After many years as a trial and appellate lawyer, David O. Stewart became a bestselling writer of history and historical fiction. His histories have explored the writing of the Constitution, the gifts of James Madison, the outrageous western expedition and treason trial of the mysterious Aaron Burr, and the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Today, David shares the background for his historical novel The Lincoln Deception.
The Birth of The Lincoln Deception ~~ by David O. Stewart
The dusty volume, a biography of John Bingham, was stiff when I opened it in the main reading room of the Library of Congress. I suspected that no one had looked at it since it was printed, on cheap paper, in 1989.
I trudged through each page, looking for something that would illuminate the historical narrative I was researching about the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. Bingham, from Ohio, should be remembered far more than he is. Not only had he led Johnson’s impeachers. He also wrote the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection, and prosecuted eight people accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
A single paragraph in that neglected book drove me to historical fiction. The author reported an account of Bingham’s death in 1900. Bingham, the story went, told the doctor attending him that during the conspiracy trial he learned a terrible secret about Lincoln’s assassination. If revealed, the dying man added, the secret could have destroyed the republic. He told only War Secretary Edwin Stanton, who took the secret to his grave. Now, Bingham added, the secret would die with him. Which it did.
For months, I couldn’t get that account out of my head. After I had written the impeachment book and another work of history, I decided to investigate Bingham’s secret. The Booth conspiracy, I was reminded, aimed to kill not only the president, but also Vice President Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, General Ulysses Grant and Secretary of War Stanton. It was not just an assassination; it was an attempted coup d’etat.
Conspiracy theorists have gummed over the Lincoln tragedy for more than a century. They have blamed Jefferson Davis, Pope Pius IX, and even Stanton. Their theories have ranged from unpersuasive to ridiculous. I concluded that Bingham had kept his secret well. I could not write a work of history about it.
Still, the tale festered in my mind. So I decided to make up Bingham’s secret, which meant I would be writing fiction. My version of Bingham’s secret had to be plausible, consistent with known facts. As my saying goes for historical fiction, you can make up a lot, but Lincoln has to be tall. One protagonist, I decided, would be the doctor at Bingham’s deathbed; I drew another from local history in eastern Ohio.
Thus was born The Lincoln Deception, which was reissued recently, to be followed by two successor titles through the year.
For me, veering over the last ten years between historical fiction and narrative history, I believe the two genres enrich each other. Writing narrative history makes me insist that the facts in my novels accord with what we know about that time and place and people. (Lincoln is tall!) Indeed, when mastering historical facts, the writer asks the same questions a novelist needs to apply to her characters.
Why did a person make a statement or take an action? Are accounts of those words or actions plausible? Is the person reporting the incident reliable? What motives drove that person to record or relate those facts? (In novels, cue the unreliable narrator!) I have to know as much as I can about the foreign land of the past in order to recreate it for readers.
Writing fiction, in turn, opens my historical writing to the world beyond the cold records. Even with immense public figures like Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, the facts we don’t know dwarf what we know. Writing fiction makes me ask more questions about the historical characters I write about.
What happened when the person was off-stage? What did she think or say? Did she grieve or laugh or wonder? Why don’t we know more about an episode – were key figures trying to cover something up? Were they ashamed of something? Silences in the record can tell so much.
To take the process full circle, those same questions apply to every character in a historical novel: those who are imagined (like the two amateur investigators in my novels) and those borrowed from history.
I am far from unique in writing both historical fiction and narrative histories. Distinguished genre-straddlers include Simon Sebag Montefiore, Allison Weir, and Shelby Foote. And many others. Maybe there’s something to it.
Many thanks, David. Imagine my surprise to discover that the man behind The Lincoln Deception was John Bingham, who shares the name of both my father and my grandfather. Perhaps there’s more to the legacy of this story?
The Lincoln Deception by David O. Stewart ~~ In 1900, John Bingham lies dying in Cadiz, Ohio. He tells his doctor, Jamie Fraser, that he learned a terrible secret thirty-five years before when he prosecuted John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators. That secret of the Lincoln assassination, he confides, could destroy the republic, but will die with him.
Fraser, a 39-year-old widower who is weary of small-town doctoring, becomes obsessed with Bingham’s secret. Fate throws him together with the voluble Speed Cook, the last black man to play in the big leagues and aspiring newspaper publisher. Together they puzzle over the fragmentary evidence of the Booth conspiracy and set out to learn more. Their trail takes them to Booth’s nephew (a star actor himself) and the man’s beautiful business manager (who captures Fraser’s heart), and leads to the nation’s leading cotton tycoon, a man with murky connections to the Sons of Liberty, a Northern pro-Confederacy group from the 1860s.
Fraser and Cook face immense risks — a mugging on an Indiana riverside, a race riot in New York City, and a terrifying trap atop the new Williamsburg Bridge. Confounding their pursuers with resourcefulness and courage, they reach a Washington, DC showdown with the shadowy tycoon and the senior surviving general of the Confederate Army and the appalling truth of Mr. Bingham’s secret.
David O. Stewart’s first historical mystery, The Lincoln Deception, was reissued on April 14. A sequel, The Paris Deception, will reissue on June 28, and a third book in the Fraser/Cook series will reissue in October (The Babe Ruth Deception). In February 2021, Dutton will release his nonfiction book, George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.