As I flipped through file folder upon file folder of mere death certificates and lengthy, obscure family histories, my eyes were immediately drawn in by an obituary sub-headline in one file: “LIFE A CONTINUOUS MELODRAMA.” The man behind the melodrama? Colonel William P. Wood, the rather multifaceted first chief of the Secret Service. While Wood isn’t exactly a household name, this seemingly somewhat salacious obituary, as much as I hate to admit it, pulled me in to inspect this character more than I probably would have otherwise. Another file in his folder described his life as being “the stuff of adventure books,” and it certainly wasn’t wrong. A brief run-down of his resume, according to his files, includes the following descriptors: Mexican war veteran, filibustero, ex-Catholic and Know-Nothing nativist, anti-slavery Unionist, friend of the Secretary of War, extractor of confessions of Lincoln’s assassination conspirators, first chief of the Secret Service, supposed survivor of assassination attempts, and counterfeit buster extraordinaire. Some of these titles and their descriptions in his obituaries seemed so ridiculous to me that I made it my mission to fact-check, and while some of these claims, like that he drilled men for John Brown’s raid and that he helped “hundreds” escape on the Underground Railroad, remain somewhat unsubstantiated, it’s clear that this man probably saw more action than Daniel Craig in a typical Bond movie.
Born in Alexandria, Virginia in 1820, Wood’s life reads like a condensed lesson in history from the Antebellum period through the early Gilded Age. He was still on the younger side at the onset of the Mexican War, in which he found himself in the command of the General Samuel H. Walker, Texas ranger (my unfamiliarity with the plotlines of popular Western TV shows led me to conduct a quick internet search to see if this is the same “Walker, Texas Ranger” that I’ve heard referenced before, and I was slightly dismayed that it wasn’t). Moving on from the Mexican War, Wood’s obituaries make some fascinating claims about his later semi-military adventures. Supposedly, Wood took part in William Walker’s filibuster expedition to Nicaragua in 1855. For those of you who are wondering why securing a legislative filibuster would require a vacation to Nicaragua, “filibuster,” at the time, referred to men who engaged in extralegal attempts at seizing Latin American and Caribbean territory in violation of neutrality laws. These men, their name deriving from the Spanish “filibustero” describing pirates, were almost universally acquitted by sympathetic juries despite the clearly dubious legality of their little adventures.
Filibustering expeditions were the natural result of a popular cult of Manifest Destiny; men like Walker felt that they not only had a right to enter these sovereign countries and independently wage war, but also the responsibility for the greater cause of American expansion. Filibustering was, in many respects, intimately tied to the Southern cause in the years leading up to the Civil War. Pro-slavery groups like the Knights of the Golden Circle praised extralegal expansionism as a tactic to obtain more territory below the Missouri Compromise line of 36’30.’’ They knew that Southern expansion would result in the addition of more slave states and, of course, more representation of slaveholding interests in Congress. Moreover, some historians have argued that the country’s handling of filibustering contributed to the South’s decision to secede, as a preponderance of southerners saw President Pierce’s refusal to support an expedition by Narciso Lopez as a direct attack on slave interests.
With all of these filibustering facts taken into account, Wood’s supposed participation in this expedition makes his future activities and alignment with antislavery causes somewhat baffling. Perhaps he was just going through a brief political phase or simply desired adventure, because the Evening Star obituary also claims that Wood assisted in drilling John Brown’s men in preparation for his ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, using tactical knowledge from the Mexican War. It claims that he could have possibly gone on to lead the raid, but he eventually opposed Brown’s plans, considering the scant likelihood that they would succeed. The obituary also claims he was active on the Underground Railroad at this time, helping “hundreds” escape northwards. While that number may certainly be inflated, there’s little doubt that he did participate on the Railroad, as his future endeavors in the Lincoln Administration demonstrate a clear devotion to the Unionist cause.
Walker’s civilian life in DC leading up the Civil War features some similarly interesting contradictions, and his prewar experiences helped him to forge some of the connections that were key to his later successes in government. Supposedly, Walker was squarely affiliated with the “American Parties” in the years of their strength in the 1850s – otherwise known as the parties of the “Know-Nothings.” Reportedly born a Catholic, he distanced himself from his birth religion and embraced the nativist, anti-immigrant movement. The American Parties themselves are full of contradictions and conundrums, which certainly shortened their shelf-life as a viable political movement. Know-Nothingism drew supporters from both pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions, stitching them together with the common thread of a different breed of bigotry: xenophobia and anti-Catholicism.
The American Party behaved bizarrely, to say the least, when it came to national elections; it nominated Millard Fillmore for president despite his not aligning with their views, not expressing any desire to run, and not even being in the country at the time of his nomination. While Walker’s involvement in the Know-Nothing movement may not seem too contradictory on its face due to its significant anti-slavery contingency, figures like Lincoln, his future boss, recognized the philosophical incongruences. While he never publicly called the American Parties out, Lincoln once revealed his opinions in a private letter, stating that he did not understand how one could recognize the oppression of blacks in America but still seek to oppress foreigners and Catholics.
Nevertheless, Wood found employment in the Lincoln administration during the Civil War. His friendship with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, supposedly forged in the DC legal world, led Wood to his place as superintendent of the Old Capitol prison in Washington, DC. This prison was primarily full of all kinds of Confederate conspirators, from spies to blockade runners, and there he honed the interrogation tactics that would serve him well in his future career in the Secret Service. During the Civil War, Wood engaged in several dangerous activities at his own risk, including supposedly frequently disguising himself or allowing himself to be captured behind enemy lines to visit Union prisoners of war and deliver them Confederate currency and supplies. Another obituary claimed that he would oftentimes cross the Potomac with a group of scouts and set off a hail of bullets to deter Confederate encroachment towards DC. Whether these events are exaggerated or not, it’s clear that Wood was willing to put his life on the line to serve the administration – a trait that would make him a prime candidate for leading the Secret Service.
When the Secret Service was organized under the auspices of the Treasury Department, Lincoln chose Wood to lead its charge against counterfeiters and swindlers. While in modern times the Secret Service is primarily recognized for its bodyguard duties, its role in financial crimes, still extant to this day, was much larger in the 19th century. At the helm of the Secret Service, Wood successfully put the kibosh on some of the most successful counterfeiting schemes of his day; he was responsible for stopping William Brockway, a former chemistry student with copious knowledge on how to fake government bonds. Wood is also known for having secured documents needed to break the Credit Mobilier scandal, the infamous case of railroad-related graft that spawned the creation of modern insider-trading laws. His investigative work didn’t stop with financial crimes and counterfeit operations; Wood used his interrogation skills to extract confessions from Dr. Mudd, Mary Surratt, and Lewis Payne, infamous characters in Lincoln’s assassination.
While his track record in fighting financial crime was nearly impeccable, this did not lead to his own financial success; at his death, he was essentially impoverished, locked in a feud with Congress over rewards he was owed for his law enforcement operations. Wood died on March 23, 1903, and was subsequently buried at Congressional Cemetery. His penury meant that he was stuck with a rather indistinguishable grave for a lengthy amount of time; his original grave marker simply included his last name. In 2001, members of the Secret Service banded together to ensure Wood could receive more appropriate honors for his service to the government and to the formation of the modern Secret Service. This led to a memorial ceremony, featuring the attendance of 5 former heads of the Secret Service as well as many active members, in which a newer, more distinctive headstone was dedicated.