Anyone who has ever studied United States history in school knows about John Wilkes Booth and the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
What most people don’t know is that wasn’t the first time there was an attempt on Lincoln’s life. In “The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill America’s 16th President – and Why It Failed” by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch details the tumultuous election of 1860 and the plot by a secret society of Southern slaveholders to murder the president-elect on his way to his own inauguration.
Although the end of the story is obvious – the plot is foiled and Lincoln goes on to become one of the greatest presidents the country has ever known – it’s the journey that Lincoln and the reader take to get there that becomes a spellbinding ride.
“We all know the end of the story, but this is the beginning,” Meltzer said in a phone interview with The Sealy News.
The book follows the same flashback fashion that Meltzer and Mensch used in last year’s “The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington.” We get snippets of current events reinforced by flashes of the past to further enhance our understanding of the significance of what’s happening now.
“The story is told in the present tense,” Meltzer said, explaining that he wants the reader to experience events the same way they unfolded in real life 160 years ago.
The book begins at the climax of the story where Abraham Lincoln is being secreted in the dead of night on a train bound for Washington, D.C., through Maryland and the deadly trap that awaits him. He is escorted by Kate Warne, the country’s first female private detective and a member of Allan Pinkerton’s famed detective agency. Meltzer then peels back the pages of history and gives us an unblemished look at Lincoln’s hardscrabble beginnings and the crushing losses of loved ones he experienced early in life. Meltzer and Mensch take us on a journey through Lincoln’s life, his self-education, and his acceptance of who he is despite his tall, gangly, and roughhewn exterior, shaped by hard labor and extreme poverty.
“This is the story of the American Dream,” Meltzer said.
This is also the second time Meltzer has delved into Lincoln’s early years. In 2014 he published the children’s book “I am Abraham Lincoln” as part of his Ordinary People Change the World series. In the series, Meltzer delves into the lives of real heroes and explores the ordinary events that shaped them into the world-changers they became.
“They help us become better versions of ourselves,” Meltzer said.
Meltzer noted there are many parallels between what happened in the election of 1860 and the political climate of 2020. The country is sharply divided, and the president is the lightning rod.
“The one thing the country can agree on right now is Abraham Lincoln,” he said.
In Lincoln’s time, the issue was slavery and Americans were sharply divided over the subject. It was tearing the country apart.
“Whatever side you are on you hated the other people … sound familiar?” Meltzer said.
Meltzer is the nation’s nooks and crannies historian who dumpster dives into the dustbin of history and tells thrilling tales around obscure people and events. It’s what he does in his
fictional thrillers and it’s what he’s doing now in his nonfiction presidential conspiracy books. He and Mensch began working together on Meltzer’s television shows “Decoded” and “Lost History” and they continued their relationship into print. Mensch is a documentary television producer and is well versed in the art of historic research. Meltzer said they hold a general discussion about the story they want to tell and then Mensch takes it from there.
“Josh always does the first draft and then I come in and read and re-write,” he said.
After unraveling plots against Washington and Lincoln, Meltzer said they are contemplating another presidential mystery, but he is not ready to say what that will be just yet. In the meantime, he is promoting his newest children’s books about Benjamin Franklin and Anne Frank and putting the finishing touches on his next thriller, a sequel to “The Escape Artist.”
“The Lincoln Conspiracy The Secret Plot to Kill America’s 16th President—and Why It Failed” By Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch, Flatiron Books | May 5, 2020. Hardcover $29.99.