The Murder of Willie Lincoln

Written by Burt Solomon
Review by G. J. Berger

The winter of 1862 in Washington, DC is no time or place for the weak, certainly not for young John Hay, personal secretary to President Lincoln. Hay must open, sort, and respond to most of the White House mail while the Confederate army and navy sit not far away, and traitors lurk in every alley and storage room. On top of that, typhus has struck two of the three Lincoln sons. The middle son, Willie, succumbs to it. But Willie may not have died of natural causes. Subtle and not-so-subtle clues suggest human error by nurses or doctors, perhaps even murder. Lincoln asks Hay to learn what he can.

Hay, a recently admitted lawyer, sometime poet, man of letters and books but also a superb amateur pugilist, takes to the task. He searches out leads that go nowhere, tries to find and question the many who had access to the boy, tries to learn their history and deeper motives.

Solomon brings to life the blunt-force medical practices of that time, early tests for poisons, the sordid and convoluted relationships among slave owners and slaves, President Lincoln’s keen intellect and quiet strength, the brash but effective detective Allan Pinkerton, and other characters out of our history books. Civil War-era readers will enjoy Solomon’s details of the nation’s capital, his portraits of people in mansions and shacks, the worrisome and celebratory reports from the war front, and Hay’s journey to the jaw-dropping ending.