J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

“Chancellor Lansing was murdered”

Thurlow Weed was a powerful newspaper publisher and leader of the Republican Party in New York in the mid-1800s. The December 1870 issue of The Galaxy magazine ran this letter from him:

The following letter, though written several months ago, as seen by its date, I only now send for publication:

New York City, Feb. 18, 1870.

To the Editor of The Galaxy:

Since our conversation the other morning, in which you assumed that an article in the “New York Times” some months since, relating to the mysterious fate of the late Chancellor [John] Lansing of Albany, referred to myself, as possessing information that the public might look for at no distant day, I have concluded to submit what I have to say on that subject, with your permission, through the pages of THE GALAXY.

Twenty-three years ago an eminent citizen of this State, now deceased, put me in possession of information which in his judgment clearly demonstrated that Chancellor Lansing was murdered through the agency of parties whom he named, asking and receiving my promise to publish the facts, should I survive the parties implicated—parties who lived useful lives and died leaving unblemished reputations.

By a strict or literal construction of my promise, the contingency on which it was based has occurred. My distinguished informant and the persons whom his proofs implicated have gone to their final account. As the time therefore had arrived when it became necessary to act upon this question, I found it surrounded by great difficulties. The facts and circumstances, if given to the public, would reach further, as I believe, in their consequences than my informant contemplated—certainly further than I was myself aware when I gave him my promise.

While it is true that the parties named are beyond the reach of human tribunals, as of public opinion, yet others, immediately associated with them and sharing in the strong inducement which prompted the alleged crime, survive, occupying high positions and enjoying public confidence. To these persons, should my proofs be submitted, public attention would be irresistibly drawn. This fact, independent of the circumstance that a large circle of immediate descendants of the deceased persons more directly accused would suffer, led me not only to pause, but to seek advice. Several months ago I submitted the question to two enlightened, experienced, and calm-minded professional gentlemen, the Hon. Hugh Maxwell and Richard M. Blatchford, Esq., on whose judgment and friendship I knew that I could safely repose.

Mr. Maxwell, after weighing all the facts and circumstances maturely, stated that they might and probably would produce upon the minds of those who read them moral conviction; yet, that if the accused parties had been placed upon their trial, the testimony would have been insufficient to satisfy a court or jury. In his judgment, therefore, in a case which would occasion so much anguish among the families and friends of those who were not here to defend themselves, and where the ends of justice could in no sense be promoted, he could see no useful or wise purpose to be accomplished by the publication.

Mr. Blatchford, having carefully considered the whole question, came to the conclusion that if my informant were now living to look the question in all its bearings in the face, he would promptly absolve me from my promise.

Nor is this all. I was fortunate in meeting, a few weeks since, the widow of my friend and informant, a lady of high intelligence, cultivation, and good sense. This lady, who enjoyed to the fullest extent the confidence of her distinguished husband, had been informed by him of the trust he had reposed in me. She was prepared, therefore, to speak understandingly on the subject; and while she could not bring herself to advise me to disregard the injunctions of one whose views, suggestions, and wishes had been the law of her life, she evidently hoped that I would see my way clear to withhold the statement, and was as evidently gratified to learn that Mr. Maxwell and Mr. Blatchford had advised me to suppress it.

If I needed other evidence of the propriety of the course I have concluded to adopt, it would be found, I think, in the recent infelicitous experience of a distinguished literary personage who, under circumstances somewhat similar, felt called upon to reveal what had been communicated to her affecting the reputations of eminent persons long since deceased. In the remarkable unanimity of disapproval which that revelation encountered, there is a lesson and a moral too significant to be disregarded.

Thurlow Weed.
So according to Weed’s account, some powerful and prestigious people in New York murdered Lansing because he was getting in their way—and a later generation of powerful and prestigious people, including Weed, chose to keep the secret.

Of course, not everyone was satisfied.

TOMORROW: Lansing’s relatives speak out.

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