Long before John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln, and even before the U.S. Civil War began, there was yet another secret plot to kill the newly elected president.
This one was hatched by a secret society - complete with handshakes and titles - before Abraham Lincoln even took his oath of office.
The Lincoln Conspiracy, the latest book from novelist and comic book writer Brad Meltzer, tells the story of how the assassination plot failed - thanks to some of America’s earliest detectives (and the country’s first-known female private eye). Written with documentary producer Josh Mensch, the book is a follow-up-of-sorts to their previous non-fiction thriller, The First Conspiracy, which centered on a plot against George Washington.
Although The Lincoln Conspiracy reads a lot like one of Meltzer’s fictional thrillers, it also takes time to illustrate how divided the country was when Lincoln was elected. And along with the stories of historical figures like detective Allan Pinkerton and his company’s ground-breaking female private eye Kate Warne, the story also reveals the surprisingly human persona of Abraham Lincoln himself, exposing the man behind the almost mythical legends that now surround him.
Newsarama talked to Meltzer to find out more about the genesis of the new book, how Meltzer’s handling the cancellation of his book tour, and what readers can expect from the story of The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill America’s 16th President — and Why It Failed.
Newsarama: Brad, how are you doing in the midst of all this? Your family doing well?
Brad Meltzer: You know, I think my kids are handling it far better than I think I would have at that same age. I would have been aghast and like, are you crazy? We can’t possibly do such a thing. How about you and your family?
Nrama: We’re doing very well, all considering. You know, I’ve thought that it’ll be interesting to see, a few years down the road, what kind of history thriller you’ll write from this situation.
Meltzer: I know, right? I couldn’t make this stuff up on my best day.
Nrama: Let’s talk about The Lincoln Conspiracy. I’m about halfway through, and I’ve been really enjoying it - not only because it’s an amazing story, but I also know the good guy lives at the end.
Meltzer: Yeah, spoiler alert!
Nrama: But there’s so much around this story that I didn’t know about. I mean, I had never even heard of this conspiracy, let alone all the historical figures surrounding it - like the first known female private detective in America?
Meltzer: Kate Warne is a superstar, right?
Nrama: She really is. But before we talk about her, let’s back up and talk about how this book came about. Was it because you enjoyed writing the George Washington non-fiction book so much, and you felt like this story from Lincoln’s history would also make a good book?
Meltzer: Yeah, I mean, whether it’s thrillers, whether it’s comics, whether it’s TV shows - my belief is that a good story is a good story. And some of those stories you find are fictional, and some of those you find are things that really happened.
And when we found that George Washington one, everyone said, oh man, you found that one in a million! A plot to kill George Washington!
The whole time, I was thinking … there were actually a lot more.
We were just lucky enough that people came along on that journey with us that now we can afford to do another one.
And obviously, solely to try to outdo ourselves, how are you going to top George Washington but for trying a secret plot to kill Abraham Lincoln?
Nrama: People are going to think this is the plot that did kill Lincoln, but it’s not. This is much earlier, around the time of his election, and it really reveals a lot about our country at the time, setting the stage of what we all know was to happen with the Civil War. You really spend time introducing readers to the world of 1860, and this conspiracy arises from that atmosphere, right?
Meltzer: Everyone knows the story of John Wilkes Booth killing Abraham Lincoln.
This is not that story.
This is the story of the original plot, years earlier, that failed.
The reason it was so attractive to me as the story is because it was the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency. He’s not that man who we worship at the end of his presidency.
He’s the new guy, who is literally traveling from Illinois to Washington, D.C., to raise his right hand and be sworn in as the 16th president. And the plan is, when he goes through Baltimore - which was in a slave state, at the time - that there’s a secret society ready to kill him.
It’s a moment in America where half of America completely hates the other half of America. Whatever side you’re on, you think the other side are morons and fools and rubes.
Does that sound familiar to you?
Nrama: Yeah, quite a bit.
Meltzer: When we really looked at it, we were like, there are certainly plenty of other good stories to tell - especially around Abraham Lincoln - but none of them really gave us the full view to deal with, what does a good leader do when the country is being torn apart?
And that is an active backdrop that informs the entire secret plot.
‘Cause, you know, it’s titillating to say you found a secret plot to kill Lincoln. And we’ve got the Pinkertons - we’ve got Allan Pinkerton and Kate Warne, America’s first female private eye.
You have all these amazing little details, but when you have that backdrop of the country being torn in two, it just takes on a huge, different scope.
Nrama: Yeah, let’s talk about Kate Warne. What was it about her that caught your eye? I mean, obviously, she’s actually involved in the defense of Lincoln against this plot, but what’s her story in this book?
Meltzer: Yeah, what happens is, the plot to kill Lincoln is discovered by Allan Pinkerton, who is America’s first private eye - that’s literally where the term “private eye” comes from, because the Pinkerton logo used to have a big, giant eyeball in it.
And before that, at one moment in time, a 26-year-old woman named Kate Warne walks into Pinkerton’s office and says, “I want a job,” at a time when no one is hiring female law enforcement or female private investigators. Nobody.
For whatever reason - whether it’s because he’s got a grand view of gender politics or because he’s callous and thinks, you know what? This woman’s going to be able to get me more business - he realizes that there are going to be people who will only talk to her in ways they will never talk to him.
And he’s smart enough to say yes.
So what’s so great about this story is that when they finally tell Abraham Lincoln and they sneak him out to avoid the plot, they disguise him and put him on a train and give him a code name and give him different clothes to wear. And the person who’s next to him and hiding there with him is Kate Warne, this woman that no one knows - who’s arguably a footnote of history - but not to me.
Nrama: You really flesh out these different historical characters, but I think the greatest surprise is how well we get to know Abraham Lincoln himself. You mentioned earlier that you like the fact that this takes place at the beginning of his presidency. Why was that important to you?
Meltzer: You know, Abraham Lincoln is arguably one of the most famous Americans who’s ever lived. But the only thing we tend to really know about him are the cliches. If you woke any American up in the middle of the night and said, “Abraham Lincoln: What do you know about him?,” they would blurt out: “Freed the slaves” or “lived in a log cabin.” Those are part of American lore.
But what I love about this moment in Abraham Lincoln’s life is you get to see where he’s from. You get to see that when he found out that he had actually won the presidency, he’s at the back of a building playing what amounts to handball. You know?
You see what kind of guy he is. You see him worry and fret and mess up. And you see him right before he leaves to go and be sworn in.
He makes a stop in his law partner’s office, and we see that quiet conversation that just the two of them share together, when he knows he’s going off and may never be coming back. And you see him make a trip home to his stepmom, because he wants to go home and see this one woman who he actually adores. And when he leaves, the stepmom says, I’m never going to see him again. He’s going to die in office. And she’s absolutely right.
And when you see that Abraham Lincoln isn’t some giant statue that we worship in Washington, D.C., he’s a human being again.
And especially for those of us who love comic books and love great heroes, the stories that we love most about them, I believe, are the stories where they feel like they’re us - or at least that we could be them.
Nrama: A little more vulnerable. They’re not perfect.
Meltzer: Right. And I think that’s the mistake we make in history. It’s actually a thing that comics gets wrong sometimes, but we get right a lot. You know, we take Superman and we give him Clark Kent. And we take Spider-Man, but we give them Peter Parker. They always had that human side.
But with our presidents and with our great historical figures, we tend to just want to see the super side. And it’s a huge error. It’s not fair to them. It’s not fair to anyone, especially Abraham Lincoln.
When you pull apart Lincoln’s life and see that, listen, when he was elected, he wasn’t ready to free the slaves. His first inauguration speech was unremarkable. It was actually pretty soft. It took so much work of so many people to kind of figure out the better side of his angel, so to speak.
And to watch him develop and learn and evolve - that’s why the book is about what great leaders do. Abraham Lincoln was smart enough to know that he wasn’t always the smartest. And that, I know it sounds silly, takes a really, really big brain.
Nrama: You worked together on this with Josh Mensch, with whom you also worked on The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington. Is the writing partnership there because there’s so much research to be done?
Meltzer: Yeah. If I’m writing Superman or Batman, I’ve got the 30 years of research in my brain. I got it all! It’s all there!
But when you’re writing a non-fiction book about Abraham Lincoln or George Washington … we have 50 pages of footnotes alone. It’s just too much. The physical amount of volumes you have to go through and cite and quote and make sure that they’re all correct is just too staggering.
So Josh is the executive producer from our TV show Lost History. He’s an award-winning documentarian and the best researcher/writer I’ve come across. And I just love working with him. We loved pulling apart George Washington’s life and had even more fun with Abraham Lincoln, because I think personally, both of us were bigger fans of him.
Nrama: These are non-fiction books, but they’re still written like Brad Meltzer/edge-of-your-seat thrillers. I assume that’s why you’ve chosen these secret murder plots as the focus of your non-fiction books? That’s the stuff you write well.
Meltzer: I appreciate that, but it’s the stuff that I actually care about, I don’t need to see the 95th time that the Emancipation Proclamation moment happens. We’ve seen it. We’ve seen the movies. Spielberg did it himself.
I like picking that moment that no one’s seen - a moment that nobody knows about, that has been forgotten.
I mean, to find out there’s a secret society in their candlelit rooms where there are secret codes and secret handshakes, and that the leader of them is, of all things, a barber in Baltimore - in the basement of one of Baltimore’s fanciest hotels, there’s a barber who, if you go and say the right thing, he will whisper in your ear the secret plot to kill Abraham Lincoln.
Well, now I’m listening. That’s the story I want to hear.
Nrama: In the current environment, you’re handling the book tour a little differently, right?
Meltzer: Yeah, there are tons of events. We’re doing a Facebook Live on my page. We have Barnes & Noble on their national page as our kick-off event on May 5.
We’re doing St. Louis and Dallas and Tampa -- there are individual events so people can go and get signed books there.
I think at this moment in time, where we’re all locked down, we still have that need to connect, and we still want to know that we’re alone. So we’re just determined to say, how can we make that happen?
It’s tricky. I mean, I wish I was out there in every city. We had a 15-city tour planned. I was running two solid weeks. But thankfully, a lot of great stores and great libraries around the country have said, you know what? We’re going to still do it. We’re just going to do it in a different way.