Authors Jane Singer and John Stewart are very quirky writers. Not a bad thing by the way. Quirk works. And they chose a very quirky subject for their anti-hero look at “the great con” of the Civil War.
Had Lincoln lived, the con would not have proceeded. Our anti-hero wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to hustle the President for ten grand – a huge sum in 1865. Especially when Lincoln, or “Honest Abe” as he was known even then, would deny the whole thing – and be right.
Nevertheless, Lincoln did not live, and Lincoln’s Secret Spy: The Civil War Case that Changed the Future of Espionage is an interesting albeit confusing read-around.
Our anti-hero is a fellow named William Alvin Lloyd (referred to mostly as Alvin), born to a poor-but-hardworking family, and learning tailoring as a youth. Obviously tailoring bored him, and he had quick-riches and larceny, and most of all, adventure in his soul.
He was a man of various talents and abilities, not the least of which was organizational skill. Discarding the needle and scissors for the more rewarding sound of applause, he became a minstrel performer. He was successful. So successful that he organized his own troupe and began obtaining booking engagements. Most of the time. Then of course, he ran into the lack-of-funds syndrome that plagues all theatrical entrepreneurs at one time or another, and stiffed his cast and crew. Not unusual – even now.
Then he parlayed his perpetual wanderlust into devising an interesting new proposition: publishing a railroad guide mostly for the Southern Railroads and Steamship Lines. (There were dozens of them, usually for short runs.) He would list their departures, destinations, costs and timetables, and in return, solicit advertisements from the trains and steamboats, and ancillary services (hotels, restaurants, boarding houses, etc.) at the various locations. Hmm. Interesting. Nineteenth century AAA. He had a lot of takers, and seemed to make a fair amount of money. His publication dates however, were spotty, and in some cases, nonexistent.
And finally, he had another talent: an unfathomable ability to attract women. (And we have no indication that Alvin was an Adonis.) He was a serial bigamist, trigamist, and even quadrigamist. (Polygamists usually collect wives; Alvin was a wed-’em, bed-’em and shed ’em sort.) You need a score card. The one ladylove who seemed to stay true was a child-bride of thirteen when he married her. Perhaps she had adopted his larcenous tendencies. If nothing else, she was the forgiving type.
So without divulging too much, how do we get to President Lincoln and the scam?
Shortly after Ft. Sumter, Alvin found himself up North, and needing to get back to his publishing livelihood, he showed up at the White House and asked Lincoln for a “pass” to go South. This was a common occurrence, and the President acceded, and a little slip of cardboard with the POTUS’s OK was granted. This was the key to the entire con. A safe travel pass from Lincoln. And Alvin was no more Lincoln’s secret spy than you were. In fact, he was a dedicated Southerner.
Fast forward to 1865 and Lincoln is dead. Alvin, with the assistance of his child-bride (who is now around twenty), a slippery shyster lawyer named Totten, a few out-and-out rogues of the Alvin mold concoct a retroactive scheme wherein they said that Alvin had been Lincoln’s secret spy, who would use his Lincoln pass, plus his knowledge of the railroads and army bases in the South to determine enemy strength and troop movements. At a price of $200 per month for the duration of the War. Four years. It was a lot of money. They even wrote a special “diary” where activities purporting to glean information were entered. It further included a great deal of time (true) that poor Alvin spent in Southern jails, detained for a) either being a Northern spy, or b) a bigamist. (Southerners do not take lightly to embarrassing womenfolk.) And the con worked so well, that even a bona fide bigwig like Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton believed him!
The sheer amount of chutzpah in presenting the U.S. government a bill for services supposedly rendered (about $10,000!) is only matched by the sheer amount of train travel Alvin accomplished during those years. With and without a lady companion.
How Singer and Stewart managed to get all the times, places, dates, railroad schedules, “wives” and incidental information in order boggles the imagination. Thank goodness for Excel spreadsheets. If they had to do it by hand, they would have needed to work on a barn floor. It must have been a monumental researching project.
You will have to read for yourself whether or not the great scam worked – all the way up to the Supreme Court, no less. You will also need to focus very hard on the wheres, the whos, the whys, and the whatnots of those four years of peripatetic train travel. And the fifteen years post-Civil War when the supporting cast of players (Alvin having died, probably of exhaustion) kept the “enterprise” going.
Lincoln’s Secret Spy is an engrossing read, especially since it is well-written, once you appreciate the genuinely quirky style. The only thing missing is some Scott Joplin music!
Jane Singer & John Stewart
Lyons Press $26.95