Boston lawyer brings Lincoln White House to life in new book

By Pat Murphy
BridgeTower Media Newswires
 
BOSTON, MA -- James B. Conroy spent much of the last 35 years establishing himself as one of Boston’s preeminent trial attorneys, so it might surprise some that the law is not his first love.

“Since I was a little kid, I wanted to write history,” Conroy says.

Now 67 and in semi-retirement, the co-founder of Donnelly, Conroy & Gelhaar is fulfilling a lifelong dream. Conroy recently published his second book, the widely acclaimed “Lincoln’s White House: The People’s House in Wartime.”

Why write another Lincoln book when more than 16,000 have already been published on Honest Abe?

Conroy prides himself on coming up with fresh historical themes. In 2014, he wrote “Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865,” the first book-length treatment of little-known peace negotiations between Lincoln and rebel leaders near the end of the war.

“Lincoln’s White House” is the first book dedicated to describing what it was like to live and work at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. during the war years. Conroy uses fascinating details gleaned from original sources to give readers a sense of everyday life for Lincoln, his family and his staff.

“I really tried to bring that to life in a way nobody else had ever done,” Conroy says.

For example, he relates an anecdote of Lincoln grabbing a monkey wrench to help fix a water pump in the basement of the White House in May 1861.

And while White House occupants enjoyed indoor plumbing and gas lighting in Lincoln’s day, such “modern conveniences” also posed serious hazards. Conroy’s book recounts how Lincoln once nearly succumbed to a gas leak in his office.

And Conroy notes that the water was pumped unfiltered and untreated from the nearby Potomac River, making the White House an unhealthy place for all. Today’s experts tend to believe tainted water caused a typhoid fever outbreak in early 1862 that took the life of Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, and struck another young son, Tad, according to Conroy.

“Lincoln’s White House” also brings to life the range of colorful characters who would have crossed paths with Lincoln on a given day, including the hordes of influence peddlers and office seekers who regularly frequented the executive mansion.

“Just the mere fact that anybody who wanted to could walk into the White House unchallenged is completely alien to us,” he says. “The thought [that] you could literally go upstairs and sit in the waiting room and eventually get in to see the president of the United States in the middle of a civil war is really pretty startling.”

There’s also John Watt, the unscrupulous Scottish head gardener who showed Mary Todd Lincoln how to rig White House expense accounts to hide her exorbitant redecorating expenditures. Mrs. Lincoln’s extravagance would later erupt into a public scandal.

“As a lawyer, I can tell that the evidence against Mary Lincoln [for fraud and corruption] is just overwhelming,” Conroy says.

While Mrs. Lincoln undoubtedly multiplied the president’s headaches, Conroy has sympathy for the first lady.

“She really didn’t have the sophistication that she needed to deal with these people and understand who was using her and who wasn’t,” he says.

Conroy plans to write another book, but he hasn’t decided on the subject.

“The third one may go in a different direction,” he says.

 

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