The Murder of Willie Lincoln: A Novel

The Murder of Willie Lincoln: A Novel

by Burt Solomon


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The Murder of Willie Lincoln is an exciting historical fiction debut by award-winning political journalist Burt Solomon.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765385833
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

The Murder of Willie Lincoln

A John Hay Mystery

By Burt Solomon

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2017 Burt Solomon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7653-8583-3


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?"

"Old enough."

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."


Excerpted from The Murder of Willie Lincoln by Burt Solomon. Copyright © 2017 Burt Solomon. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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