The Trump administration’s pursuit of White House leakers hasn’t — so far as we know — taken the president or his scrutineers down any matrimonial corridors.
In that respect, he’s faring better than Abraham Lincoln.
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While smartphones and encrypted messaging apps have made leaks difficult to track and, thanks to social media, faster to circulate, back in Lincoln’s time the hot new technology was the telegraph.
In 1862, the House Judiciary Committee undertook an extraordinary investigation into how the telegraph was transforming the spread of news, particularly government business.
One episode — the leaking of excerpts from Lincoln’s first State of the Union — drew intense interest and scandalous headlines, and the suspects would have made great characters for reality television had television been invented.
There was Henry Wikoff, described as a “debonair but shady news scavenger” who wrote a memoir about kidnapping a woman he loved who didn’t love him back. There was John Watt, a corrupt White House gardener who had been accused of blackmailing the Lincolns. There was Daniel Sickles, a lawyer who killed his wife’s lover — Francis Scott Key’s son — but evaded a conviction by claiming temporary insanity.
And there was Mary Todd Lincoln — unpredictable, high-tempered, flirty.
The excerpts from Lincoln’s State of the Union were telegraphed from Washington to the New York Herald, which employed Wikoff as a freelance gatherer of news tips. Wikoff worked his way into Mary Todd Lincoln’s life by becoming, according to one account, her “guide in matters of social etiquette, domestic arrangements, and personal requirements, including her toilette.”
He also took her shopping a lot.
After the excerpts appeared in his paper, Wikoff immediately become a suspect. Reporters who knew of his relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln — it’s unclear if he was, ahem, more than a social guide — began whispering that she slipped him the goods.
The House Judiciary Committee called Wikoff to testify. He refused. Committee minutes reveal the consequences: “The Sergeant-at-arms appeared at the bar of the House, and reported that he had executed the warrant of the Speaker, issued this day, for the arrest of Henry Wikoff, and that he had the body of the said Wikoff then at the bar of the House.”
Before the committee sent him to jail, Wikoff was given a chance to respond.
“The information which the committee demanded of me was received, such as it was, under a pledge of strict secrecy, which I felt myself bound to respect,” Wikoff said.
Then things got really weird.
The Herald reporter who broke the story also refused to testify, but he wasn’t jailed. Instead, he wrote a letter protesting the committee’s authority to ask such questions of the press. Remarkably, he also revealed that Wikoff “told me that he got it from Mrs. Lincoln…I would have not had sent it unless I thought he had obtained it from such a responsible source.”
But then things got even weirder.
Sickles, the lawyer who got away with murder, represented Wikoff. He went to the White House to investigate, then told committee of his findings: The leaker was the gardener, who helped Mary Todd Lincoln cover up shopping expenses by masking them as his expenses for manure.
The gardener’s story was almost poetic in absurdity: He had literary aspirations, saw the speech in Lincoln’s library, memorized it, then recounted it to Wikoff word for word the next day.
Did anyone believe this?
Did anyone question it?
That’s probably because of something else that happened the day before the bizarre testimony, something that would never be repeated today.
The president of the United States took a stroll up Pennsylvania Avenue.
There was already a lot on his plate: the Civil War, of course. His son Willie was dying from typhoid. And there were salacious rumors from the president’s enemies that Mrs. Lincoln was spying for the rebels.
If the leak was pinned to her, it would be disastrous, giving further credence to the rebel rumors.
And so there was Lincoln, visiting the Capitol.
“The guard at the door admitted the president, but was too tongue-tied to announce him,” wrote Daniel Mark Epstein in “The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage,” which quotes a senator as saying:
“There at the foot of the table, standing solitary, his hat in hand, his tall form towering above the committee members, Abraham Lincoln stood….We could not have been more astounded. The pathos written upon his face, the almost unhuman sadness in his eyes.”
“No one had any idea what to say,” Epstein wrote, “so they sat still and silent.”
Finally, the president spoke.
“I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, appear of my own volition before this committee of the Senate to say that I, of my own knowledge, know that it is untrue that any of my family hold treasonable communication with the enemy.”
Afterward, Wikoff was released. And so, in a sense, was the corrupt gardener.
Lincoln’s administration assigned him to the U.S. Patent Office to inspect seeds.
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