On the last day of his life, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter. If he was angry, anger did not reveal itself in his handwriting, which was typically clean and open. If he was euphoric, and those who observed him that day attested later that he was, euphoria did not express itself either.
The letter lacked the poetry of his best speeches and demonstrated none of the cold and relentless logic of his political writing.
It was as simple, direct, and as blunt as a cannonball:
Dear Lieutenant Hutchinson,
It comes to my attention that you are still alive. This means that you may still be in possession of something that I believe fell into your hands in the telegraph office three years ago. It would be best if you returned it, considering its potential to alter opinions regarding the difficulties just ended and those that lie ahead. If you do, a presidential pardon will be considered.
Lincoln did not inform his secretary about the letter.
It was unlikely that he wanted questions regarding correspondence with an officer who had served not only in the field but also in the War Department telegraph office, before coming into significant personal difficulty.
It would also have appeared strange that Lincoln did not address the letter to Lieutenant Hutchinson. He sent it instead to Private Jeremiah Murphy at the Armory Square Hospital on Seventh Street.
But even a president had his secrets.
Lincoln sealed the letter and slipped it into a pile of outgoing correspondence, some to be mailed, some to be hand delivered around the city.
It was just after eight when his wife appeared in the doorway to his office, where he was finishing a chat with a congressman. She was wearing a white dress with black stripes and a bonnet adorned with pink silk flowers. She had always favored flowers. But she had worn them less and less in the last four years. No woman who had lost a son and two half brothers, no woman who had watched her husband grow old under history’s heaviest burden, would be inclined to wear anything but black. Still, flowers and dress did nothing to soften her voice. “Mr. Lincoln, would you have us be late?”
He said, “To night, we shall laugh.”
Then he called for his carriage, and they went to the theater.
Peter Fallon received a copy of that letter as an attachment to an e-mail on the third Friday night of September.
He would not have read it, except that it came from Diana Wilmington, an assistant professor at the George Washington University and author of a controversial new book, The Racism and Resolve of Abraham Lincoln. The book had gotten her onto television, radio, magazine covers, and made her one of the most recognizable African American scholars in the country. Peter had also dated her when she was an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts.
“I’ve been thinking of you,” she wrote. “I still read the Boston gossip pages. (How could I not, after the gossip we inspired?) So that bit about you and Evangeline caught my eye. Not getting married but still having a reception … genius.”
Yes, thought Peter. Genius. The hall had been rented and the champagne was cold. It was a great party. As for the decision not to get married … he was not so sure.
He took a sip of wine and kept reading:
“I really liked Evangeline. I thought she was good for you.”
True. Peter couldn’t remember which of them first said, “If it works don’t fix it.” But now, Evangeline was prepping a new project in New York, and Peter was guest-curating a new exhibit in Boston.
“However,” Diana went on, “I’m not writing about your love life. I’d like you to take a look at this attachment.”
Peter clicked to the scanned image of a letter. He glanced first at the header, printed in an Old English typeface: “Executive Mansion.” Beneath it was the word “Washington,” the date April 14, 1865, and to the side, the word “Private” handwritten and circled. Then Peter’s eye dropped to the signature, to the clear and characteristic cursive that was the Holy Grail of autograph collectors everywhere: A. Lincoln.
In an instant, he knew that whatever this was, it was worth seven figures: a Lincoln signature, on a Lincoln letter, written from the Lincoln White House.
Then he looked again at the date and felt a chill: the day Lincoln was shot.
He wiped the sweat from his palms, as if he were touching the original instead of seeing it on a computer screen. He almost went looking for white cotton curatorial gloves.
Could this be Lincoln’s last letter? A last insight into the most analyzed, adulated, biographied, beloved, and, in a few places, detested man in American history? And what did this anonymous lieutenant have that mattered so much at the end of the Civil War?
Peter clicked again on the e-mail:
I held this letter in my hands a week ago, along with the envelope addressed to a Corporal Jeremiah Murphy. A man was offering it for sale to the American Museum of Emancipation. I told him we were very small, hoping to consolidate with the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in 2015, but that I would talk to our board. When I tried to contact him two days ago, he had gone incommunicado. I had been planning to ask you to appraise the letter. Would you be willing to put your skills to finding it, or at least uncovering the story behind it?
Peter lifted the wine bottle. One more tip into the glass would bring him to the bottom of the label. When he drank alone—something he’d been doing more since the wedding that wasn’t—he had a rule: Drink to the bottom of the label and no farther. Stopper the bottle. And every few nights, finish the high-quality dregs. So he poured a bit more, swirled, and sipped.
Then he wrote back:
The last big Lincoln letter to come on the market was his answer to the so-called Little People’s Petition. It went for 3.2m in ’09. That’s where the bidding starts on this, if it’s authentic. So call me. I’m up until midnight.
Then he drank the wine with a little wedge of Époisses: a big cab with a big cheese, an excellent nightcap. And NESN was nightcapping an excellent Red Sox game, which he missed because he had been working on a new exhibit for the Boston Public Library: “A Northern City and the Civil War.”
It was opening on September 22, the 150th anniversary of the day Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. The Leventhal Center was providing battle maps. Rare Books was delivering journals and photos from the famed Twentieth Regiment Collection. Peter was contributing a few things from his Antiquaria catalog, including a presentation copy of Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War, inscribed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. And an anonymous lender was offering a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation itself.
Peter was doing more than guest curators usually did. He considered it a signal honor from his city, so he wanted to earn it.
And Boston was more than his city. It was his town.
He had his roots in Southie. He’d gone to BC High and Harvard. He ran his business from the third floor of a Newbury Street bowfront that was above an art gallery that was above a restaurant. He had Red Sox season tickets and sat on the boards of two Boston museums. And he could never imagine moving to New York, no matter how much he liked to visit.
Evangeline had decided that she didn’t want to live anywhere but New York, which made marriage a problem and led them to face a hard truth: They both liked their independence, no matter how much they loved each other.
So they’d had a party instead of a wedding and settled for status quo ante. No sharing of utility bills or toothpaste, no extracurricular sharing of themselves, either.
While he waited for Diana Wilmington to call, Peter e-mailed Evangeline:
See you Sunday. We’ll have fun on the battlefields.
Then he poured the rest of the wine.
* * *
How did we decide that a little thing like a city would keep us apart?
That was what Evangeline Carrington was thinking as she rode a taxi down the West Side the next morning. But she didn’t think long, because she was catching the 8 A.M. Acela to Washington for her biggest professional adventure yet.
The travel writer was trying television.
She had always written—for satisfaction, for pay, for therapy. She wrote in her attic when she was a girl. She wrote for the Crimson when she went to Harvard. She wrote her way through Columbia School of Journalism after her first breakup with Peter. And after her first marriage fell apart, she wrote about the places she went to escape.
She had built a nice career, but every year, there were fewer travel magazines and fewer travel sections in fewer newspapers. So it was time for the next step. She’d thought about a blog. But Peter urged her to think big: television.
And she had an idea for a show, but not for the Travel Channel or PBS. No, when she thought television, she thought History Network.
Her idea: a photogenic journalist takes you to fun places. Sure, it had been done before. But Evangeline was planning to explore the best sites, restaurants, and hotels for the history-oriented traveler, and each bundle of shows would have a theme: Revolutionary New England, the Oregon Trail, New York in the Ragtime era.…
The network fell in love … with her, with her pitch, and with her plan for the first bundle: Travels in Civil War Country, yet another angle for their wall-to-wall Civil War sesquicentennial programming.
So Evangeline was off to D.C. to shoot locations, and Peter would join her Sunday afternoon for a driving tour to Manassas, Antietam, and Gettysburg.
She got out of the cab at the Eighth Avenue entrance to Penn Station, rolled her suitcase onto the escalator, and rode down to the miserable waiting area. Hundreds of people were always standing there, watching the giant message board, waiting for a track announcement so they could stampede to the gate and stumble down the stairs to the platform, because no one wanted to be the last aboard a crowded train and end up standing all the way to Providence or Trenton.
There was an article in all that, she thought, a nuts-and-bolts piece about riding Amtrak. She’d be sure to mention the separate Acela waiting area. She showed her ticket at the Acela gate and rolled her bag to a seat as far as possible from all the cell-phoners.
No greater convenience than the cell phone, but one of the miseries of modern life was hearing other people’s phone conversations in restaurants, movie theaters, and Acela waiting areas. If you were on your way to D.C., did you care if some stockbroker wanted to move his clients out of Microsoft at the opening bell on Monday? Or that a handsome young man was going home to Allentown because he hadn’t even had a callback in six months? Or that a business-traveling mom wanted her stay-at-home hubby to stop serving Pop-Tarts to the kids for breakfast? No, no, and no.
Evangeline found a quiet spot, took out her iPad, and checked her e-mail. First she dumped the spam. Then she glanced at several notes from her producer. Then she read the messages from Peter.
She had answered his midnight e-mail when she got up:
Leaving on Acela. We’ll have fun when you get to DC. And this was the right move.
He had written back around seven:
Can’t wait. All those battlefields. Better to be traveling to battlefields than turning our lives into one.
A wise response, she thought, though they seldom argued. Sure, they disagreed plenty and wisecracked all the time. But they never had one of those long-running, scorched-earth kinds of fights that had turned her marriage into its own private Gettysburg.
Then she noticed a new e-mail from Peter. It had come in at seven thirty. The subject line read:
She pulled out her cell, pressed his number, and heard him say, “Where are you?”
“Peter, it’s customary to say good morning in the morning.”
“Okay. Good morning. Where are you?”
Evangeline noticed the business-traveling mom give her a look, so she lowered her voice. “I’m at Penn Station. What’s going on?”
“I got an e-mail last night. Now the sender tells me she thinks she’s been hacked.”
“And why is that my problem?”
“If the hacker went through the sender’s address book, he knows the sender’s been communicating with me and with you, too, since you’re interviewing her in D.C.”
“Diana? Diana Wilmington?”
“Who’s hacking her?”
“Who knows? But when someone sends me the scan of a newly discovered Lincoln letter, and the next morning she tells me she’s been hacked—”
“You do what you always do.”
“Is that why we’re not getting married?”
“Because you’re suspicious?”
“No. Because I’m predictable.”
“A little bit of both and … Peter, you sound kind of woolly. Are you hungover?”
“Of course not. And don’t open any strange e-mails. Whoever is reading Diana’s stuff, we don’t want them reading ours, especially if this is about a Lincoln letter.”
“Now receiving passengers at Gate 9E, train 2109, Acela Express to Washington—”
“Peter, I have to go. Drink some water. Hydrate. You’ll feel better. See you tomorrow.”
After she hung up, Evangeline looked down to put the phone into her purse and saw the shoes of that cell-phoning business mom right next to hers.
The shoes were red patent leather, half-heeled, stylish but sensible. The legs were well shaped if a bit muscular. The suit was blue pinstripe, with a skirt just short enough to be stylish but sensible, too. The body in the suit was trim, fit, tight.
Evangeline didn’t like anyone invading her personal space, but as she raised her head, the woman smiled and said, “I want to show you something.”
She put her iPhone in front of Evangeline’s nose. And there was a picture of Evangeline in a linen sport coat, blue jeans, and oxblood cowboy boots, in front of the famous bas-relief of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, the first black regiment in the Union Army, in a publicity shot for her new show.
“I read your articles all the time,” the woman said. “I look up and here you are.”
Evangeline felt a little jolt. It was the first time anyone had ever recognized her in a public place. So she stood and offered her hand.
The woman took it. “I’m Kathi. Kathi Morganti. I’m a fan.”
“Thank you. Are you going to Washington?”
“Going home. I’ve been in New York all week meeting clients. I’m a lobbyist, and reading your travel articles always reminds me of what I’m working for.”
They laughed and headed together for the train.
Evangeline hoped that she hadn’t made a three-hour friend, someone who’d talk the whole way to Washington. She had work to do. But she liked to think she had fans, and maybe this one might offer a business card. Knowing lobbyists in D.C. was a good way to get to know everyone.
As they started down the stairs, Kathi Morganti said, “Acela to Washington. A literal power trip. You never know who you’ll meet.”
* * *
Peter had been lying.
He was a bit hungover. So he took two more aspirin and took Evangeline’s advice. He hydrated, inside and out, with a can of seltzer and a shower.
When he got out of the shower, he cursed. He had put the towels in the laundry and forgotten to replace them. So he threw on his terry cloth robe, wiped his feet on the bath mat, and padded down the hallway to the linen closet.
He lived in a two-story condo in a five-story Back Bay brownstone. The master bedroom and attached study were at the front. The guest/TV room was at the rear. The linen closet was in the hallway between.
He opened the door, grabbed a thick towel, and decided that since he was so close, he would surrender to temptation. He would visit his sanctum sanctorum.
It always cheered him when he needed cheering, and since the wedding that wasn’t, he’d needed plenty. If business was slow, it reminded him of his assets. And when he questioned himself altogether, when he wondered if he should have pursued some sane profession like business or law rather than brokering rare books and documents, a visit to the sanctum sanctorum reminded him that what he did mattered.
He knelt and pressed a sequence of floor tiles in the linen closet; then he gripped the doorframe on either side and pulled. With a hydraulic whoosh, the whole closet slid out of the wall and pivoted into the hallway.
In front of him now was a stainless steel door with a combination lock.
He spun the dial, and the door opened. The space beyond was not much wider than the linen closet, not much deeper than the shower stalls in the bathrooms on either side. Walls, floor, and ceiling were steel lined. Temperature and humidity were strictly controlled. And in case of fire, the room would fill with halon gas to kill the flames and preserve the contents.
He kept most of his collection in the Antiquaria office on Newbury Street, where he did the daily work of buying and selling everything from Shakespeare Second Folios to signed first editions of the complete James Bond. But here was where he kept the things that mattered most, the treasures he hoped never to part with until the time came to bequeath them to his son or give them to the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Aside from his contractor brother, who had installed this room, the only people who knew about it were Evangeline and his silent partner, Orson Lunt.
He flipped on the lights. To the left was a wall of tray-type stainless filing cases, all alphabetized. The S drawer held a quarto of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost, printed in 1598. In the W file was George Washington’s letter of March 5, 1775, ordering the army to go on to Dorchester Heights.
And when Peter pulled out the L file, he was looking into the eyes of Abraham Lincoln, forthright, confident, careworn. The picture had been taken by Alexander Gardner in November 1863, a few weeks before the Gettysburg Address. It had been printed on a carte de visite and signed by Lincoln himself. As far as Peter knew, it was one of only a few authentically signed Lincoln cartes in existence.
But the real treasure lay to the left of the picture.
In 1864, Lincoln had signed forty-eight printed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, to be auctioned at a Philadelphia fund-raiser for the United States Sanitary Commission. They were known as the Leland-Boker editions, after the printer, and only half were known to exist. Peter Fallon was looking at one of them.
He would be the anonymous donor at his own show, and he would insist on high security. After all, Robert F. Kennedy’s signed Leland-Boker had recently sold for $3,700,000, the most money ever paid for a presidential document. Peter and Orson Lunt had bought theirs from an Illinois dentist in 1990 for $300,000. It was not as valuable as Kennedy’s, nor as good a deal. Kennedy had paid only $9,500 for his in 1961, and the Kennedy name had given it a provenance that added a premium to any price.
In the humming quiet of the secret room, Peter studied the single column of type and the confident signature, A. Lincoln. In the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln had decreed that those who had been held in bondage for generations would “be then, thenceforward, and forever free” … at least in the rebellious states. He had not freed the slaves in loyal states, because he did not believe the Constitution gave him that right, and he feared that they would secede if he tried, but he had taken the first step toward racial equality in America.
Peter considered it an act of enormous moral and political courage.
After the Proclamation, the war was no longer a struggle between the ideologies competing in America since its birth, between those who wanted a strong central government and those who wished, as Jefferson Davis had said, simply “to be left alone.” Lincoln had transformed the war into a struggle over the very meaning of America.
But like so many in those days, Lincoln would pay for his beliefs with his life.
Peter glanced at the document to the right of the Gardner photograph, one of the most poignant letters ever penned in America.
A surgeon named Curtis, of the U.S. Army Medical Corps, had written it to his mother in April 1865. He had gone to the White House on the morning after Lincoln had kept his appointment with the assassin. He had gone to perform the autopsy.
The letter described a room on the second floor, across the hall from Mrs. Lincoln’s bedroom: a bed, heavy draperies, a wardrobe, sofas occupied by military officers and civilian officials in stunned, grief-stricken silence … and the naked body of the president, covered with a sheet and towels, lying cold and dead on a board suspended between two sawhorses.
It was a letter of stark clinical detail. The doctor had been performing a primitive forensic analysis, after all. He described the removal and dissection of Lincoln’s brain and the search for the bullet, which he could not find until, “suddenly, it dropped through my fingers and fell, breaking the silence of the room with its clatter into an empty basin beneath. There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger—dull, motionless, and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as perhaps we may never realize.”
How true, thought Peter Fallon.
The man who fired that bullet, John Wilkes Booth, had heard Lincoln suggest four nights earlier that the nation’s renewal and reconstruction would mean extending the vote to some—but not all—Negro freedmen.
“That means nigger citizenship,” Booth had been heard to growl. “That is the last speech he will ever give. I will put him through.”
And so he had.
Since then, historians had sifted every Lincoln document and observation, searching for meanings and meanings within meanings. They had relived for one generation after another every moment of that terrible Easter weekend. And they had agreed with the young surgeon that the world had seen mighty changes, some because of what Lincoln had done, some because of what he had not lived to do.
So … was the history now settled?
How could it be, when an enigmatic letter might emerge a century and a half later, referencing a certain “something” that Lincoln wanted returned. What was it? What changes had it wrought? And how much, Peter had to wonder, would it be worth?
Time, he decided, for a whole weekend in Washington.
But before he packed, he texted Antoine Scarborough, his research assistant:
Abraham Lincoln, a lieutenant named Hutchinson in the telegraph office, a corporal named Jeremiah Murphy. That’s all I got. See what you can find. We’ll talk later.
Copyright © 2012 by William Martin