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THE MURDER OF ANDREW JOHNSON by Burt Solomon: Book Review

My first thought when I saw the title of Burt Solomon’s mystery was wait, did I know that Andrew Johnson was murdered?  I knew that he became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, that he was not a believer in civil rights for formerly enslaved people, and that he was the first president (and for more than a century, the only president) to be impeached.  But had The Great Commoner been murdered?

The novel is told through the eyes of John Hay, a historical figure who begins his career as a private secretary and assistant to Lincoln.  He’s a journalist at the New-York Tribune who receives a telegram from his editor telling him that former president Johnson, “the most hated man in America,” has died unexpectedly.  Can Hay get to East Tennessee, the home of the Johnson family, and find out what happened?  Of course he can.

Johnson suffered a stroke that paralyzed him and died a day later, surrounded by his family and two physicians.  Seen through John Hay’s eyes, Johnson was perhaps the most unworthy successor possible to Lincoln.  Although he had his good points, including being the only Southern senator who supported the Union, Hay believes those were outweighed by his bad ones.  He was vindictive, never compromised, and remembered every slight against him.  He pardoned the Confederates and restored them to power.  He did everything possible to make certain Reconstruction was a failure, and now he was was dead at age 67.

On the way to the Johnson home, John is picked up by a Black employee of the family.  Although Bill was enslaved by the Johnsons before he was born through his mother, he apparently admired the president.  “Like a member of the family, they treat me,” he tells Hay, and he was with Johnson the night before the latter’s sudden collapse and death.

The former president’s family is a strange one, with at least two of his three adult children financially dependent on him–his daughter Mary Johnson Stover and her husband Daniel, and the Johnsons’ son Frank, who likes a hard drink as much as his father did.  Johnson’s wife, Eliza, is a recluse who has scarcely left her bedroom in years.  There is a great deal of animosity among the grown children, not helped by the fact that the ex-president died without a will.

Then there are two physicians, Dr. Cameron and Dr. Jobe, who cite professional confidentiality regarding the death of their late patient, and Captain McElwee, a former Confederate Army officer who spent time with Johnson shortly before he was taken ill.  And Hay hasn’t even gotten meet to with Johnson’s political enemies, of whom there are many.

Burt Solomon has written an intriguing mystery about a man who is mostly remembered for his impeachment, although, like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, Johnson remained in office after his trial.  Filled with historical figures including President Ulysses S. Grant, newspaperman and failed presidential candidate Horace Greeley, and Hay’s millionaire father-in-law Amasa Stone, the late 19th-century is vividly brought to life.

In his Afterword, the author states that “my goal is for readers to feel like they’re there.”  He most definitely succeeds.  You can read more about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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