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Family Stories

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February 15, 2012

For years, Pamela Humphreys had heard about her family's Lincoln connection. Finally, she decided to check it out for herself.

What she found surpassed her wildest imagination.

"The more I looked into it the more interesting facts I found," said the West Bridgewater resident, who is an administrative assistant in the Department of Movement Arts, Health Promotion and Leisure Studies.

It turns out her great-great-grandfather, Daniel Henry Lawrence Gleason, was not only a Civil War hero, but had to give a deposition in conjunction with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. What Ms. Humphreys uncovered and documented in her three years of research was ultimately published as an article in The Lincoln Herald, a quarterly publication that is usually the domain of scholars specializing in the nation's 16th president.

The research took Ms. Humphreys to libraries and universities, as well as town halls and cemeteries around the commonwealth. However, much of the information came down to her from her uncle, Larry Brewer.

Ms. Humphreys findings show that her great-great-grandfather was born in New Hampshire in 1841, but moved to Holden as he was entering his teens. He left home at age 15, marking the beginning of a life that was as accomplished as it was eventful, taking him from the battlefront to the annals of history.

Gleason was wounded three times in the Civil War, and after being discharged due to his wounds, in 1865 he went to work in Washington at the War Department.

It was around this time that Ms. Humphreys' research gets particularly interesting. Through her uncle, she learned that her great-great-grandfather was approached by a coworker, Louis Weichmann, who told him of his suspicions about certain meetings being held at the Surratt boarding house where Weichmann lived. The meetings were to discuss the plot to either kidnap or assassinate Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth, the eventual assassin, was in attendance at the meetings, and soon the plans turned from kidnapping to murder.

The rest, as they say, is history.

What her great-great-grandfather knew and who he told it to is part of the great debate among Lincoln scholars. He claimed to have told Secretary of War Edwin Stanton about what he'd heard from Weichmann. Ms. Humphreys' interviews and research indicate that indeed her ancestor's information may have prevented an earlier attempt on the president's life. After the assassination was successfully carried off on April 14, 1865, followed by the president's death the next morning, according to family lore, Stanton put pressure on Gleason not to reveal that Stanton had been informed about plots against the president prior to that point.

Official history tells us that Gleason was never called to testify on the matter, only depositioned, and that it is unclear exactly what Weichmann told Gleason nor what he'd done with any information he might have been passed.

Still, it's a crackling good yarn and the type of family lore that few can boast of.

"When I found out that he was part of all this I was amazed," Ms. Humphreys said. "I was so excited, I called my uncle almost every night and said guess what I found today?'"

As part of her research, Ms. Humphreys traveled to Natick with her mother, Shirley, where she found her great-great-grandfather's house and grave. That was three years ago. Her mother is ill now and that time together, seeking the roots of their family, is a priceless memory.

"It was wonderful that we had that time together," Ms. Humphreys said.

Her uncle did not live long enough to see the summer 2011 issue of The Lincoln Herald, which contains the story of the family's famous ancestor, the story he helped Ms. Humphreys piece together. He died last summer at age 94.

"Somehow I know he knows the story is out there," she said.

There are other famous connections in the family background that Ms. Humphreys is eager to dig in to next. In the meantime, she's proud of the work she's done thus far.

And rightly so: The Herald editors, in an introduction to her article, credit Ms. Humphreys with filling in the details of Gleason's life, from his service during the Civil War and his friendship with the son of the poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, to his bit part in what would become the death of the Great Emancipator.

"The work& stands as a model for other historians," the editors wrote of her historical sleuthing. It sheds light into the still-murky corners of our past and turns the once obscure players into "more fully developed historical figures." (Story by John Winters, G '11; photo by Doris Galli, Office of University Advancement)

Pamela Humphreys

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