There goes a big slide of snow…

Gavin Mortimer, Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, The Civil War’s Most Daring Spy. New York: Walker and Company, 2010.

Gavin Mortimer has crafted an interesting, though ironically unexciting, tale of Pryce Lewis, the British national who worked for the United States and Allan Pinkerton as a detective and spy during the American Civil War.  The narrative is written clearly moves at a fair pace.  Mortimer describes for readers information on the origins of the Pinkerton agency as well quick, concise background sections on various aspects of the Civil War era (eg, the importance of John Brown, abolitionists’ positions, the nature of Union generalship, etc.)

As with many histories of obscure figures, some of Mortimer’s most fascinating sections deal with how the story of Lewis survived, surfaced, went underground, and resurfaced.  I’m always intrigued by how certain stories make it through to the present day.  As Mortimer says in his acknowledgments, “it’s taken 122 years to get your story into print.”  Partially this is because there was little interest in Lewis’ memoirs during his lifetime and the fact that elements of the spy’s life story resided in the hands of an unsuccessful editor, his daughter, a history graduate student at Columbia, an unknown apartment cleaner, and the History Society of St. Lawrence County, New York.  Historical narratives are often the result of such accidents, though I’ve rarely encountered one quite so odd in its path to publisher’s house.

When Pryce Lewis leapt to his death from New York’s World Building in 1911 (mistaken for snow sliding to the ground), he was described in the papers as a ‘famous war spy.’  Mortimer insists that his subject, Lewis, was the most ‘daring’ of these largely civilian spies that dominated the intelligence gathering through the first couple years of the war.  I don’t know that I’m convinced as to Lewis’ daring.  It seems that if the majority of your time during the war is spent having been caught and therefore in a cell, there isn’t much time left to be daring?  Granted, some of Lewis’ decisions and ‘tall tales’ as he was seeking information in western Virginia in 1861 were on the bold side, but these actions also seem like necessities given his career choice at the time.

There are several strong points to Mortimer’s work besides the writing itself, though there are some issues in which I wish he had either delved in more deeply or taken more care.  Mortimer is effective at presenting Lewis and the other spies and their actions in the greater context of both the war and the international political drama of the time period.  This fact is particularly true given Lewis’ nationality as an Englishman (technically Welsh) and in details about various officers and generals involved in giving and receiving information (the grandfather of George Patton and George McClellan for example).  McClellan though is portrayed in a bit too standard a fashion of the hesitant commander – there was, arguably, a bit more nuance to him.

Finally, and this is often the case in popularly written non fiction books, there is the issue of the research and citations.  While much of the text is pulled from the documents rescued by the historical society in St. Lawrence county, there are bits of other information pulled from both primary and secondary sources.  While there are footnotes of a sort at the back of the text, a reader is left examining pages to see where the information might fit in, assuming that various quotes will be cited (they are by the way).  More to the point, when analyzing issues of Great Britain’s relationship to the Confederate States, Mortimer is relying on books that are upwards of 90 years old and there have been more recent studies on this question.

I was given the book about three years ago as a gift by a college roommate and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.  As interesting in some ways that Pryce Lewis and his experiences are, I wish that Mortimer had found a slightly more ‘daring’ figure to explore.

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3 Comments

Filed under Teaching and Learning History

3 responses to “There goes a big slide of snow…

  1. Pam Lai

    What is the difference between ‘Welsh’ and ‘technically Welsh’?

    • Lewis often referred to himself as an Englishman, but he was born in Wales. It’s possible he did so as Americans did not distinguish the nationalities within the United Kingdom particularly well.

      • Pam Lai

        Thanks. It could be added that many people in Britain also had difficulty distinguishing between ‘British’ and ‘English’!

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