By Dean Jobb
As the race for the White House heats up, a crop of new books explores crimes in the United States, Britain, and France with a common theme—politics. Take a break from CNN and dive into accounts of a future president’s last turn as a defense lawyer, congressmen behaving badly in the lead-up to the Civil War, and plots to kill Napoleon, plus the assassination of a British prime minister.
In 1859, not long after Abraham Lincoln’s famous debates with political rival Stephen Douglas made him a national figure, America’s soon-to-be sixteenth president took center stage in a courtroom in the Illinois capital, Springfield. There was a lot at stake as he defended a young man who had lashed out with a knife during a fight, fatally wounding his assailant. Lincoln was “a man in his ascendancy,” note authors Dan Abrams and David Fisher. “Should he lose the trial, should he even make a major misstep . . . the spotlight now focused so brightly on him might be dimmed.”
Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency (Hanover Square Press), released in paperback in May, is a blow-by-blow account of the State of Illinois v. Peachy Quinn Harrison, based on a handwritten transcript of the trial that surfaced in 1989. The remarkable document enables Abrams, the chief legal affairs anchor for ABC News, and Fisher, who has twenty-plus New York Times bestsellers to his credit, to recreate Lincoln’s final courtroom appearance. The drama unfolds in vivid, big-screen detail.
Lincoln had tackled some 2,000 criminal and civil cases over the previous two decades and earned a reputation as one of the best lawyers in the Midwest. He was self-taught and made up for his lack of legal training and knowledge of the letter of the law with his folksy humor, his determination to do the right thing, and his understanding of human nature. “He had a keen sense of justice, and struggled for it,” recalled a former law partner, “until it appeared pure as a ray of light flashing through a fog bank.” In one memorable case, he won an acquittal for two men accused of murder when he produced the victim—an elderly man, very much alive, who had wandered off and had been presumed to have succumbed to foul play.
Lincoln’s Last Trial captures the beloved president at the top of his game, on the eve of his transition from defender of the innocent to savior of the nation. The iron will and sincerity he displayed in the courtroom, combined with his powers of persuasion and his ability to tease out the truth, were traits he would need as America descended into its brutal civil war. Did Lincoln win his last case? This book will keep you guessing until the end.
Decades earlier in London, a man had approached British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval as he entered the lobby of the House of Commons. Perceval’s government was on a precarious footing in May 1812—Britain was fighting Napoleon, the economy was in rough shape, and the country would soon be at war with the Americans. So when the man produced a pistol and shot Perceval point-blank, there were fears of a plot to overthrow his administration. Riots broke out in at least two cities in support of the assassin. “He could not shoot a greater rascal,” declared one government opponent.
The assailant was John Bellingham and his crime—the only assassination of a British leader in history—is reassessed in The Murder of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval: A Portrait of the Assassin (Pen & Sword Books). Author Martin Connolly, whose interests range from psychology and sports to Irish history and the Holocaust, focuses (as the title suggests) on Bellingham’s motives.
A Liverpool merchant, he was a man on a mission. Imprisoned in Russia after a business deal went sour, he spent years lobbying the British government for compensation for his detention and losses. His incessant demands were ignored or rejected but eventually reached the highest office in the land, literally putting Perceval in the line of fire. Bellingham insisted he acted alone and killed the prime minister so he could air his grievances at his trial.
Was he insane? Connolly takes a fresh look at the case records to explore this aspect of the case in detail. At the time, British law set the bar high. The insanity defense, according to one precedent, was open only to an offender “totally deprived of his understanding and memory” and no more in control of his actions “than an infant, than a brute, or a wild beast.” Bellingham meticulously planned the assassination. He purchased two pistols, practiced firing them and asked a tailor to add an inside pocket to his coat, so he could conceal one of the weapons. “These are not the actions of impulse or temper,” Connolly concludes. “They are considered, thought through, determined.” The jury agreed, deliberating for less than twenty minutes before dispatching him to the gallows.
Another national leader was the target of two assassination attempts in the first few years of the nineteenth century—and this time, the British government itself was behind the plots. Military historian Tim Clayton scoured archives in London and Paris to expose these bids for regime change in The Secret War Against Napoleon: Britain's Assassination Plot on the French Emperor (Pegasus Books). The author juggles a dizzying array of conspiracies, secret missions, and players—a “Cast of Characters” list at the front of the book runs to thirteen pages—as he unravels a story replete with deception, covert operations, and spies.
To counter Napoleon’s growing power and imperial ambitions, Britain backed his royalist opponents and orchestrated a propaganda campaign to blacken his name, rally European allies, and build a case for war. The book “is not a defence of Napoleon,” Clayton writes, “but an explanation of how and why the British government turned him into a monster—and of how astonishingly successful in the long term that gambit proved to be.” A publication with the title “The Atrocities of the Corsican Demon” was a typical offering in what may have been the earliest large-scale effort to manipulate public opinion through “fake news.”
Not content to destroy Napoleon’s reputation, the British tried to destroy him. In December 1800, a barrel packed with gunpowder and sharp stones exploded on a Paris street moments after the Emperor’s carriage passed by. At least twenty-five people died or were maimed in what Clayton asserts was the first use of a bomb in an assassination attempt. “Those bastards tried to blow me up,” Napoleon grumbled afterwards, and while the would-be assassins were French Royalists, he appears never to have guessed that the British smuggled most of them into France and financed the operation.
The second attempt on Napoleon’s life, in 1804, was part of an elaborate plot to stage a coup and restore the monarchy. This time French police foiled the plan, rounded up most of the conspirators, and seized papers that confirmed British duplicity. The botched operation only tightened Napoleon’s hold on power. “We wanted a king,” one plotter is said to have mused as he stood before the guillotine. “We have made an emperor.” And there was the inevitable blow-back: Napoleon became an implacable foe who would wage war on Britain until France’s final defeat in 1815.
Think American politics in the era of Donald Trump is nasty, divisive and fractious? Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman will transport you back in time to the mid-nineteenth century, when partisan warfare often erupted into real warfare, and when threats, violence, and intimidation were ingrained in the political process. Her book The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a groundbreaking work fifteen years in the making, is an astonishing and disturbing chronicle of how the drive to abolish slavery polarized, then weaponized, political debate from the 1830s to the 1850s. “In a sense,” she writes, “the first battles of the Civil War were waged in Congress itself.”
The most notorious assault occurred in 1856, when South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner, a leading abolitionist, as he sat at his desk in the Senate chamber. A dozen blows to the head from a cane left Sumner bloodied and dazed. Violence was so accepted and pervasive that one Southerner thought the attack on Sumner “served him right” and Brooks was guilty only of lack of decorum: He should not have aimed the blows to the head, or wielded his cane inside the Senate.
Freeman discovered more than seventy other incidents of violence over two decades involving congressmen, some of whom brandished pistols and knives on the floors of the Senate and the House of Representatives. There were more canings, as well as fistfights and shoving matches, and the violence sometimes spilled into the streets of Washington or culminated in duels. Threats and bullying that stopped short of physical violence—but were just as effective in cowing opponents and stifling political debate—were too numerous to count. Even the press was intimidated, Freeman notes. Journalists ignored many attacks or suppressed details for fear of losing government printing contracts or becoming the target of the next assault.
Freeman is a tireless researcher and a fine writer, but it is her eye for character and detail that ensures her scholarship and historical analysis never get in the way of this dramatic, shocking story. To immerse readers in this world of rancor and violence, she draws on the candid diaries of Benjamin Brown French, who observed the era’s raw politics firsthand as a clerk in the House of Representatives. “His fears about the state of the Union,” notes Freeman, run through his daily chronicle of Washington life “like a whisper of doom.”
This is a timely and important book, and impossible to read without recognizing its relevance to today. The warning from America’s past—rescued from obscurity and documented through Freeman’s meticulous scholarship—is how easily violent words can become the foundation for violent acts.
Dean Jobb’s latest book, Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada), is the stranger-than-fiction tale of 1920s Chicago swindler Leo Koretz. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb