Albert Camus

Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

Monday, March 6, 2023

what historians never discovered... Path of Peril by Marlie Parker Wasserman

“A feast of characters, scenery and history, Wasserman sets the table for a tremendous read. Path of Peril is a privileged walk with TR, his wife, his staff and dozens of characters struggling to create one of the “greatest engineering feats of the century.” - Chris Keefer, author of No Comfort for the Undertaker, a Carrie Lisbon Mystery


Published: January 2023

Would the assassins plotting to kill Theodore Roosevelt on his visit to the Panama Canal succeed?

Until this trip, no president while in office had ever traveled abroad. White House secretary Maurice Latta, thrilled to accompany the President, could not anticipate the adventures and dangers ahead. Latta befriends watchful secret service agents, ambitious journalists, and anxious First Lady Edith Roosevelt on their hot and humid trip, where he observes a country teeming with inequalities and abounding in opportunities. Along the way he learns about his own strengths—what he never imagined he could do, and what he discovers he can’t do.

Theodore Roosevelt did visit Panama in 1906, accompanied by White House staffer Maurice Latta. Interweaving the stories of real-life characters with fictional ones, Path of Peril imagines what the newspapers feared to report and what historians never discovered about Roosevelt’s risky trip.

Treachery Abroad

No one pays much attention today when a president visits troops overseas or attends a summit meeting in Europe. But a foreign presidential trip was gigantic news in 1906, when Teddy Roosevelt sailed to Panama—the first time a president, while in office, ever left U.S. soil. Americans thought he was inviting danger.

If George Washington had wanted to visit France, he could have spent three months just on the sea voyage. If Abraham Lincoln wanted to visit London, he could have been away for a month. Early presidents were deterred from international travel by more than time out of the office. How would they stay in touch? Communications were non-existent until the first transatlantic telegram in 1858 when Queen Victoria sent a cable to President James Buchanan. That cable took sixteen hours to reach Washington.

By 1906, travel by ship had picked up speed and telegraph technology had improved. Teddy Theodore Roosevelt, eager to check on the progress of the American effort to dig the Panama Canal, planned a visit. He would be gone a mere seventeen days, and his battleship, the SS Louisiana, would be outfitted with the best telegraph apparatus and operators available.

Behind the scenes in Panama, TR’s security detail worried about more than the length of the voyage or the speed of cables. 1906 was in an era of anarchist attacks against leaders. Just five years before, in Buffalo, anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley. In Europe, assassins killed French President Carnot, Spanish Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and King Umberto of Italy. Secret service agents and police were on their guard. Today, only Americans old enough to remember Richard Nixon’s trip to Caracas, Venezuela might the anticipate potential danger of a trip abroad. In 1958, Richard Nixon, while still vice president, traveled to Caracas where a mob stoned and rocked his car. You can watch the frightening video on YouTube. Americans are more likely to remember the most famous speech from a presidential trip abroad—Regan’s “Tear Down this Wall” speech in Berlin—than Nixon’s rocking limousine.

In my novelist’s imagination, the very first presidential trip outside the United States was rife with hidden dangers. According to the historical record, the trip began placidly, with Teddy Roosevelt and his entourage climbing into open air train cars to travel the rails from Colon to Panama City. Here is one of the best pictures available, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While Teddy toured construction sites, looking happy and relaxed, the local police checked every ship arriving in Panama’s ports for potential assassins, using ethnic profiling (targeting passengers they thought looked Italian). Once they cleared one suspect, they turned their attention to another. This fishing expedition proved challenging because Panama in 1906 served as a magnet for workers from around the world—White engineers from the States, Black laborers from Barbados and Jamaica, skilled laborers from Spain and Greece, assorted salesmen pitching equipment and supplies, as well as men and women who had been disgraced in their own countries and were seeking a new start. Hundreds of newcomers disembarked every day.

Historical archives record no serious threats to TR’s life, but I imagine threats that TR chose to ignore. I follow the practice of most historical novelists in portraying events. We stay with the facts, and when we can’t find facts, we create events that are plausible within the known historical context. In my novel, TR’s trip ends after a terrifying assassination plot in the new Tivoli Hotel near Panama City. Here is a picture of the elegant hotel, again courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Readers with even a modest knowledge of U.S. history know that Teddy Roosevelt was not assassinated. As I wrote this novel, a novel where the end was known, I was inspired by Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. All readers of that memorable thriller know that the Jackal failed to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Most of my own readers know TR lived until 1919. Even though the assassins plotting to kill him would not succeed, I want my readers to experience the plausible dangers surrounding an international trip, while they learn about the history of presidential travel, the history of anarchism, and history of the Canal. 

About the author:
Marlie Parker Wasserman continues to write historical crime fiction. Her first book, The Murderess Must Die, was published in 2021. After spending many years in New Jersey, she now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and the Historical Novel Society.
Author's Giveaway

1 comment:

Wall-to-wall books said...

Great guest post, very interesting. I love American history!