabled Chicago to overtake St. Louis as the wheat industry's major transporter, but it was the railroads that transformed the city. The first railroad had arrived in Chicago in 1848 (the Galena & Chicago Union), but twelve years later there were fifteen, and with the trade the companies also brought development. The railroads purchased large tracts of land on which to build their lines, but they also constructed breakwaters and dikes to prevent the routes being flooded by Lake Michigan. Safe from the threat of inundation, more companies constructed factories and warehouses— some as high as six stories—and effluence no longer flowed through the streets of Chicago.


Excerpted from DOUBLE DEATH by GAVIN MORTIMER Copyright © 2010 by Gavin Mortimer. Excerpted by permission of WALKER & COMPANY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Gavin Mortimer is the author of The Great Swim and Chasing Icarus. He has written for a wide range of publications, from Esquire to the Daily Telegraph, from BBC History to the Observer.

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