Bringing Lincoln and His White House to Life

Written by Burt Solomon

I’m basically a nonfiction guy, a journalist by trade. The Murder of Willie Lincoln is my first novel. Before this, I wrote three nonfiction books about U.S. history—one about baseball in the 1890s and two about Washington in the 1900s. And in researching and writing each one, there has come a moment when the time and place I’m writing about come alive in my head. And therefore—if I do my job right—in the reader’s.

For this book, the magical moment happened at the Old Soldiers’ Home in Washington, where Lincoln spent a lot of his summers. I have a couple of scenes set there, including a séance, so one day I was climbing the stairs to the second floor, where Tad, the surviving son, is stashed for a while in my story. I asked the guide about the banister. Yes, this was the original, and I’m thinking: Wow, Lincoln’s hands slid up and down this banister, and some of his molecules are probably still on it. That was the moment that Lincoln and my story came alive.

But these moments don’t happen by themselves, or easily, and it’s the job of the historian, and the historical novelist, to make them happen. They take a lot of work. Research.

In The Murder of Willie Lincoln, I changed a single fact—how 11-year-old Willie Lincoln died. I left almost everything else —the characters, the events of the day, even the weather in Washington City—exactly as they were. I hoped to make it as easy as possible for the reader to suspend disbelief.

Indeed, many things in Washington are still the same. The Capitol was there, though without a dome. The Washington Monument was there, though only a third of it. The White House was there, with a big greenhouse and without the West Wing. Many of the buildings were the same, and the landscape—and the political dynamics that we all know and love. Really, only the decimal points have moved.

Even so, the Washington City of 1862 smelled and felt and sounded different than it does now. I needed it to come alive, and the way to do this was just like for nonfiction—research, research, research. Reading the newspapers of the time, magazine articles, plowing through books about Washington. The trick is in the accretion of details. To get the hogs in the gutter, and the smells of the wretched canal that was really an open sewer—it’s where Constitution Avenue is now—with what an olfactory savant described as “70 separate and distinct stinks.”

Ah, Washington—literally, a swamp to be drained.

I also spent days at the National Library of Medicine’s wonderful history section, delving into the technical details about embalming—by the method that was probably used on Willie Lincoln. (I have a really gross scene about that.) And I found a medicine-slash-poison common at the time that mimicked the symptoms of typhoid fever in all but one respect. That exception, which you’d rather not read over breakfast, I’ve used in the plotline.

Things I found in my research I worked into the plot. Stuff actually happened that I never could have made up. Maybe my favorite example involves John Watt, the White House gardener, who blackmailed Mary Lincoln for $20k and walked away with $1,500 and a military commission. Watt was an expert in padding his invoices, and he taught this skill to Mary Lincoln, who needed the money to supplement what Congress was willing to give her for all the redecorating, the new china, the new servants’ uniforms, her clothes, the grand parties. John Watt accompanied her on shopping trips to Philadelphia and New York and showed her the ropes. Apparently she wrote three letters to him that acknowledged her transgressions, leaving her open for blackmail.

Research also informed my characters. For some of them, such as John Watt, very little is known, so I made it all up. For the characters known to history, I tried to stick as close to what is known as possible. But the trick is to understand them from the inside, so you can figure out how they speak and act. So that they sound right—and different from one another—and so their actions make sense. Mark Twain once said that fiction is harder than nonfiction because it has to make sense.

The hardest character, of course—the most intimidating of all—was Lincoln. The idea of writing dialogue for Lincoln scared the hell out of me. For one thing, his voice is so complex—both homespun and august, vulgar but biblical, sly and witty but solemn and serious. And for another, he’s … Lincoln. The grandest we’ve got.

So how do you do it? You read about him—but you can’t read all 15,000 books, nor do you want to—and you touch the banister and you handle a paper with his signature and you close your eyes and try to imagine.

But for Lincoln in particular, something else is going on. He has seeped so deeply into Americans’ consciousness that I think we all have a bit of Lincoln inside of us. There’s the penny and the $5 bill, but that’s not all of Lincoln we carry around with us. We carry him inside of our heads. We know what he sounds like. We know him as the best part of ourselves.