Frederick Argyll Aiken, the very first city editor of The Washington Post, was a respected journalist who fought to save a young girl born in a brothel. Or he was a disreputable rogue who was no stranger to that very whorehouse. He spied for the Union during the Civil War but was probably a Confederate sympathizer. He was a drunk — unless he was a committed supporter of temperance.
In other words, we can’t really be sure about the man who in 1877 joined the fledgling staff of The Washington Post and oversaw its local reporters. One thing we do know: When he died, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
Unmarked until Thursday at 1 p.m., that is, when a group from the Surratt House Museum will dedicate a stone atop Aiken’s final resting place. Why would they care about a dead journalist? Because among the high points of Aiken’s convoluted life was this: He delivered the impassioned summation at the trial of Lincoln assassination conspirator Mary Surratt.
Aiken is a mystery — he left no heirs, no cache of private papers — but a lot of what we know is thanks to Christine Christensen, a mother of five from Tremonton, Utah, who works with her husband in his dental office. She is a big fan of James McAvoy’s, the Scottish actor who played Aiken in 2010’s “The Conspirator.”
When Christine heard that he had been cast as Aiken, she set about researching the character. “I don’t like to get my history from Hollywood,” she explained. And so in between researching her own genealogy at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Christine delved into Frederick Aiken. In March, she completed a 28-page paper on his life.
A sketch of his early years: Born in 1832 in Massachusetts. Grew up in Vermont. Attended Middlebury College. Associate editor of the Burlington Sentinel. Married toSarah Olivia Weston. A Democrat at a time when many in that party supported slavery — or at least thought its abolishment was insufficient reason to tear the country apart.
Aiken stumped for John C. Breckinridge, the Kentucky senator who ran for president then fled to the South. And yet during the war, Aiken offered his services to the North, infiltrating groups of Confederate supporters in New York City. He did occasional newspapering — he often reviewed theater and so may have known John Wilkes Booth, Christine said — and in 1864, he went into law practice in Washington with John W. Clampitt. The pair defended Mary Surratt, who, despite their efforts, died at the end of a hangman’s rope.
American newspapers were openly partisan back then. Many covered their competitors’ indiscretions with glee, and in 1868, the Washington press was full of stories about “The Contested Child Case.” Aiken had brought suit against a woman named Ellen McCall, accusing her of abducting a blue-eyed 5-year-old girl named **Cora **whom Aiken and his wife were raising as their own.
Cora was McCall’s daughter, and McCall was a prostitute. According to the National Republican, McCall met Aiken at an H Street brothel when Aiken went to her room “and became intimate with her there.”
Perhaps Cora was Aiken’s daughter (though Christine doesn’t think so). Perhaps the Aikens were just trying to rescue an innocent child. In the end, a judge ordered Cora placed in St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum, under the care of the Rev. Jacob Walter. In an odd twist, Jacob had heard Surratt’s final confession.
“It was so sad to me,” Christine said of Cora’s fate. “In the back of my mind, I wonder if it was politically motivated.”
In 1877, Stilson Hutchins hired Aiken for The Post. A year later, Aiken was dead (of “fatty degeneration of the heart”). No one is sure how he ended up in the plot of a family namedEaton.
After he died, the National Republican praised Aiken, calling him “a man of great versatility and talent, capable of a much more distinguished career than was vouchsafed to him by the various circumstances of his life, which developed the underlying Bohemianism of his character and made of him an odd combination of man-of-the-world, student, enthusiast and adventurer.”
Man-of-the-world, student, enthusiast, adventurer: Those strike me as good qualities for a journalist even today. Aiken had his flaws, but I tip my hat to this old colleague.