Brad Meltzer is no stranger to hidden history. Not only does he often include real history in his fictional thrillers, he also hosted History Channel’s Lost History and writes non-fiction children’s books about heroes from history.
But the release this week of The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington represents Meltzer’s first foray into writing a non-fiction book for adults. But it won’t be his last, as he revealed to Newsarama, because he’s already working on another non-fiction title.
Co-written with one of Meltzer’s Lost History executive producers, Josh Mensch, The First Conspiracy not only reveals how the people closest to Washington hatched a treasonous plan to kill him, but it traces the counter-intelligence operation that was launched as a result of the plot.
Written in the style of Meltzer’s thrillers but careful to stick to the facts, the book is a real-life mystery story that most Americans have never heard.
Meltzer, who’s well known to comic book readers for his runs on titles like Justice League and Green Arrow, talked with Newsarama about the book, how he became interested in the story of the plot, and how Washington’s actions served as the earliest examples of the agencies that protect America today.
Newsarama: Brad, this is your first time doing a non-fiction book for adults. How did this come about? Did you hear about this story while doing research for your novels or the TV show?
Brad Meltzer: It was actually for research for one of the thrillers. I found, where all good things are found, in a footnote this detail, that during the Revolutionary War, there was a plot to kill George Washington.
I saw that in a footnote and remember thinking, "Is that true? Is it fake? What is it?"
I actually used it in one of my thrillers. I mentioned it for, like, a paragraph in The President’s Shadow.
But a year went by and I couldn’t shake it. And another year went by and I couldn’t shake it. And I found myself thinking about this thing for the better part of a decade.
And my rule is, after five years, if you’re still thinking about an idea, you’ve got to write the book. It just means you’re brain’s obsessed with it.
Somewhere along the way, I contacted Pulitzer prize-winning author Joseph Ellis, who wrote His Excellency: George Washington, one of the great George Washington biographies. And I said to him, did you ever hear the story of this secret plot to kill Washington?
He said he’d heard of the story, but he said to me, it’s a story that involves George Washington’s spies. That’s who kept the whole thing secret. He said to me, you can find all of Washington’s slaves and exactly how many slaves he owned. But you’ll never find all his spies. By its nature, what you’re looking for, he told me, would forever be elusive.
But he said, you should give it a shot, though. At the very best, you get a book out of it. At the very worst, you have an adventure.
I reached out to Josh Mensch, who was the executive producer of Lost History and was one of the people who helped us find the 9/11 flag when we found it. And I told him, "I’d love to start researching this. What do you think?"
And we started from there.
Nrama: It’s amazing how close these conspirators got to Washington himself. They got way too close.
Meltzer: Yeah, and that’s the part that’s like a comic book, right? You need a good bad guy. And George Washington had his own personal group that he wanted to be his inner circle. He asked for all of his regiments to give him their four best men. He wanted what they called 'drill’d' men, which is the best of the best.
What he did was, he took about 50 of those men and made them his personal guard. Sometimes they called them the commander’s guard, or they called them Washington’s guard, but their eventual title was the 'Life Guards.' What they guarded was George Washington’s life.
These were the men who turned on him.
I don’t care if you’re George Washington, and I don’t care if you’re bold and daring and one of the most amazing leaders of all time - that is devastating.
When George Washington found out what had happened, he took one of those guards, he built a gallows, and he hung him in front of 20,000 people, the largest public execution at that point in North American history. George Washington brought the hammer down.
And I thought, that’s an awesome story. I want to see how it happened.
Obviously, I’m leaving out who else turned on him and who else was responsible, but I don’t want to ruin it all.
Nrama: You mentioned that every good comic book story has a bad guy. They also have heroes, and you’re known for your children’s books about heroes as well. As you were researching this story, were there heroes that emerged?
Meltzer: Yeah, the most obvious one becomes George Washington. What’s always strange to me is that we all know George Washington. He’s on the money. We see him on an almost daily basis. But we also know almost nothing about him personally. He wasn’t like Adams or Jefferson, who were writing lovely, flowery letters describing all their feelings to their loved ones. Washington played his cards far closer to the vest.
He didn’t tell you how he felt. You don’t even know what he was like as a person. He barely says a word. In fact, on the day he hangs this man in front of 20,000 people, he barely mentions a word about it. You’d think that is something worthy of the diary. “I killed a man in front of 20,000 people.” But he’s just, like, no emotion. There’s no emotion that you ever see.
What we really tried to do in the book was pull out that person, pull out that hero, and see if he is. You know, is he a hero? Or is he just silent? Sometimes we write what we want to see.
And I think what I was thrilled about was that you get to George Washington at this low, horrible moment, and that’s the moment that brings out all his strengths. That’s the moment where he comes forward.
All of us in comics love to tell stories that involve these larger-than-life legends and myths. But sometimes it’s really fun to find the truth. And we really get to see George Washington’s character. In this book, you get to see who he is as a person and what he does in this situation where everything is falling apart around him.
Nrama: I had always heard that the Secret Service can be traced back to Lincoln’s time, connected to his death. But hearing about these 'Life Guard' and Washington’s 'spies' makes me wonder if that’s the early versions of things like the CIA or other agencies we know today?
Meltzer: Yeah, we like to say that the CIA comes from the OSS, and the Secret Service comes from the Pinkertons the Civil War. But really, all of them come from this moment during the Revolutionary War. It’s incredible.
This is the moment where counter-intelligence is invented. The word counter-intelligence doesn’t exist until World War II. But what they’re doing back then, what George Washington does in this moment, is launch a counter-intelligence operation.
He uses John Jay and other founding fathers. We know John Jay as the first Supreme Court justice, but you see him using interrogation and breaking down people’s doors and getting to the truth.
So this is America’s first counter-intelligence operation. They just didn’t have a word for it back then.
Part of the book is the secret plot against George Washington, but the other section of the book that you get is the birth of the counter-intelligence movement. And it’s an amazing thing to watch because suddenly all these other people start showing up as heroes too.
For me, that was the rewarding part. I love a good hero, especially when they exist in the real world, because that’s what we need to desperately right now.
Nrama: And hearing about heroes involved in the government is a big plus right now too.
Meltzer: Yeah, listen, right now we’re looking at our current president, someone who really wraps himself in the flag at this really divisive moment in history. There was no flag when George Washington was around. There were no United States when Washington was around. He helped build them, by physically putting his arms around the entire culture and saying, “Stop trying to kill each other.”
One of the things that really struck me was, we like to think of ourselves as so divided today. You know, “the good old days were all different.” But if you look back at the Revolutionary War, we sometimes tell the story as if we were this ragtag group that came together and held hands and worked in conjunction all the time, but we weren’t like that at all. In New York City, at the time of the war, there were as many people on the British side as there were on the patriots side. It was completely divided. You couldn’t tell if you loved your neighbor or you hated your neighbor. You couldn’t trust anybody.
And it was in that environment that George Washington became a leader. Even his troops were fighting amongst themselves. The Massachusetts regiment hated the Virgina regiment. There was this one moment where a huge fight breaks out in Washington, and George Washington comes in on his horse and grabs two of the big men responsible and has them by the neck and he’s shaking them and saying, “Don’t kill each other. We’re on the same side.”
If ever there was a metaphor for where we are today, there it is.
Nrama: You mentioned how it’s tempting to make Washington and other people from history into the characters you want them to be. Was that difficult for you as a novelist? Or do you feel like you were able to tell this story without your own interpretations? Does this read like a novel, but stick to the facts?
Meltzer: I think it reads like one of my thrillers, which means there are short chapters with lots of cliffhangers, because there were lots of cliffhangers in the real story. And I think because I’m used to writing fiction and writing comics, for me at least, I felt like there was an even bigger responsibility to make sure every single detail was as true as it could possibly. And anywhere there was going to be a leap, we flat-out say, “we don’t know this part.”
It’s the trickiest part of the story. There are some things we won’t know. We will never be in George Washington’s brain, and anyone who tells you what he was thinking that day is a big, fat liar.
And we were very careful to say to say, here’s a part we know, but here’s a part that just gets lost. Here are our theories on it. But here’s the problem with the theory, and here’s the other side of the theory. And you choose.
One of the great parts of doing this is when you get to debunk stuff. There was a long time, for almost a century, where people thought that this plot had something to do with people poisoning George Washington’s peas. You can find books written about the “poison peas plot.” And it’s total nonsense. I had no part in the story. It was something that was made up.
So I love that we get to pull the real facts and show you what really happened with George Washington and what these people really were trying to do to him at the time. I think it’s a far more fascinating real-life story.
Nrama: Will we see more non-fiction like from you going forward, Brad?
Meltzer: Yes. I love doing this. Josh and I loved working together. We are actually already working on the next one. I can’t say what it is, but it’s another lost piece of history.
People love to say, they didn’t teach you everything when you were in history class. And it’s not like it was being hidden from you. It’s just there’s so much. You can’t teach everything.
And when I found this story, it’s not like anyone said, “Ooo! This is a great secret and you will never have it and only this one person will find it in 2019.” It wasn’t like that at all. We just found it because no one else really took the time to read it and research it.
I like to imagine us as Indiana Jones and you play the theme, and I say, “Throw me the idol; I’ll throw you the whip.” The reality was, this research is all out there. Much of it is digitized. It’s just that no one wants to take the time to read it. We just read it.
Nrama: And your’e starting a book tour soon, right? You said earlier that you like seeing comic book fans at these things.
Meltzer: Yes! The tour starts on this week, and we’re going to cities around the country, and people can bring comics - Justice League, Identity Crisis, Buffy, Green Arrow - anything they want, any of the kids books, any of the thrillers. Whatever they want to bring, we’re sing them all of course, along with The First Conspiracy.