I Don't Think He Was Joking...Review of The Million Dollar Man Who Helped Kill a President
Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr., The Million Dollar Man Who Helped Kill a President: George Washington Gayle and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Savas Beatie, 2018).
Okay let’s get to it. Notwithstanding the rather wordy title, I enjoyed the hell out of this book, and let me tell you why. The cover notes that this is “The untold story of the arrest, guilty plea, and presidential pardon of the man who bankrolled one of the world’s most famous assassinations.” The assassination in question, of course, is that of President Abraham Lincoln - a crime that was the culmination of a conspiracy among assassins that included (though unsuccessfully) the targeting of Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. McIlwain suggests that the conspiracy could be much more far-reaching than many might assume. The key phrase here is could be…because as the author admits, there is no “smoking gun” evidence.
However, McIlwain has uncovered a good deal of criminal intent. The subject of the book, one rabid secessionist and proslavery Alabamian George Washington Gayle, so hated the United States president and his administration that he publicly offered - via newspaper advertisement - the enormous sum of 1 million dollars to anyone who could kill Lincoln, Johnson, and Seward. It certainly seems Gayle wanted the men dead, and was willing to pay. This is a rather fascinating story, which places conspirators in close proximity to Gayle’s ad on a number of occasions, notes that trigger-man John Wilkes Booth and his compatriots boasted of soon-to-be wealth, and shows that Gayle and others were most certainly implicated in the conspiracy by many in the vengeful North.
I read this book straight through with increased interest at every turn of the page…and I don’t want to spoil the intricacies of the ending. Let’s just say that Gayle used the “I was just kidding” defense and well…he was not among those on the gallows when justice was finally served...so go figure.
But more than anything else, I especially enjoyed McIlwain’s nuanced portrait of antebellum Alabama politics. These days, more and more people seem to look ahistorically at past incarnations of political parties as great ideological monoliths. This, I believe, is an exercise that creates more confusion than anything else. And to his credit, McIlwain describes members of the Democratic Party of Alabama at each other’s throats over the issue of secession and the protection of the institution of slavery. Pro-secession Fire-eaters like Gayle butted heads often with his party comrades over just this…with many hesitant to secede, thinking slavery was best protected by remaining in the Union.
This is among the most well-documented books I have read in some time. You all know that I am a footnote/endnote nerd and so I spent some time connecting the sources here. The author uses personal correspondence, legal cases, and especially the press to piece together a complicated story that few modern readers probably know. The bibliography is vast and the notes many…so thoroughly complied that I plan on using the resources in my own Civil War class.
Was Gayle really incontrovertibly guilty? Who knows - I mean…while there is nothing ironclad there is plenty of inferential evidence here. But either way, the book will certainly get you thinking, AND it will hopefully clear up any confusion should you be the type who thinks that slavery was only an “incidental” issue in the Civil War. I give this one high marks…and I think you will too.