Lincoln’s Leak


Unauthorized release of sensitive information is all the rage these days. Washington leaks like pipes in the “charming fixer upper” a smooth-talking real estate agent wants to unload.

This is hardly new. In fact, history’s most egregious leak involved the guy on the penny, a source dangerously close to the president, a sketchy character and a dying First Child.

Meet Lincoln’s leaker.

The State of the Union is always big news, especially in wartime. The country was keenly interested in reading President Lincoln’s first report. (From Jefferson on, it was submitted to Congress in writing until Woodrow Wilson revived the custom of delivering it in a speech in 1913.)

So imagine the shock when people opened The New York Herald on December 3, 1861 and read excerpts from the State of the Union – hours before its release.

Lincoln was furious and a classic capital Whodunnit? was underway. Attention instantly focused on one VIP person of interest.

First lady Mary Lincoln had blown into the capital nine months earlier with the subtlety of a cannon blast. Intelligent, opinionated and possessor of a tart tongue, she wasn’t the traditional wallflower presidential wife. Though militantly loyal to the Union, she was also vocally proud of her aristocratic Southern heritage – at the very time the North was fighting the South. On top of that, her brother, three half-brothers and other relatives were fighting for the Confederacy. Mary rubbed lots of people the wrong way.

And she had a dangerous secret. The White House was so badly rundown when the Lincons moved in it looked like a shabby hotel. She commenced its grandest makeover since the British burned the place – and grossly overspent her budget. Mary was in seriously hot financial water.

Then the leaked excerpts appeared in print.

Always unable to resist sensational headlines, Congress pounced. The House Judiciary Committee launched a ferocious investigation in February 1862.

A correspondent for The New York Tribune (the Herald’s blood rival) testified the leak was arranged by shady social climber Henry Wikoff, who got his information straight from “members of the president’s own family.” That meant Mary. The implication was much-needed money to pay those pressing bills was slipped her way in exchange.

Already consumed by the war and the growing scandal under his own roof, Lincoln’s young sons suddenly became gravely ill with what historians believe was typhoid fever. Tad recovered while Willie worsened. Lincoln was now fighting for the Union and his presidency while his son was fighting for his life. (11 year-old Willie lost his struggle on February 20.)

Wikoff, meanwhile, had his own troubles. Refusing to reveal his source, he was jailed for contempt of Congress and tossed into a rat-infested storage room in the Capitol cellar where his cellmate was a huge, overly friendly dog named Jack. One night was all it took. Wikoff was ready to talk.

Then something interesting happened. Daniel Sickles, Union general, former congressman, Wikoff’s BFF and schemer par excellence, inserted himself into the story. (Click here to read how Sickles beat the rap for murdering his wife’s lover.) It’s believed he cooked up what followed.

Wikoff testified the leaker was actually White House gardener John Watt, who quickly confessed. (In exchange for falling on his sword, Watt was given a cushy job in the Patent Office for $1,500 a year – a comfortably upper middle-class income then.)

Wanting to finally end the matter, Lincoln took the unprecedented step of testifying (in secret) before the committee, saying since only his Cabinet had seen his report in advance nobody else could have leaked it, implying Mary was blameless. (The only other time a sitting president testified before a House committee was in 1974, when Gerald Ford answered questions about Richard Nixon’s pardon.)

With Mary off the hook the matter faded, swept from public attention by the war’s growing casualty lists.

Was Mary Lincoln the actual leaker? We’ll never know. But historians agree that at the very least, she had some serious ‘splainin’ to do to Abe.

These days, President Trump clearly doesn’t enjoy being the victim of leaks. But no president ever does. Not even Lincoln.

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