The time period is the Civil War and the United States is divided in half as the North and South are at odds. Lives are lost and President Abraham Lincoln, is doing all he can to keep the United States together. But, what happens when tragedy strikes? Willie Lincoln is a fragile young boy of 11 and finds himself falling into the canal. How did the love of the President’s life, his son die? Was it Typhoid Fever or was it murder? John Hay is his most trusted aide and when he receives a message that states that it is anything but a death due to typhoid fever. How does he impart this to Lincoln? Hay is the closest thing to another son to Lincoln and he adores the President and so the death of this child hits him really hard and seeking the truth Hay will go to any lengths. Hay attends the autopsy, speaks with someone present and learns a hidden truth about the death of this young child as she investigates the murder, finds himself not in the most affluent areas of Washington City and from the president’s office and the dining room at Willard’s Hotel to hovels, wartime hospitals and areas invested with rats, mice and other vermin, this plot hits all areas and introduces many historical figures.
Hay is the president’s assistant and private secretary and must find the reason that Willie has been murdered as we learn about arsenic and other poisons given to people in less than lethal doses to cure serious illnesses. But, who placed an unnamed note in an anonymous satchel that states: Committed murder in the insurrection,” sending Hay on a quest to find out where it came from and who sent it. Convincing the President that he needs to investigate this Lincoln authorizes him to conduct an investigation in secret. Hay learns as he attends the autopsy and speaks to the doctor in question conducting it that Willie did not die from typhus. But, whom can he ask to help him and whom can he trust? Thinking about this he decides to ask Allan Pinkerton. While entering the grand reception in the East Room, Hay is taken by Kate Chase the daughter of Senator Chase. The event turns sad when young Willie has taken ill after falling off his pony. But, coming in contact from the water in the canal, and hearing about how the water is tainted in the mansion, the reader wonders who might be next. Lincoln cannot handle it and the message Hay receives sets him in on a quest for answers. Step one is to have list of all those present in the mansion the day Willie was taken ill. Then, questioning each one of them asking if they saw or heard anything unusual. Trying to replay the day and hours before he was taken ill was where he would start. Even Dr. Stone, claims that he died of typhus and lists it as the cause of death even though the findings are not conclusive. Hearing Hay and Pinkerton talk and knowing that he thought that Willie was killed, the end result would put not only Tad the youngest in danger but Robert too. Added in we meet the groundskeeper who helped Mrs. President as Mary Todd Lincoln was called, to pad the bills, blackmailed her for 20 thousand dollars in gold to keep silent and then defrauding the government. Hay learned about this from Pinkerton but would they pay him or stop him another way? Doorkeeper Thomas Stackpole plus John Satt the groundskeeper and her aide Elizabeth Keckly, and even the first family was under the eyes of the investigators. Dying days after a struggle with what looked like Typhoid Fever from contaminated water they thought supplied to the White House, who else would die? Watching their son day by day for 17 days and then Tad became ill but hopefully would recover, the child grew weaker and weaker as told by Keckley a former slave who was Mary’s aide and confidant. Keckley did not even have the pleasure of dancing at the gala given by the first family and she was told to remain at Willie’s bedside. Kindhearted, sweet and definitely the President’s favorite son, smart, astute and even-tempered and sweet, the parents were devastated.
Investigating with Dr. Jamie Hall, Hay learns that the cause of Willie’s death was not arsenic as it was used in the embalming fluid. Antimony or mercury seem to be the primary causes but when discussed further they realize that mercury would be the primary suspect and now they had to figure out how and why. Lincoln was devastated and Mary Lincoln did not want Tad taken away and poor Robert seemed to be placed in the background. Why would anyone displace a son? When reading her letter to defend someone accused of being a secessionist, we learn about the arrests of two people that are considered traitors too. Willie was the Lincoln’s amazing son who was favored over the rest and losing Edward, in 1850, was sad this compounded the hurt even more created a black veil of sorrow over the White House that would remain throughout the Civil War. Lincoln dealt with his grief by doing his job where his wife wore it not on her sleeve but in public and outwardly.
Hay spent time questioning the doorman, the gardener, and the painter hoping to find a common denominator. Tad’s words and questioning eliminated Mrs. Keckley but upon reflection each person interviewed by Hay seemed to want to dismiss him, not quite frank or honest about their answers and you begin to wonder just who wanted to eliminate each one of Lincoln’s sons. Mrs. Lincoln was not only inconsolable about Willie’s death but equally when the President sent both Robert and Tad away for their own safety. Yet, Robert seems to have been pushed aside but why?
Family lineage plays a strong part in how Hay figured out who did this and why. Mrs. Keckly was fathered by this slaveholder and lived at this plantation and knew the doorkeeper. She hired someone named Eva as a nurse. As Willie stated a dark lady and this girl paid the price. Added in someone had a ledger that Keckly wanted with the names, amounts and ages of slaves and who bought them. But, what information would link her to someone close to her and to the killer? The information is bolded and right here on pages 260 to 261 and you won’t believe the connections. What role did Stackpole play? What about Keckly? Who is Mary Elizabeth Jenkins? The letters on the notes found in his satchel are quite revealing and I promised John Hay I would not reveal who they are as it might impede his investigation. Who was Eva Socrates that lost her life and why was she hired? Why were nurses hired for they wanted to be hired and not for their skills? Eva was a fugitive slave. Wait until you learn the link to Mrs. President. Added in we learn more about Mrs. Keckly and just whom she was related to and how that person might be the killer or was this just a veil to hide the truth behind who did it? The links you will find on pages 276-277 and the author’s research into this time period, which characters are real and the few that are fiction is extensive. Hear Mrs. Keckly define her role and then meet Mary Surratt and the reader will be floored by her reaction to Hay and what she states about Lincoln. Calomel used to control or stop bacteria and to hopefully lower temperatures in someone like Willie or Tad from typhus. Added in we see John Hay and his delight at meeting Kate Chase but nothing comes of it. So, who killed Willie: was it the groundskeeper John Watt, the doorkeeper Thomas Stackpole, Mary Todd Lincoln, her confidante Elizabeth Keckley or someone else? Calomel was used during this time period. It’s purpose was as a purgative and kills bacteria but can cause irreversible damage to their human hosts. The prime ingredient is mercury and mercury poisoning is not uncommon even today in facial crèmes containing calomel. Willie was given a lethal dose and Tad was given the same amount but spit it out as it was placed in their pudding. Was it to blackmail the first lady for her fraud scheme, Allan Pinkerton who resented Jay’s interference in the investigation or someone else? The research is extensive and the truth behind which characters are fiction or non-fiction is illuminated in the afterward. Who would pay for the murder? Would it go unpunished? Why does the author end with this in the last paragraph: It was Lincoln who was master of mercy and also the mind behind the war, the man who knew when to love and when to fight. What does this translate to? Find out when you read The Murder of Willie Lincoln by author, journalist and editor and learn the secrets behind Lincoln’s door but you might not get past his doorkeeper because some secrets will remain that way. Well researched, filled with a surprise ending that you won’t expect this is one novel that is a must read.
Fran Lewis: Just reviews/MJ magazine