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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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

“The secret of Chancellor Lansing’s fate died with him”

Newspaper publisher and political organizer Thurlow Weed died in 1882. Soon afterward, his grandson published a memoir of him, which described John Lansing’s disappearance in New York in 1829 and offered an explanation of how Weed had come into information about that mysterious event:
In Mr. Weed’s nature there was a certain wonderful quality which invited sympathy and confession. Children, as well as men and women, made him their confidant. He was, in his day, a sort of “father confessor” for the greatest and the least among the people of New York. Presidents, governors, diplomats, speculators, clergymen, doctors, and lawyers sought him, when yearning to speak freely of their errors, perplexities, or expectations.

Years after that event, the mystery surrounding Chancellor Lansing’s fate was communicated to Mr. Weed, by a gentleman of high position, who submitted also certain papers, not only showing that, and by whom, the Chancellor was murdered, but explaining the motives which led to the crime, and describing the circumstances under which it was committed. At the same time an injunction was added that he should make all the facts public in case he survived those whom his information implicated, — men who lived useful lives, and died with unblemished reputations. . . .

Not knowing exactly how to act, he [Weed] submitted all the facts to his friends R. M. Blatchford and Hugh Maxwell, on whose joint judgment he felt that he could place unquestioning reliance. These gentlemen, after carefully considering the question in all its aspects, came to the conclusion that if Mr. Weed’s informant were living he would revoke his request for publication. . . .

When he [Weed] died, therefore, the secret of Chancellor Lansing’s fate died with him, for except to Mr. Blatchford and to Mr. Maxwell, whom he survived, it never passed his lips.
Except that in August 1869 someone at the New York Times did know that Weed had this information, and that the conditions set for disclosing it had been met with a recent death. So there was a leak of some kind. In fact, the Times item about the case might have been an attempt to pressure Weed into disgorging his secret.

Many months later, Weed acknowledged that he knew something, but refused to say anymore. All Weed’s account leaves us is that his informant was a “gentleman of high position” in New York who died shortly (by some scale) before August 1869.

Curiously, a few months before Weed died in 1882, he did set down in writing what he said someone had confessed to him about another mysterious disappearance of the 1820s—that of William Morgan. That man’s presumed murder led to the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party, which was also Weed’s entrance into political power. Weed made sure what he (supposedly) knew about that case got into the public record even as he concealed what he’d heard about Lansing.

And there don’t appear to have been any further revelations. According to Joseph Reese Strayer, who edited Lansing’s notes on the Constitutional Convention for publication in 1939, “descendants of Lansing who investigated [Weed’s] story were satisfied that it had no basis of fact.” To be exact, that information came to Strayer from Lansing’s grandson’s nephew’s widow.

It’s hard to see how the chancellor’s descendants could investigate the story if Weed never disclosed it. John Lansing Livingston clearly wanted to hear more from Weed in 1870. Nonetheless, by the twentieth century John Lansing’s descendants said they believed he had fallen into the Hudson or been killed in a random robbery.

By that point Judge Crater had disappeared, and our culture has mental room for only one missing New York jurist at a time, so the mystery of Chancellor John Lansing, once a member of the Constitutional Convention, has faded away.

Of course, that’s what any conspirators would want, isn’t it?


Robert S. Paul said...

So Weed distributed information about one event (which were all lies) to gain him political power, but refused to give information about another, probably to preserve political power.

Some things never change....

Charles Bahne said...

The link to the picture that accompanies this post is broken, so all I get is a blue question mark. Somehow that seems appropriate.

J. L. Bell said...

Also perhaps appropriate, if you click on the empty frame, it takes you to a page based in New York with more information about Lansing, and then the picture of him. The picture will then appear within the frame until the next time you open your browser—at which point it’s all secret once more.