Susan Higginbotham's Blog: History Refreshed by Susan HIgginbotham

February 23, 2017

As some of you probably know, I got my start as a historical novelist writing about Edward II, so I’m pleased to be hosting a guest post from Martin White, who’s also written about this flawed but intriguing king. Over to Martin:

I must have been about 9 years old when I was first taken to Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. (We lived only a few miles away in Stroud.) Inevitably, I was impressed by the small cell where Edward II was said to have been imprisoned and then murdered with a red hot poker, his screams being heard well beyond the walls. I have a half memory too – something to do with a well, which, in my mind’s eye, I can still see: strange, because the story that Edward was kept for a time near a shaft where noisome animal carcases were thrown to procure his discomfort, if not death by disease, seems to have been a later invention and no more than a myth!

When we moved house to the city of Gloucester a year or so later, I was of course taken to see its Cathedral, and therein Edward’s tomb – the only monarch to be buried there after the Norman Conquest, and therefore our county’s special king, someone whose alabaster image and tomb of Purbeck marble and limestone had to be pointed out with pride to visiting relatives.

Later in my teens, of course, I became aware of Edward’s reputation for homosexuality, and partly perhaps in response to Marlowe’s unflattering depiction of a medieval sodomite, partly due to the strongly homophobic attitudes of adolescents in the ‘60s (if not later), he lost something of his lustre in my personal pantheon of mighty men of the emerging English nation!

I studied History as my degree subject at Cambridge, but I avoided Medieval Britain for my entire three years of study; and even though Cambridge also revealed to me that, fight it as I might, I was myself almost certainly gay, Edward himself remained at the back of my mind as little more than of local interest, and definitely not as a precursor, let alone hero or brother-in-arms!

Whilst Gay Liberation and Queer Studies made advances during the following decades, these  somehow did not impinge on my life in any major way, for I had abandoned the Liberal Arts and had become a lawyer, inhabiting a professional world where to be gay was at best to be tolerated, and was not something likely to enhance one’s curriculum vitae. I read no history books for 30 years, and it was only when retirement beckoned, and I began to wonder how I might continue to pursue my by now thoroughly ingrained work ethic, whilst concentrating on something more enjoyable than property law and development, that my reviving interest in the past, plus a desire to try my hand at novel writing, led me first to write a novel about Schubert (also now thought by some to have been gay), and then one about Edward.

I recall the very moment when the Edward project first took shape in my mind – as I was driving along the motorway on my way to see my mother, who still lived in Gloucestershire, but was by this time in a care home suffering from dementia. What better topic could there be for me than a gay historical figure whose downfall was played out in my own part of the world – at Berkeley and Gloucester Cathedral, but also nearby at Kenilworth (where Edward was also imprisoned), at Hereford (where his favourite, Despenser, was hung drawn and quartered), and on the Gower over the border in Wales (where Edward was first captured by his enemies).

That I should home in upon Edward as the subject for a novel in 2010 was indeed fortuitous, for once I began to read around the topic I discovered that something of a revolution was in process with regard to theories concerning Edward’s downfall. Whilst some argued strongly against the idea, others, and in particular Dr Ian Mortimer of Exeter University, were presenting an entirely different narrative to that involving the famous red hot poker, and were finding more and more evidence to support the thesis that Edward in fact escaped from Berkeley Castle, that his state funeral at Gloucester Cathedral in December 1327 was a complete fraud, that he spent time at Corfe Castle and then in Ireland, and then made his way across Europe finally to settle in Northern Italy at the Abbey of Sant’ Alberto di Butrio, where he died probably at some time in the 1340s (something which Italian historians had been claiming for many decades!)

If the originality and attraction of this new perspective was not enough to strengthen me in my desire to dramatise Edward and his fate, the fact that it led me to Italy, by then  my favourite country – crazy, corrupt, and chaotic as it is! – provided all the additional incentive that I needed.

A year of reading the latest research and of visiting the various locations mentioned above, laid the groundwork for the novel. Another setting also began to figure in my planning, when I discovered firstly that in the fourteenth century the Dominicans had a monopoly on the royal confessorship,  that no record of who was acting as Edward’s confessor after September 1326 (ie during the months of his fall from power) exists, and that at Gloucester English Heritage have restored and opened to the public the old Blackfriars (Dominican) Friary, which, during my life as a schoolboy in the city had been an old ruin behind fencing and metal sheets, in part used for storage and light industry!

This gave me the key to the plot as it eventually emerged, for who better to tell Edward’s story than the man (inevitably a Dominican, if unidentified by history) to whom Edward’s secrets were revealed and with whom he anguished over the reasons for his fall. Brother Stephen, whom this character became, would explore those sins (Envy, Anger, Sloth) by which Edward’s political acts would have been judged by his contemporaries, but also Lust and Sodomy which played an equal role, certainly in his dealings with his rebellious Queen and various favourites.

Through the development of his relationship with the king, however, Brother Stephen took Edward, and indeed myself, to a higher plane than that of mere politics, as together we explored the man himself, his inner conflicts, his quest for salvation. Thus, a fictionalised account of Edward’s fall and its newly propounded conclusion became the background for a story of personal redemption, in which my own and Edward’s repressions intertwine, and there is an interplay between views of sexuality deriving from the distant past, the present (at least pre-Trump), and that no-man’s land of my own youth and early adulthood in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

“To Catch the Conscience of the King” by Martin White is published by DiButrio Books and is available from Amazon and other booksellers both as a paperback (£9.99) and as a Kindle edition (£5.52).

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Published on February 23, 2017 21:02 • 58 views

January 1, 2017

In one of her letters written while she was living in Springfield, Illinois, Mary Lincoln refers to the practice of having “open houses” on New Year’s Day. Recalling the custom years later, Emily Huntington Stuart wrote,

“When I was a child, and even long after my marriage, the custom of keeping open house on New Year’s Day was a long looked-for event. Unfortunately, this delightful social function fell into innocuous desuetude from two causes: one was that in many houses, besides the bountiful edibles, liquor was freely served (especially eggnog) and taking a little here and there, many of the men were quite ‘overcome’ by evening; the other reason was that many undesirable men took advantage of the custom of open house on New Year’s to enter homes where they never would have been invited guests.

“Should a lady be receiving at another house, and ‘not at home’ on New Year’s, or in case of illness, a fancy basket was hung on the door knob, decorated with ribbons and flowers, to receive the cards of the callers . . .

“New Year’s Day was always closed with a bull at the Governor’s Mansion or some other large house, and was the gala event of the year and the fit close to a very gay, happy day. Many of the society dames had kept open house all day, with a bevy of young girls and young married women to assist in entertaining the guests who came to call. It was great fun to keep a record of the callers and to compare notes of their fair speeches, for everyone was jolly on that first day of the year. Closed hacks clattered around the streets on this day (and sometimes sleighs with their tinkling bells) filled with men of all ages. . . .

“A hack or sleigh would drive up and disgorge its contents, the men would file into the double parlors, greet the ladies receiving, and be escorted by one of them to the dining room where hot coffee and refreshments would be rushed in and a gay time would be going on; and when another hack load would come in, the first lot would go to another house. . . .

“What a pity that such a happy custom should have fallen out of fashion, but this was unavoidable and inevitable, as many persons took advantage of hospitality which they had no right to share and entered homes and society where they were unwelcome. I believe this is now called ‘crashing.’ Then, too, there was no prohibition, and many a young man took his first step in dissipation and ruin in accepting wine or egg-nog from the hands of a pretty girl or woman.”

So ladies, watch out for undesirable men, and gentlemen, watch out for pretty girls bearing egg-nog! Happy New Year!

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Published on January 01, 2017 08:39 • 53 views

December 24, 2016

godeystreedec1850A while back, I posted about Mary Lincoln’s close friend Mercy Conkling (née Levering). In December 1862, the Conklings’ oldest son, Clinton, was attending college at Yale, where he remained over the Christmas holidays. Accordingly, on December 28, 1862, his mother wrote to him to tell him of the family’s celebrations back home in Springfield, Illinois, particularly the Christmas tree she had erected.

I mentioned that I intended to have a tree for the little children, and so for more than two weeks I was just as busy as a bee! preparing little articles of decorations, presents etc. Nannie, Charley and Jim contributing largely their part. And when Christmas night came our tree was in full bloom with hues of all colors, not fruit, or flowers, but very many beautiful articles, and gifts that gladdened the hearts of the little ones. Yes! and old ones too! I had intended to have the tree opened on Christmas night, but the whole day and evening was so stormy and such terrific thunder and lightning that I deferred our frolic for the next evening. . . . I do assure you we had a nice, merry time. I had invited quite a number of little ones, but curiosity brought many older ones, and all seemed equally happy, and pronounced my tree very handsome. So it was! and without complimenting myself for good taste, I tell you it was beautiful! I do wish Clint you could have seen it. Mr. and Mrs. Baker were among the older ones and said they never saw anything of the kind so well arranged and so handsome. Mr. Baker thought it was a perfect success. On the top of the tree I placed a large doll nicely dressed as the Goddess of Liberty, holding in her hand that beautiful flag you got at Baltimore, around her were scattered various devises, in the form of book marks etc. At the foot of the tree stood a beautiful boy doll, in Highland costume, holding a girl by the hand, around them was a space about a yard square, which Jim had fixed up with a neat little fence made of thin paste board. In this we had six beautiful little rabbits, as white as snow, only four weeks old, the little creatures seemed perfectly joyous, and added a very novel, and very pretty feature to the entertainment. Old and young seemed delighted at the sight, and many were the enquiries, “where they came from?” Charley received some very handsome presents. Henry Ridgely hung on the tree for him, a beautiful pocket knife, and one for Jim. Mrs. N. Edwards [Mary Lincoln’s older sister] gave each one a handsome photographic album. Some one gave them both another knife. Uncle William a nice purse each. My self each a [pair of] slippers besides other things I cannot mention. Alice & Annie were quite as highly favored. Mrs. Baker sent Annie a beautiful little gold basket containing a gold thimble and also a basket to Alice besides a very handsome box full of choice candy. . . . But the crowning thing was Father’s gift to me, even, a portrait of himself!  perfect surprise to me. It is splendid! and a perfect likeness. Oh! how much I do value it, and how glad you will be to see it! . . . [Y]ou were not forgotten on the tree, hung there were some little articles intended for you, which I will send by your father. . . .

I wish I had time, or strength of sight, and I would amuse you with a description of the Santi-Claus that we had at our church.

James Conkling, Mercy’s husband, also wrote to Clinton. In his letter, dated New Year’s Eve, James gave his son a stodgy parental lecture on not skipping the college’s religious or literary exercises, but then added in a more festive vein, “Last evening they had a tree at the 3 Church–tonight at the 1st Church and sundry others have been decorated at other places. The children generally think that Christmas is a grand institution.”

And so do I, so Merry Christmas, everyone!

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Published on December 24, 2016 09:03 • 28 views

December 17, 2016

“[E]ach & every one has had, a little romance in  their early days,” Mary Lincoln wrote to family friend David Davis on March 4, 1867, “but as my husband was truth itself, and as he always assured me, he had cared for no one but myself.” But Lincoln did have his own romances before his marriage–and he admitted to proposing to one lady. Here are three women who just might have become Mrs. Lincoln:

Ann Rutledge

In an 1862 issue of the county newspaper The Menard Axis, John Hill wrote that while living in New Salem, Illinois, Lincoln:

chanced to meet with a lady, who to him seemed lovely, angelic, and the height of perfection. Forgetful of all things else, he could think or dream of naught but her. This to him was perfect happiness and with uneasy anxiety he awaited the arrival of the day when the twain would be made one flesh—But that day was doomed never to arrive. Disease came upon this lovely beauty, and she sickened and died. The youth had wrapped his heart with her’s, and this was more than he could bear…He was changed and sad. His friends detected strange conduct and a flighty imagination. They placed him under guard for fear of his committing suicide. New circumstances changed his thoughts, and at last he partially forgot that which had for a time consumed his mind.

After Lincoln’s death, his former law partner William Herndon, collecting materials for a biography,  interviewed New Salem residents and others and identified the lady in question as Ann Rutledge, who was engaged to merchant John McNamar but during his extended absence fell in love with Lincoln and ended up getting engaged to him as well. As Herndon told it, distressed by her double engagement, Ann began to suffer from declining health, followed by a fever and her death in August 1835.  Lincoln’s heart, Herndon proclaimed in his November 16, 1866, lecture on the subject, “sad and broken, was buried” with Ann.

Grave of Ann Rutledge (courtesy of Library of Congress)

Grave of Ann Rutledge (courtesy of Library of Congress)

Needless to say, this tragic story caught the imagination of many, including poet Edgar Lee Masters, who immortalized the love affair in verse. This in turn produced a backlash among historians, who for a while consigned the story to the stuff of legend, dismissing it as the product of Herndon’s suggestive interviewing and his disdain for Mary Lincoln, who was incensed by the claim that Lincoln had left his heart in poor Ann’s grave. But in recent years, historians have been more inclined to accept the story (minus its most florid embellishments), which as Douglas Wilson has pointed out is as well attested as certain other incidents from Lincoln’s New Salem days. It is certainly not implausible that Lincoln should have fallen for Ann, described by John McNamar as “winsome and comely . . . with golden hair, cherry red lips, & a bonny blue eye,” or that the lonely Ann should have found solace in the  personable Lincoln.

Mary Owens

One of those who corresponded with Herndon was Elizabeth Abell, who recalled Lincoln as remarking during a rainstorm that he could not bear the idea of its raining on Ann’s grave; she added that while Ann’s death did not make him “crazy,” he was “very desponding a long time.” But Lincoln did prove consolable, and it was with Elizabeth Abell’s sister that he found his next romance.

Like the other Mary in Lincoln’s life, Mary Owens was a Kentuckian visiting her sister when she became acquainted with Lincoln.  The match between Mary and Lincoln was promoted by Elizabeth Abell, despite a certain lack of enthusiasm on the part of the principals.  Mary complained to her sister that “Mr. Lincoln was deficient in those little links which make up the great chain of woman’s happiness.”  Once, she noted, he did not think to help a woman carry her heavy child, and during a riding excursion, he did not linger to make certain that Mary got safely over a branch; when Mary confronted him with his lack of consideration, he told Mary “he knew [she] was plenty smart to take care of [her]self.” Lincoln, in turn, while he thought Mary “intelligent and agreeable, and saw no good objection to plodding life through hand in hand with her,” was dismayed to find  that she had changed since their last meeting. In a 1838 letter to a married friend, Eliza Browning, he wrote, “[A]lthough I had seen her before, she did not look as my imagination had pictured her–I knew she was over-size, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff.” He had promised Mary’s sister that he would court the lady, however, and court her he did. Having been elected to the legislature, he wrote to her from Vandalia and later from Springfield. Three letters survive, none a model of romantic passion.  From Springfield, he wrote on May 7, 1837, to inform Mary that she was likely to be unhappy if she joined him there. “There is a great deal of flourishing about in carriages here, which it would be your doom to see without sharing in it. You would have to be poor without the means of hiding your poverty. Do you think you could bear that patiently?”

Mary Owens (courtesy of Library of Congress)

Mary Owens (courtesy of Library of Congress)

At last, as Lincoln reported to Eliza Browning in 1838,

As the lawyers say, it was done in the manner following, towit. After I had delayed the matter as long as I thought I could in honor do, which by the way had brought me round into the last fall, I concluded I might as well bring it to a consumation without further delay; and so I mustered my resolution, and made the proposal to her direct; but, shocking to relate, she answered, No. At first I supposed she did it through an affectation of modesty, which I thought but ill-become her, under the peculiar circumstances of her case; but on my renewal of the charge, I found she repeled it with greater firmness than before. I tried it again and again, but with the same success, or rather with the same want of success. I finally was forced to give it up, at which I verry unexpectedly found myself mortified almost beyond endurance. I was mortified, it seemed to me, in a hundred different ways. My vanity was deeply wounded by the reflection, that I had so long been too stupid to discover her intentions, and at the same time never doubting that I understood them perfectly; and also, that she whom I had taught myself to believe no body else would have, had actually rejected me with all my fancied greatness; and to cap the whole, I then, for the first time, began to suspect that I was really a little in love with her. But let it all go. I’ll try and out live it. Others have been made fools of by the girls; but this can never be with truth said of me. I most emphatically, in this instance, made a fool of myself. I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying; and for this reason; I can never be satisfied with any one who would be block-head enough to have me.

Mary Owens did not pine for Lincoln, but married Jesse Vineyard in 1839. Two of her sons fought in the Confederate army, but Mary is said to have told a friend that she would have gone to Lincoln for relief had her sons got into trouble. She died on July 4, 1877.

Sarah Rickard

When Lincoln moved to Springfield, he lodged with Joshua Speed, but took his meals in the home of William and Elizabeth Butler.  The latter had a–you guessed it!–younger sister staying with her, Sarah Rickard.

Sarah was a mere child when Lincoln began boarding with her family–later,  she recalled, Lincoln  used to say that Sarah was “a little girl wearing these pantalets” when they met.  As she grew up, she said, Lincoln would take her to entertainments, such as “The Babes in the Woods,” and became even more attentive when Sarah turned sixteen.

According to Sarah, in the winter of 1840/41–the time when he had broken off with Mary Todd–Lincoln proposed to Sarah, quoting from the Bible and informing her that “Sarah will become Abraham’s wife.” Sarah refused, telling Herndon in 1888 that she had not thought much about matrimony at the age of sixteen and as a young girl just entering society was unimpressed by Lincoln’s “peculiar manner and his general deportment.”  Moreover,  she saw Lincoln almost as an older brother.

Sarah Rickard (courtesy of Library of Congress)

Sarah Rickard (courtesy of Library of Congress)

Did Lincoln actually propose to Sarah?  Some have argued that Lincoln’s remark about Abraham marrying Sarah was not a proposal, but a joke that landed with a thud. Still, John Lightfoot, writing to Herndon in 1887, reported the rumor that Abraham and Sarah had courted but that she had “flung him high & dry.” Much later in life, Sarah told a newspaper that Lincoln had not explicitly proposed, but had come “mighty nigh” to doing so.  On one occasion, she said, Lincoln became “very serious” and told her, “Now, Sarah, you know your Bible well enough  to know that Sarah was Abraham’s wife.”  Sarah said that she knew what was coming and left the room, but added, “If I’d known that he would have been President I would have paid more attention to him.”  Instead, Sarah married Richard Barret; she died on October 25, 1911.


Abraham Lincoln to Mrs. Orville H. Browning , April 1, 1838, in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols., New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1: 117-119,

Gerald McMurtry, Appendix to Lincoln’s Other Mary: The Courtship of Mary Owens by Olive Carruthers. (Note: Carruthers’ book is fiction, but McMurtry’s appendix is factual.)

“She Might Have Married Lincoln.”  Kansas City Star,  Sunday, February 10, 1907.

John Y. Simon, “Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, vol. 11,  issue 1, 1990.

Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, eds., Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters.

John Evangelist Walsh, The Shadows Rise: Abraham Lincoln and the Ann Rutledge Legend.

Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years.

Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, eds., Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln.

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Published on December 17, 2016 21:49 • 73 views

November 3, 2016

On Friday, November 4, 1842, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd married. Sometime around the beginning of 1841, they had broken up, for reasons that still elude historians today.


Having resumed their courtship (and what brought the pair back together is equally debatable), the couple made no one aware of their impending nuptials until the morning of the wedding, when they informed Mary’s sister and her brother-in-law, Elizabeth and Ninian Edwards, of their plans. The Edwardses insisted that the couple marry in their house, where Mary had been living as a guest since 1839. The lovers agreed, and Elizabeth Edwards and another sister, Frances Wallace, frenziedly began to do the cooking necessary to host a respectable wedding feast.  Reportedly, when Elizabeth, bewailing the short notice she had been given, told Mary, “I guess I will have to send to old Dickey’s for some of his gingerbread and beer,” Mary, presumably recalling disparaging remarks about Lincoln’s humble origins, snapped, “Well, that will be good enough for plebeians, I suppose.”

James H. Matheny and Beverly Powell served as Lincoln’s groomsmen. While contemporaries agreed that Julia Jayne (later Trumbull) was  one of Mary’s bridesmaids, they had difficulty remembering the name of the second bridesmaid. Both Anna Rodney (Cushman) and Mary’s cousin Elizabeth Todd (Grimsley) are identified in some of their obituaries as a bridesmaid at the Lincoln wedding, and Mary’s niece Katherine Helm, who wrote a biography of her aunt, settled the matter by naming all three women as bridesmaids. Equally murky is the all-important question of what the bride wore.  Frances Wallace, recalling the wedding for a reporter in 1895, was certain that Mary had not borrowed Frances’s white satin wedding dress for the occasion, but beyond that could not say for sure whether Mary was married in a white Swiss muslin, or not a white dress at all, or “delaine, or something of that kind.” (You can see why historical novelists are a cranky bunch at times, with all this to sort out.)

Anna Rodney Cushman (Randall Papers, Library of Congress)

Anna Rodney Cushman (Randall Papers, Library of Congress)

The groom, Frances recalled, “was cheerful as he ever had been.” Matheny, however, told Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, William Herndon, that “Lincoln looked and acted as if he was going to the Slaughter.”

Abraham Lincoln, 1846 or 1847 (Library of Congress)

Abraham Lincoln, 1846 or 1847 (Library of Congress)

Whatever Lincoln’s demeanor, it surely must have helped matters when, as the Reverend Charles Dresser intoned, “With this ring I thee endow with all my goods and chattles, lands and tenements,” Judge Thomas Browne exclaimed, “Lord Jesus Christ, God Almighty, Lincoln, the Statute fixes all that!”

The newlywed Lincolns started their married life at Springfield’s Globe Tavern. There, a brisk nine months after the wedding, Mary gave birth to their first son, Robert, on August 1, 1843.

Mary Lincoln, 1846 or 1847 (Library of Congress)

Mary Lincoln, 1846 or 1847 (Library of Congress)

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Published on November 03, 2016 22:53 • 54 views

October 25, 2016

First, let me apologize for not posting here for such a long time. I do have a good excuse: we have spent the last few months preparing our house for sale, putting the house on the market, selling it, and (finally!) moving from North Carolina to Maryland. I’m enjoying it here, especially the easy access to Washington, D.C., and the archives therein.

Which brings me to my next point: I’ve been making use of those resources for my work in progress: The First Lady and the Rebel (working title), the story of Mary Lincoln and her Confederate half-sister, Emilie Helm. I’ll be posting about both ladies in the months to come, but I thought I’d start by posting about one of Mary Lincoln’s closest friends.

Some time in 1839, Mary Todd moved from her father and stepmother’s stately, but crowded, house in Lexington, Kentucky, to the home of her married sister Elizabeth Edwards in Springfield, Illinois. Mary left partly because she did not get on well with her stepmother and partly because Springfield, recently made the capital of Illinois, was an ideal place for Mary, a vivacious young woman with a keen interest in politics, to look for a husband. There, she met a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who was a junior partner in her cousin’s law office. After a rocky courtship, the two married on November 4, 1842.

During her stay at her sister Elizabeth’s house, Mary became good friends with a neighbor, Mercy Levering, who like Mary had come to Springfield on a visit to a relative (in Mercy’s case, her brother). Mercy, whose name is also rendered as “Merce” or “Mercie” (the spelling on her tombstone), is known mainly for her association with a charming story from Mary’s early days in Springfield: during one particularly rainy spell that had turned the unpaved streets of the frontier city to muck, a bored Mary hit upon a novel way to travel the short distance from the Edwards mansion to the center of town: she and Mercy would take a pile of shingles with them and, by dropping the shingles in front of them to use as stepping stones, contrive to keep their feet out of the mud. Getting back home, however, proved to be problematic, so Mary, seeing a passing dray, asked the driver for a lift, a request with which he cheerfully complied. The more conventional Mercy declined the ride, which a denizen of Springfield later immortalized in verse.

Mercy later returned (temporarily) to her family in Baltimore, giving Mary the opportunity in June 1841 to write a confiding letter to her. For reasons that still remain unclear, Mary and Lincoln had broken off their relationship the previous winter, a subject to which Mary refers very obliquely in her letter. Giving news of Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s close friend, she adds, “His worthy friend, deems me unworthy of notice, as I have not met him in the gay world for months, with the usual comfort of misery, imagine that others were so seldom gladdened by his presence as my humble self, yet I would that the case were different, that he would once more resume his Station in Society.”

On September 21, 1841, a few months after receiving this letter from Mary, Mercy married her beau James C. Conkling, a prominent Springfield lawyer. The couple had five children, including Clinton Conkling, who brought Lincoln the news of his nomination for the presidency. Clinton’s correspondence with his parents while he was at Yale before and during the Civil War gives some interesting glimpses into wartime Springfield as well as an eyewitness account by Clinton of the Baltimore riot of April 1861. Thanks to Clinton’s absence at Yale, we have this account from Mercy of Election Day, November 6, 1860, in Springfield:

Springfield has been reclaimed at last, and is now in the Republican arm!! The boys had a great time here last night. Father was out till half past two. He describes the scene as perfectly wild. While the votes were being counted the republicans were at the Representatives hall, singing, yelling! shouting!! (The boys, not children) dancing. Old men, young, middle aged, clergymen and all! John Williams was put in the chair, a Secretary, Reporter etc appointed, and there they remained all night. Dispatches coming in all the while, and being read to the enthusiastic crowd, wild with excitement, and glory! With this I send you a paper, containing a list of the dispatches as they came in. So that you see the crowd had something to keep them excited! The Ladies in the goodness of their hearts prepared a supper, at Watsons saloon, where the gentlemen were invited to go in all night, or at least till 3 o’clock. The Democratic Headquarters closed at eleven and they retired quietly & feeling sad. Poor Dug!

Mary Lincoln’s friendship with Mercy continued into Lincoln’s presidency. In July 1864, Mary, hearing that Mercy and her husband were in Washington, invited her to join them at Fortress Monroe. Later that year, in November, Mary wrote a gossipy letter to Mercy in which she concluded, “I shall be most happy, to welcome you at the Inauguration. If you can think over any plants, you have not & desire, let me know.”

Mercy died in Springfield on October 17, 1893, aged 76; an obituary praised her for her work with the Home for the Friendless. She and her husband, who died in 1899, are buried in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery, the same cemetery in which their friends the Lincolns were laid to rest.

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Published on October 25, 2016 10:00 • 22 views

August 3, 2016

I’m delighted to be hosting Tony Riches, author of Jasper: Book Two of the Tudor Trilogy, a novel about one of my favorite people, Jasper Tudor! Over to Tony:

Researching JASPER – Book Two of The Tudor Trilogy, by Tony Riches

Book Two of The Tudor Trilogy

Book Two of The Tudor Trilogy

Wales had become a dangerous place for the Tudors by 1471 – and the second book in the Tudor trilogy begins with a disaster for the hero, Sir Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke. Forced to flee the massacre of his Welsh army at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, his only hope is to organise a rebellion to return his half-brother King Henry to the throne.

Their Lancastrian cause was lost with the news that King Henry VI had been found dead in his chapel in the Tower of London. The Lancastrian heir to the throne, Edward, Prince of Wales, was slaughtered in the massacre of Queen Margaret’s forces at Tewkesbury and many Lancastrian nobles were executed by York’s army. Finding themselves besieged in Pembroke Castle, Jasper Tudor and his young nephew Henry realise their only hope is to somehow escape to France.

As part of the research for this book I decided to follow the Tudor’s journey from Wales to their fourteen year exile in Brittany – and ultimately their return to victory at the pivotal Battle of Bosworth. There are many stories but the documented historical record raises questions and I wanted to see for myself what primary evidence I could discover. I live close to Pembroke Castle and the seaside town of Tenby, so it was relatively easy to research their movements in Wales.

Tenby, the nearest town where they could hope to find a ship, was full of danger, as it had been taken by the supporters of King Edward IV. The story handed down over the centuries is that Jasper and Henry Tudor hid in a cellar belonging to a wine merchant named Thomas White, then escaped to the harbour at night through a secret tunnel. It was easy enough to find the location of Thomas White’s house in Tenby, as there is a plaque on the wall outside what is now Boots the Chemists in Tenby High Street. Under a Tudor rose the plaque reads: By tradition Henry Tudor with his uncle Jasper Tudor Earl of Pembroke was hidden in the cellar on this site before escaping to Brittany in 1471. In 1485 he landed at Dale and defeated Richard III at Bosworth to take the throne as the first Tudor monarch.

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The manager of Boots agreed to show me the tunnels and we started in the extensive basement cellars, now used as store-rooms. As we entered the tunnels, deep under the street, we were plunged into darkness and had to rely on torches. I saw the remains of an ancient fireplace, complete with chimney, an odd luxury to have in a tunnel, which could be evidence for its use in the past to hide people who might need a fire for warmth. The tunnel had several exits which were bricked up but although it wasn’t possible to follow the trail to the harbour, I could see the stories of how the Tudor’s escaped from Tenby could be true.tunnel

I have sailed from Tenby harbour many times, including in complete darkness to catch the tide, just as the Tudors would have done. There are perilous rocks just below the surface as you head out into the Bristol Channel bound for the equally hazardous Land’s End, which their ship had to navigate before they could even begin heading for the uncertain welcome they might receive in Brittany.

There is a great sense of freedom as you leave the confines of the little town with its narrow streets and pass the monastic island of Caldey before heading out into open water. I can imagine Jasper and Henry Tudor would have stood at the ship’s rail and felt relieved to escape – but also sad to be leaving their troubled country as refugees, with only what they could carry and no idea of when, if ever, they would be able to return.

My own journey began in the old Breton port of Vannes, where I visited the Château de l’Hermine, the residence of Duke Francis of Brittany, where the Tudors requested his protection. Duke Francis appreciated the political value of the exiled Tudors to King Edward IV, as well as to King Louis of France, to whom they were related through the Valois family of Jasper’s mother, Henry’s grandmother, Queen Catherine.

Chateau Hermine Vannes2 (1)

It seems the duke was soon visited by York’s envoys who tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate their return. Encouraged by King Louis, Duke Francis promised to ensure their safety as his guests while they remained ‘within his dominion’. Although they effectively became his prisoners, it is said Duke Francis treated the Tudors as his own brothers, with ‘honour, courtesy and favour.’

I knew little of the grand fourteenth century palace remains, as the Hotel Lagorce was built on the site in 1785. In my research I managed to track down a contemporary illustration of the marriage of Duke Francis to his first wife and cousin, Marguerite of Brittany in the Château de l’Hermine in November 1455, which gives an impression of the interior when the Tudors were in residence. Although there was little point in entering the present-day château, it was interesting to explore the ancient medieval walls and the narrow maze of streets, as well as the magnificent Gothic cathedral of St. Pierre.

Mariage de François II avec Marguerite de Bretagne au château de l'Hermin à Vannes. (2)

By October, 1472, Duke Francis became concerned they might be abducted by York’s agents and moved the Tudors to his remote ‘hunting lodge’ by the sea, south of Vannes, the Château de Suscinio. Their new home had been fortified in the fourteenth century and now resembled a castle of grand proportions, surrounded by forests stocked with game.

I visited the Château de Suscinio on a gloriously hot afternoon and was surprised to find the car park full of coaches and soon discovered why. The Département of Morbihan has spent a fortune over the last fifty years restoring the once ruined castle to how it might have looked when Jasper and Henry stayed there in the fifteenth century.

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There are no records of where in the château Henry and Jasper were accommodated but one candidate is the first floor, which was used by the captain of the guard, as the second floor contained the duke’s private apartments and third floor those of the duchess. Another intriguing possibility is the West range, on the opposite side of the spacious walled courtyard. I couldn’t explore the rooms in this building as it is still being restored, although the extensive accommodation was claimed to have once been used as a prison, which seems unusual for a château used as a hunting lodge. If the Tudors had been housed there, the men guarding them would have been likely to think of them as ‘prisoners’.

After less than two years at Suscinio Duke Francis decided to reduce the risk of their abduction to England by moving them to different locations inland. Young Henry Tudor found himself deep in the forest at the remote Forteresse de Largoët, outside of the Breton town of Elven. In the safe custody of the twenty-seven year old Marshall of Brittany, Jean IV, Lord of Rieux and Rochefort, Henry was able to continue his education but was prevented from communicating with his mother in England or with his uncle, Jasper Tudor.

The poorly signposted Forteresse de Largoët was a little difficult to find up an unlikely looking track leading deep into the woodlands outside Elven. At the small gatehouse I was given a useful leaflet in English which confirmed that: ‘On the second floor of the Dungeon Tower and to the left is found a small vaulted room where the Count of Richemont was imprisoned for 18 months (1474-1475).’

I was impressed by the scale of the building, which sits in a wooded valley by a small lake. It was built unusually high, at fifty-seven meters, to provide a view out to the Gulf of Morbihan. The tower originally had a moat crossed by a raising drawbridge on a pier and still has a spiral stone staircase with 177 steps to the top. There are deep cracks in the crumbling walls and notices warning of falling masonry and that visitors climb the stairs at their own risk and will ‘arrive at numerous gaping openings which makes this a dangerous venture.’

Largoet7 (1)

Entering the tower through a dark corridor, the open interior reveals there were once at least seven floors. This space was once used as a kitchen and leads to the main stairway and a guardroom. I regretted not bringing a torch, as the high stairway is lit only by the small window openings. Interestingly, the lower level is octagonal, with the second hexagonal and the rest square. Worryingly, the leaflet notes that ‘This imposing ruin has defied the centuries, in spite of an absence of relieving arches above the large windows. This is what produced the large crevices.’ Cautiously feeling my way up the staircase I had a real awareness that I was now most certainly walking in the footsteps of the young Henry Tudor, who would also have steadied himself by placing his hand against the cold stone walls, nearly five and a half centuries before.

Jasper Tudor had been moved to the impressive château at Josselin, which is still home to the de Rohan family. I was able to have a guided tour of the château and could see how Jasper would have found it frustrating to be so close to his young nephew but unable to see him or even write a letter. From his high window he would have had views across the countryside and probably the ancient bridge over the river (which survived until WW2). When Duke Francis heard of King Edward IV’s untimely death and the rise of Richard III he decided to reunite the Tudors and support Jasper’s daring plan to mount an invasion of England with a mercenary army.Josselin1

This first attempt was almost a disaster, and they were lucky not to be captured by Richard’s supporters. They limped back to Brittany but learnt from the experience and returned to Mill Bay in Pembrokeshire to march to confront Richard’s army, gathering support on the way. It was an impossibly ambitious idea but Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort had convinced them they could win – with the support of her husband, Lord Stanley.

The two armies met at Bosworth Field on the 22nd of August 1485 and the Tudor’s unlikely victory changed the history of Britain. My own journey ends in Bosworth at the anniversary event, where I will raise a glass to the memory of a daring man who risked everything to make his twenty-seven year old nephew king – Jasper Tudor, the true ‘Kingmaker.’

About the Author

Tony Riches

Tony Riches lives with his wife in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s books please visit his popular blog, The Writing Desk and his WordPress website and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

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Published on August 03, 2016 06:14 • 66 views

July 18, 2016

I’m delighted to have historian Sean Cunningham doing a guest post today in connection with his new biography, Prince Arthur: The Tudor King Who Never Was. Welcome!

Gambling on a Name? Prince Arthur, Legend and the Survival of the Tudor Crown

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Until very recently, political leaders have rarely been willing gamblers with their own power and position. Such unexpected behaviour brings uncertainty and heightens instability beyond levels that are easy to control. In the past, where personal rule actually meant day-to-day control of government decision-making, monarchs occasionally took surprising and direct action. Richard III’s cavalry attack towards the earl of Richmond’s standard during the battle of Bosworth is a prime late-medieval English example of a decisive, calculated risk. It cost Richard his life, but it might also have won him a quick victory. Just over a year after becoming king because of Richard’s battlefield gamble, Henry VII also chanced his entire future as king of England, if not is life, on an outcome he could not influence; the birth of a healthy son.

King Henry evidently believed in the continuing intercession in his favour by the Virgin Mary and the Breton St Armel, who featured regularly in religious imagery produced during his reign. He had much to thank them for. Henry had already overcome the challenges of a life of dislocation within England and Wales when he was a child in the 1460s. He had endured exile in Brittany during his teens and early 20’s before 1483. He was in great danger of capture and death once his importance as a rival to Richard III grew before August 1485. The journey through Wales and the English west midlands towards Bosworth, however, was the most dangerous of his life. Henry survived all this and his defeat of Richard III was staggering. It thrust this unknown outsider onto England’s throne but also exposed him to all the perils that had to be faced if he was to keep hold of power.

The dangers were heightened because Henry VII’s battlefield success was incomplete. Only Richard III, his household knights and most committed followers had been destroyed in the fighting. A huge body of men simply put down their weapons and were allowed to walk away. How was Henry to know whether they were prepared to believe in his right to rule? Were they awaiting another chance to depose him for a familiar figure with more obvious royal credentials? Against this background of uncertain loyalty, Henry’s marriage was an essential step towards bringing together the rival Yorkist and Lancastrian activists who had perpetuated the civil wars since the 1450s. The achievement of this hope could only become reality, however, in the offspring of Henry’s marriage to Edward IV’s heir, Princess Elizabeth.

The nation had rejoiced at the news of Queen Elizabeth’s pregnancy, which must have occurred within a few weeks of her marriage on 18 January 1486. In seeking assurances about their baby, the king and queen no-doubt consulted astrologers, physicians and theologians. All of these experts might have helped them to believe that God would favour them with a son, but none could be absolutely certain. Henry VII knew this, yet felt he had little choice but to stake his kingship on the certainty of the birth of a healthy prince.

Even 530 years later, there is a sense of anticipation and calculation within the political elites as they awaited news of the royal child. The commitment of many people to the new king would depend on the arrival of a male heir. Henry’s triumph on the battlefield had pushed aside more established figures with thicker royal blood. Some, like the earl of Warwick and duke Buckingham, were underage. Others who were adults, like John de la Pole, earl of Lincoln, had been personal friends of Richard III. These three men, and many others, had stronger and wider family ties to the old nobility than did the new king.

The danger to the royal family was very real and pressing. Throughout the country, Henry was probably known only through the hostile proclamations made against him by Richard III. In his adult life, he had been personally unfamiliar with the way the elite English political and social systems worked. His knowledge of the country’s most powerful individuals came only through reports from people that had been in England during the reigns of the Yorkist kings. Henry was isolated within a small group of former exiles which needed time to reintegrate into the communities and networks built around their estates. A military victory gave Henry some advantages in holding onto the crown in the short term. His main aristocratic backers, like Lord Stanley and the earls of Oxford and Shrewsbury, supplied enough muscle to secure the immediate aftermath of Bosworth. But strong swords were not the basis for a reign that hoped to shake off the factionalism of the previous thirty years.

Some of those nobles steeped in a cycle of vengeance were ready to rebel. A few northern lords and knights loyal to Richard III’s memory had already tried to start an uprising at Easter 1486, when the king was at York. The imminent royal birth would have a decisive impact on how Henry’s support continued to take shape. Some families would fall into line, while others would feel forced into opposition while the Tudor heir was still a vulnerable infant. Once the queen’s pregnancy progressed safely past the first few weeks, the king could begin to prepare for the birth of an heir. His choices indicate just how much he was prepared to gamble on the arrival of a son.

By the early summer of 1486, the king’s close relatives and councillors involved in planning the celebrations surrounding the birth would have known that King Henry was convinced that his child would be male. On that basis alone the king and his advisers devised a masterpiece of propagandist theatre which merged the boy’s intended given name -Arthur- with a deeper story of ancient British kingship based on King Arthur’s association with Winchester.

Interior of Winchester Cathedral, St Swithin’s Shrine

Interior of Winchester Cathedral, St Swithin’s Shrine

With only his certainty of divine help to guide him, Henry’s intention to name his son after the legendary leader of the British resistance to the Saxon invasions of the fifth century was a bold stroke. A prince named Arthur was meant to follow the perfect kingly example that the literary Arthur possessed in the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Malory and William Caxton: ‘a paragon of generosity, affluence, courage, military success, and courtliness’ according to Oliver Padel in the ODNB. The legendary King Arthur had been written into the historical record through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century re-working of his story. Physical evidence also survived: Arthur’s round table was still visible at Winchester. The city was known to be one of a few possible locations for Camelot. In laying all of these associations around the shoulders of his hoped-for infant son, the Tudor king was broadcasting a strong message to the political elite and the wider population. Arthur could unite the nation and its people in the aftermath of war and in the face of the king’s enemies; but only if he was nurtured and supported by all loyal subjects.

King Henry’s confidence, judgement and support would have been shattered had a healthy male child not been born on 20 September 1486. The expectant aristocracy were able to join in the spectacle and ceremony of a prince’s christening in exactly the way the king had planned. Although it is dangerous to paint Henry VII in 1485-6 as a far-sighted and obsessive dynasty-builder, he did risk all on his ability to exploit the safe delivery of a healthy son so early in his reign. Arthur’s birth became the first stage in a long-term process that would build the future power of Henry VII’s family around the Tudor her as an undisputed king and a unifying figurehead.

Had there been any difficulties with the birth (and Arthur might have been premature, since he was born just eight months after his parents had married), or had Elizabeth’s first child been a girl, then the king’s propaganda could not have worked so smoothly. It might have fallen completely flat. Judging by what came to pass with Lambert Simnel’s Irish-backed invasion of spring of 1487, it seems that the birth of a Tudor prince did force many people into decisions over their loyalty. The lukewarm support of some for Henry VII became firmer. Others swung the other way into direct action against him. The very existence of a son and heir increased vastly the likelihood of Tudor security in the longer term. Yet there would be a short-term rise in active opposition as those vehemently opposed to Henry VII felt their opportunities to depose him began to slip away the longer he reigned and the stronger his heir became.

By the mid-1490s, Perkin Warbeck’s conspiracy attempted to undermine the status of Queen Elizabeth as Edward IV’s heir. Warbeck’s claim to be her brother, Richard, duke of York, sought to negate Arthur’s status, shift loyalties back towards the House of York, and stir up rebellion against the Tudor crown. This rise in opposition might have erupted in 1486 had the specific pageantry and spectacle staged for Prince Arthur’s birth not been required. As he had done on the road to Bosworth, Henry VII was willing to take the gamble that divine and earthy allies would provide the support he needed. Arthur’s birth was the foundation for any dynastic plans that Henry VII possessed and set the Tudor crown on a course that had far-reaching consequences for future generations of Britons.

Prince Arthur from the Magnificat Window at Great Malvern Priory, c.1501

Prince Arthur from the Magnificat Window at Great Malvern Priory, c.1501

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Published on July 18, 2016 07:58 • 75 views

April 16, 2016

Of the residents of Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse, the best known–and the most controversial–is Louis Weichmann, whose testimony would help send his landlady to the gallows.

Louis Weichmann

Weichmann was born in Baltimore in 1842. His father, a tailor, moved to Washington and then to Philadelphia, where Weichmann attended the Central High School. One of his classmates was George Alfred Townsend, the war correspondent who would cover the trial in which Weichmann was a star witness.

Upon graduation, Weichmann, who had wanted to be a druggist, gave in to his Catholic mother’s wishes and began studying for the priesthood. He entered St. Charles College in Maryland in March 1859; John Harrison Surratt, Mary Surratt’s younger son, followed in September 1859. The two became friends before both left school in July 1862.

Once out of school, Weichmann took up teaching, while John, whose father died soon afterward, took up his father’s position as postmaster at Surrattsville, Maryland, and began to aid the Confederacy as a courier. The two young men stayed in touch, and in 1863 Weichmann accepted John’s invitation to visit him at the tavern. It was after that, according to Weichmann, that the two became intimate friends.

In January 1864, Weichmann, who had not as yet abandoned the idea of becoming a priest, left his teaching job for a better-paying job at the War Department’s Commissary General of Prisoners. Sometime that year, he visited a family friend, Mrs. Anna Petersen, at the Petersens’ house across the street from Ford’s Theater. Weichmann said that he was seated at the left hand window on the second story.

John Surratt told Weichmann in the fall of 1864 that his mother would be opening a boardinghouse in Washington. Lonely in his present lodgings, Weichmann agreed to move to Mrs. Surratt’s establishment, and with that decision altered the course of his life.

At the boardinghouse, John Surratt and Weichmann shared a room and, indeed, a bed, although such sleeping arrangements were common at the time. Weichmann often had the room to himself, however, for John Surratt was frequently away carrying messages for the Confederacy. Most likely Weichmann knew of his friend’s activities. He may have even offered some assistance: John Surratt would later claim that Weichmann supplied him with information gleaned from his employment at the War Department, although Weichmann denied this.

On December 23, 1864, Weichmann and Surratt, while on their way to do some Christmas shopping, met John Wilkes Booth. Soon Booth was a regular visitor to the boardinghouse, and Weichmann’s quiet life there began to change. A stream of odd guests began to appear, including a veiled lady named Mrs. Slater, to whom Weichmann gave up his room for the night, and a man who gave his name as Mr. Wood on one occasion and as Mr. Payne on another. Strangest of all, however, was the day of March 16, when John Surratt, Booth, and Payne stormed into Weichmann’s and Surratt’s room, agitated and carrying weapons. Seeing the astonished Weichmann, the three men hastily adjourned to the attic, then left the house, leaving Weichmann behind to wonder what was going on. In fact, they had been plotting to kidnap President Lincoln, but it would be some time before this became clear.

A month later, on April 11, Weichmann drove his landlady, Mary Surratt, to her tavern in the country. Along the way, they encountered John Lloyd, who was leasing the tavern from Mary. Three days later, on Good Friday, Weichmann, who along with the other War Department clerks had been given the afternoon off from work to attend church services, again drove Mary Surratt to the country.

In the wee hours of April 15, the boardinghouse doorbell rang. Weichmann threw on some clothes and answered it, to find four detectives on the doorstep. Demanding to search the house, they gave him the shocking news that President Lincoln had been shot by Booth hours before.

The searchers having departed empty-handed, Weichmann and the rest of the house went to bed, but not before Weichmann and another boarder, John T. Holohan–the only men in the house that evening–were ordered to report to the police the next morning. The two obeyed, and were soon headed toward Canada in pursuit of John Surratt, who was mistakenly believed to have been the assailant of Secretary of State William Seward, attacked in his bed at around the same time the President was shot. When they returned from what proved to be a futile pursuit–John Surratt had evaded them and would eventually escape to Europe–both men were jailed at Washington’s Old Capitol Prison. An increasingly nervous Weichmann was repeatedly interrogated about what he knew.

In May 1865, Mary Surratt and seven men were brought to trial before a military commission for conspiring with Booth to kill the President. One of the star witnesses for the government was Louis Weichmann, who testified about all of the odd goings-on in the boardinghouse as well as his trips to the country with his landlady. His testimony, and that of John Lloyd, who claimed that Mary had told him to have weapons ready for men who would call for them, proved fatal to Mary. On July 7, 1865, she was hanged, along with Lewis Powell (formerly known as Payne), George Atzerodt, and David Herold.

If Weichmann had hopes of being able to resume his quiet life after the conspiracy trial, they were soon dashed. While Mary Surratt had garnered little sympathy during the trial, her execution–the first of a woman by the federal government–did much to turn popular opinion in her favor, and against her erstwhile boarder, whom some believed had lied for the government to avoid prosecution himself. Within days of the executions, John Brophy, who had been friendly with Weichmann and John Surratt, publicly accused him of perjury. Not to be outdone, a War Department clerk named Charles Guterman claimed that Weichmann had stolen a bottle of a perfume called “Night Blooming Cereus” and some family photographs from his trunk. The Evening Union, which reported this story with lip-smacking glee, also claimed that Weichmann had refused to pay the orphaned Anna Surratt his rent when he was flush with money. Even John Holohan joined in the fun, accusing Weichmann of stealing his shirts. (Weichmann responded by accusing Holohan of stealing his coat.) No wonder Weichmann begged the government to allow him to move to the friendlier confines of Philadelphia, where his family still lived.

Even in Philadelphia, though, Weichmann was to find no peace. In a letter to Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, the chief prosecutor at the conspiracy trial, Weichmann complained that his brother had been dismissed from a theological seminary because of Weichmann’s testimony and that he himself had been harassed when he went to vote. Weichmann, who claimed that his efforts to resume his theological studies were spurned by clergy who believed that he had betrayed his Catholic landlady, wanted Holt’s help in securing him a government job. He preferred Boston, but was delighted when a job finally materialized at the Philadelphia custom house in December 1865. But in November 1866, he lost his job, which he claimed was due to his having voted the Radical Republican ticket. For a few months in 1867, he received payments from the War Department.

The capture of John Surratt brought Weichmann again to the witness stand in 1867. This time, John T. Ford, the owner of the theater where Lincoln had been shot, and two others connected with the theater, James Gifford and Louis Carland, were each called to impeach Weichmann’s credibility. The most dramatic testimony came from Carland, who had met Weichmann in prison. He claimed that after the trial had ended, but before the executions, he had taken a walk with Weichmann, who told Carland that he wanted to go to church and make his confession. According to Carland, a deeply troubled Weichmann said that if he had been allowed to testify as he wanted and had not been threatened with prosecution as a conspirator, things would have been different with Mary Surratt. Carland went on to claim that after Weichmann left church, the men went to a saloon, where Weichmann recited Hamlet’s soliloquy on death. At the same trial, Weichmann claimed not to remember having made such a recitation in Carland’s company, but acknowledged that he could have done so. He also admitted that he might have looked down the barrels of a revolver on the same occasion, but claimed that he was too much of a coward to be contemplating suicide.

Gifford testified that he did not know Weichmann but had heard an officer tell him in prison that he would be hanged unless he said more than he had already. His testimony is given some credence by James R. Ford, who recalled that one of the deputy keepers thought that Weichmann was the most frightened witness he had ever seen.

Make of these statements what you will, but at least one was probably true: Gifford’s claim in 1868 that Weichmann had told him, “I’d give a million dollars if I had had nothing to do with it.”

With the trial over and John Surratt free to rebuild his life, Louis Weichmann went about the business of rebuilding his. According to his sister, he worked as a newspaper reporter until 1869, when Grant’s election enabled Holt, with whom Weichmann would correspond for the rest of Holt’s life, to get Weichmann reinstated to the custom house in Philadelphia.

In October 1870, Weichmann’s life seemed set to take a happier turn when he married Annie Johnson, also of Philadelphia. Her passport application states that she was short, with a round chin and an ordinary nose. Annie was a temperance activist, and it says something in favor of Weichmann that he was attracted to her in an age where many men preferred women to confine their activities to their home. The marriage, however, did not last. By 1880, Annie was living apart from Weichmann and keeping house for her father, her sister, and a lodger. In 1887, she wrote a letter to her friend Susan Dickinson, whose sister was the abolitionist, lecturer, and actress Anna Dickinson, in which she described her father and her sister as her only family. Although some out-of-town papers mentioned Weichmann’s marriage shortly after it took place, it and its failure were subjects on which Weichmann was silent.

In 1886, Weichmann lost his government job. He moved to Anderson, Indiana, where his family now lived. During much of his time in Anderson, he lived on West Eighth Street with his married sister, whose husband, Charles O’Crawley, was a native of Springfield, Illinois.

Through General Lew Wallace, a member of the military commission who had tried Mary Surratt, Weichmann found temporary work as a stenographer for the Indiana Republican State Committee in 1888. Later that year, Judge Holt managed to find another government job for him, but it was in Washington, a city to which Weichmann had no desire to return. Instead, he opened a business school. Weichmann was the only teacher. A neighbor’s boy, Henry Main, later recalled sitting on the curb and watching the tall, gangly Weichmann head to his office in Anderson’s Decker Building.

Decker Building (right). Postcard courtesy of Anderson Public Library

Decker Building (right). Postcard courtesy of Anderson Public Library

One pupil of Weichmann’s was Joseph Abel, who as an Anderson old-timer would be called upon often in the 1950s and 1960s to reminisce about his former teacher. Abel described Weichmann as distinguished in appearance and as one of the most intelligent people he knew. But although his pupils seem to have thought highly of him, Weichmann never earned much of a profit, as he acknowledged to Judge Holt. Still, he seems to have found his work congenial; in February 1894, he took his students bobsledding. That summer, however, he was forced to close his school because of a six-month spell of “nervous prostration” that incapacitated him until December of that year. One wonders if his condition was worsened by the death in August of Judge Holt, who since the 1860s had been a confidante of Weichmann’s. Even after Weichmann’s recovery, his unease remained: Abel claimed that Weichmann was nervous and never ventured out at night except upon well-lit streets.

Anderson Business School letterhead

Weichmann never stopped brooding about the events of 1865. In the 1880s, he began writing his account of the assassination and the trials that ensued. Over the next couple of decades, Weichmann showed parts of the manuscript to Judge Holt and former police superintendent A.C. Richards, as well as to a younger generation. Joseph Abel recalled decades after his teacher’s death that Weichmann had allowed him to take half of the manuscript home. Another student, Mary Lavell, claimed in the 1960s that Weichmann had used his manuscripts in his classroom as dictation exercises.

Weichmann also solicited testimonials for his book about his honesty. On at least one occasion, he did this rather tactlessly. In an 1896 letter to Judge John Bingham, another prosecutor at the conspiracy trial, Weichmann flattered his subject for a couple of paragraphs before getting to the point. “Judge Bingham, you are now an old man and it may not be many years before the good Father of us all calls you to the enjoyment of that happy home where all trouble and sorrows are at an end. You, more than any man alive to-day, are aware of the meed of praise to which I am entitled for the sacrifices I made and for the work I did in connection with that great trial of 1865. I am writing the history of that affair now and will have it published some day, either during my life time, or after my death. It will be written from the strict stand point of loyalty and truth. I have always felt that I would like to have some brief expression from you in writing as to what you think of the manner in which I performed my duty to the country and of the reward to which I am entitled in the estimation of all good people. As a matter of justice to me, will you not send me a kind letter expressing your views in that regard?”

If Bingham complied with this request, Weichmann did not include his letter in his book.

Ultimately, Weichmann chose not to publish his book during his lifetime. (It was finally published in 1975.) He did, however, publish an abridged version of it–anonymously–in O. H. Oldroyd’s history of the assassination. In it, Weichmann’s experiences are recounted in the third person.

Another of Weichmann’s correspondents during the last years of his life was Dr. George Porter, the surgeon in charge of Mary Surratt and her fellow prisoners. Weichmann mailed chapters of his manuscript to Dr. Porter, telling him that he was “getting along toward the shady side of life” and wanted to put his version of the assassination before the world before his death. In a rather wistful passage, he sent a photograph of himself from 1865 to Dr. Porter, remarking, “It is a very good picture of me as I looked at that time. [Secretary of War] Stanton told me to my face that I was a very comely young man; maybe when you see the picture you will agree with him.”

Two years later, on June 5, 1902, Weichmann died at his sister’s house. Although Lloyd Lewis in Myths after Lincoln gave the cause of his death as “extreme nervousness,” his death certificate records that he died of cardiac asthma. His very last thoughts, as reported in his obituary the following day, were of the trial. He called Hugh J. Creighton, a Union veteran who was a prominent businessman, to his side, but was too weak to speak. Instead, he wrote on a piece of paper that “he wished the people of this country to understand that in the great trial, and while on the witness stand, he told the truth and nothing but the truth.” After a funeral conducted by his brother, who had become a priest, Weichmann was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Anderson, where the rest of his family lies as well.

(This post, with some changes for a general audience, is based on a presentation I made at the Surratt Society conference on April 9, 2016.)

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Published on April 16, 2016 22:35 • 79 views

March 16, 2016

I’m delighted to be hosting my friend Kristie Dean on her blog tour for her latest book, On the Trail of the Yorks! Today is the anniversary of the death of Anne Neville, future queen of Richard III, and Kristie is here to tell us about a castle she knew. Over to Kristie:

Before Anne Neville became the wife of Richard III, she was married to the Lancastrian heir to the throne. Her father changed allegiances and joined the side of the Lancastrians, sealing the peace with the marriage of his daughter to Prince Edward. I enjoyed visiting the Château D’Angers and seeing the locations Anne would have seen while in France.

Château D’Angers, Angers, France

In July 1470, the Milanese ambassador reported that the Earl of Warwick had begged forgiveness of Margaret of Anjou and had given ‘homage and fealty there, swearing to be a faithful and loyal subject of the king, queen and prince as his liege lords unto death’. The site of this momentous about-face was the Château d’Angers where Anne also lodged prior to her betrothal to Prince Edward.

A fortification has stood on the site since the ninth century, but the castle was expanded in the thirteenth century. Built on a high cliff overlooking the river Maine, it had seventeen immense towers and two gatehouses. Over time, it fell into ruin and the dukes of Anjou subsequently repaired it. René, Margaret of Anjou’s father, further enlarged and strengthened the fortress in the mid-fifteenth century.

Anne would have entered the building through the field gateway, or Porte des Champs. This entrance opened into the countryside and not the city, allowing the castle to remain slightly apart. She would have passed over a main bridge and then over the drawbridge, entering under the gateway with its massive double portcullis.

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Anne’s first glimpse of the château would be of a building much different than what is seen today. While the alternating dressed black and light stonework would have been the same, the seventeen towers were topped with coronets and were much higher. The dry moat was not as deep, and it contained René’s menagerie of many exotic animals. Perhaps Anne heard the roar of a lion or an elephant trumpet when she entered the castle. The garden at the château would have been impressive, containing plants from exotic places.

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While at the château, Anne would have lodged in an opulent building, since René was known for his lavish spending. Anne was not in Angers long, but she may have seen some of the artists and poets that frequented René’s court. She would have walked through the Great Hall, with its large windows, painted walls and slate ceiling. The impressive spiral staircase was in a restricted area, so it is doubtful Anne would have seen its intricate carvings.

In the early fifteenth century, Louis II and his wife, Yolande of Aragon, built a remarkable chapel at the château. Anne would have attended Mass here, entering through the porch into the nave. The large Gothic windows would have flooded the room with light, allowing her to see clearly the three bays within the building. The private oratory, with its delicate tracery and sculptures, would have caught her eye. Here the dukes of Anjou could hear Mass and receive communion in private.

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Anne would have been shown to her chambers in the royal lodgings. While much of the four-sided palace was destroyed throughout the years, there is still enough remaining today to demonstrate its splendour. When Anne arrived, King René’s gallery was relatively new, having been completed twenty years prior. The gallery would have allowed the courtiers to have walked from their private apartments to the gardens below. Anne would have passed underneath the ceiling with its beautiful rib vaulting and out into the gardens. Wandering through the garden, with its beautiful exotic plants, Anne may have considered the twists of fate that had befallen her. At one point, her father had wanted her sister Isabel to be queen. Now his eye had fallen on her. It is impossible to know Anne’s thoughts, but it is possible to walk in her footsteps through the evocative gallery.

About the Author

Kristie Dean has always been fascinated by the medieval period. It was this passion that led her to earn her master’s degree in history and fueled her desire to travel. When not writing, teaching or traveling, she is at home with her husband, three dogs and two cats. She can be found on Twitter @kristiedavisdea or on her The World of Richard III Facebook page. Her website is On the Trail of the Yorks is published by Amberley.

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Published on March 16, 2016 05:12 • 70 views