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Thriller author Steven Berry to be keynote speaker at a benefit for The Poe House

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One by one, the sacred cows hit the ground, adroitly tipped over by the best-selling author Steve Berry in his 13th historical novel, "The Lincoln Myth."

Berry, 59, is a Florida-based former attorney and county commissioner turned author whose previous 12 books have sold more than 17 million copies in 51 countries. The sales are a tribute to the author's skill at folding his research into little-known historical puzzles inside murder mysteries starring Cotton Malone, a retired U.S. Justice Department operative turned book-seller.

Each one of Berry's books takes on at least one commonly held assumption. "The Lincoln Myth" takes on what Berry sees as at least three.

Sacred Cow No. 1: Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.

"Lincoln never freed a single slave during his presidency," Berry says. "Not one. In fact, when he was given the opportunity to free some slaves, he refused."

Sacred Cow No. 2: Seceding from the union is prohibited by the Constitution.

"The Constitution is totally silent on that point," Berry says. "The question of whether a state can leave the union is not as clear-cut as everyone thinks."

Sacred Cow No. 3: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormons) confines its activities to spiritual matters and has had little impact on American history.

In 1863, Berry says, "Abraham Lincoln and [church leader] Brigham Young made a secret deal that may have altered the course of the Civil War."

Moo.

Berry will discuss his conclusions when he comes to Baltimore on May 22 as the featured speaker at a fundraiser to benefit Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe House.

An edited conversation with The Baltimore Sun appears below.

What's the inspiration behind "The Lincoln Myth"?

I was in Salt Lake City, and I learned something that I'd never known before, that in January of 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln made a secret deal with Brigham Young.

It was a good deal for everybody. The Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862 was not enforced against the Mormons. The Mormons did not enter the Civil War on the side of the South, and they kept the railroad and telegraph lines open to the west.

You have to realize that in January of 1863, the North was getting its butt kicked in the war. Lincoln was in a panic. If he loses the west, it's done. The telegraph lines and railroad lines are running right through Utah, and Brigham Young could have cut them in five seconds.

So he made the deal.

Let's talk about the question of whether it's legal for a state to leave the union, which your book explores in depth. Are you trying to foment rebellion?

[Laughing.] I'm not advocating secession. But I like to raise awareness.

When I started writing this book, I would have told you that secession was ridiculous. Today, I think that a state does have the right to leave the union. It's a very fascinating constitutional argument that has no clear answer.

The American Revolution was really the American secession from England. We had no intentions of overthrowing the monarchy and replacing it with a democracy. What's even more fascinating is that the Declaration of Independence says very clearly that we have the right and duty to overthrow a government that we don't agree with.

The Constitution doesn't say a word about creating an indivisible union. Nor does it say that a state can't leave the union. If the founding fathers had put that in the Constitution, it would never have been ratified. In fact, three states — Rhode Island, New York and Virginia — specifically reserved the right to leave the union in their ratification votes, and no one objected.

The Supreme Court has only ruled on this issue once, in Texas v. White in 1869, when the nation had just been through the Civil War. Salmon Chase wrote the opinion, and he served in Lincoln's Cabinet. What was he going to say? "We were all wrong, secession is constitutional, the South can leave"?

That decision is a political decision, not a legal decision.

How much in your books is taken from the historic record and how much is invented?

I put a writer's note in the back so you don't think something's true when it's not. I try to keep the books about 90 percent on target, which gives me 10 percent to play with.

In this book, the 10 percent was that there was a secret document that was passed from president to president, and that Lincoln gave that document to Brigham Young as collateral.

Your chief villain is a Mormon. Are you worried that you'll get push-back from the church?

I wanted to write a book that was respectful of the religion and that wasn't degrading. This is not a book about the Mormons taking over the world. I despise that kind of stuff.

The Mormon church is a quintessential American religion. It was created here. It was nurtured here. It is American to its core. It started with nothing and now is worth many, many billions [of dollars]. It's one of the largest landowners in America and has played an integral role in American history. My book explores that role.

The Danites [a Mormon vigilante group] existed, unfortunately. Every religion has its dark side. The Danites were a reaction to the horrible abuse and violence that the Mormons had experienced. It was actually legal in the Missouri territory to kill a Mormon.

After decades of being marginalized, the Mormons seem to be all over popular culture. There's your book, "The Book of Mormon" musical, the TV series "Big Love." There's even been a Mormon presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. Do these indicate that Mormons are being accepted by mainstream America?

I think so. I always look at it this way: When they're talking about you, you're doing something right. When you become a skit on "Saturday Night Live," you've arrived.

You like historical mysteries ,and you like real-life, colorful characters. Would you ever write a mystery about Poe's final days?

I like writing about things that don't have an answer, because then I can provide whatever answer I want

The whole last year or so of Poe's life was very interesting. Whether there was any great criminal mystery, we'll never know. But it's interesting that all the records are gone. He had someone else's clothes on, for goodness' sakes. And I love that when he died, he kept repeating "Reynolds, Reynolds."

So you never know. He might slip into one of my novels some day.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Author Steve Berry will be the keynote speaker at a May 22 fundraising event for the Edgar Allan Poe House at the B&O Railroad Museum, 901 W. Pratt St. Tickets for the pre-speech reception, which begins at 5:30 p.m., cost $125. Tickets for the 7 p.m. keynote address cost $15 for adults and $5 for students. For details, go to poeinbaltimore.org

About the book

"The Lincoln Myth" will be published May 20 by Ballantine Books. 448 pages, $27.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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