Wash­ing­ton the tar­get

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Books - MICHAEL HILL

The First Con­spir­acy: The Se­cret Plot to Kill George Wash­ing­ton Brad Meltzer and Josh Men­sch Flat­iron Books

George Wash­ing­ton faced some big prob­lems as he tried to for­tify New York City against British forces in the sum­mer of 1776.

His rag­tag army was woe­fully short on weapons and bat­tle ex­pe­ri­ence. The British were as­sem­bling a mas­sive ex­pe­di­tionary force to crush his army and snuff out the nascent revo­lu­tion.

And one more thing: Some of his own body­guards were in­volved in a trai­tor­ous plot against him.

The First Con­spir­acy fol­lows the shad­owy plot that played out in and around Man­hat­tan as Wash­ing­ton fo­cused on the com­ing British at­tack. The odd as­sort­ment of char­ac­ters in­volved in this cloak-and-dag­ger tale in­clude a schem­ing gun­smith, would-be coun­ter­feit­ers and some mem­bers of Wash­ing­ton’s elite body­guard de­tach­ment.

Loom­ing omi­nously over all the machi­na­tions was Gov. Wil­liam Ty­ron, the top British of­fi­cial in New York. Ris­ing revo­lu­tion­ary sen­ti­ment had forced him to re­treat to a ship in New York’s har­bour, but he was still able to spin his webs of in­trigue against the rebels.

It’s not a spoiler to point out that the plot failed. Wash­ing­ton, of course, was just be­gin­ning his long, his­tor­i­cal run on the world’s stage. The only per­son to lose his life af­ter the plot was ex­posed was body­guard Thomas Hickey, who was pub­licly hanged for “mutiny, sedi­tion and treach­ery.”

So the au­thors ex­tract what they can out of the his­tor­i­cal record to tell a colour­ful story giv­ing the reader a sense of Revo­lu­tion­ary-era Man­hat­tan. The writ­ing is punchy and the chap­ters are short.

One big ob­sta­cle in telling the story is a lack of source ma­te­rial about the pre­cise na­ture of the plot. It was a se­cret, af­ter all.

Wash­ing­ton and the British un­der­stand­ably kept mum about their in­tel­li­gence and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions. De­spite the sub­ti­tle, it’s not cer­tain whether plot­ters planned to as­sas­si­nate Wash­ing­ton or just to cap­ture him.

Many be­lieved it was an as­sas­si­na­tion plot ever since Hickey went to the gal­lows. In one fa­mous story, Wash­ing­ton was about to be served poi­soned peas be­fore a ser­vant threw the plate out the win­dow at the last sec­ond, sav­ing the fu­ture pres­i­dent but killing some chick­ens out­side who ate the deadly vegeta­bles.

That story is al­most cer­tainly apoc­ryphal. But what was the most likely plan? Scour­ing the ex­ist­ing ev­i­dence, the au­thors come up with a con­clu­sion that seems as good as any that can be drawn more than two cen­turies later.

The As­so­ci­ated Press

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