The Great Mistake | Jonathan Lee | Granta

The Great Mistake

Jonathan Lee

The first attempt on the life of Andrew Green had occurred on Thanksgiving Day in 1873, when he was a mere fifty-three years old. He would believe, until the day of his actual death, thirty years later, that the assassination plan had been occasioned by his work with Samuel Tilden to expose the corruption of William Tweed, a member of the New York Senate who had used the full extent of his ingenuity to become the third-largest landowner in New York.

By this time Andrew had risen to the position of comptroller for the city. His task was comprehensive, yet simple: to save New York from financial ruin. You have done it with your park, the politicians begrudgingly said, so why not with the city itself? We need you. You are needed.

Need. What a powerful word when it is not framed as a command: I need you to unpack the dried beans, I need you to muck out the pigs, I need you to leave me in peace, I need you to arrange your face and not cry at your mother’s funeral.

Today his work in clearing up the catastrophe that was the city’s finances would be, regrettably, interrupted by a personal appointment. He had made a commitment to eat too much turkey this afternoon with two of his surviving sisters and their children. He cursed himself for this promise, but it was too late to break it, and he arrived at the office at 5.00 a.m. in order to ensure that the wasteful Thanksgiving meal that lay ahead of him might at least feel somewhat earned.

The only other person in the office was, it transpired, a messenger boy. This boy happened to be yet another Samuel.

Did this young Samuel not wish to spend the day with his family? Andrew asked him. Reminded the boy, whose skin was marked by a pink scar across his cheek, that a circular had been sent to all employees relieving them of the need to come in today. Apparently some people did not like to work all day and all night. Had other needs, lives, families they liked. He had been trying to be respectful of that.

The boy Samuel shrugged. He was cradling various packages in his arms. Andrew felt a rush of love, or connection, however mistaken. Another person putting labor before life.

The side table, please, Andrew said.

The boy now placed most of the packages on the side table, but he kept one box in his hands.

I wasn’t sure, sir, he said.

Sure of what?

The boy straightened. Swallowed. Mr Comptroller, he said, his voice breaking a little. I believe that this, this particular package . . . looks suspicious, Comptroller Green?

He looked in the boy’s eyes, saw confusion meeting fear.

The box in question was perhaps ten inches long and six inches wide. Two inches thick, or perhaps two and a half. It was wrapped in thick brown paper, prepaid at letter rates, and addressed by means of characters that had clearly been cut from newspaper pages.

Well, the boy was right, Andrew thought. They might as well have written bomb on the front.

The boy’s expression now clouded with doubt. Sir, what should we do?

Andrew thought for a moment. I will tell you what we must do, he said.

The boy, for a few seconds, looked extremely relieved.

We must, Andrew continued, encourage this package to brave the harsh elements of a storm-tossed sea, relying on our own firm purpose in wetting its deadliness. We must ask Divine Providence for a safe landing place – a rock of defused certainty upon which we might embark.

Sir? the boy said, shifting his weight from foot to foot. And Andrew heard himself say: Come with me, if you like.

And it was when he heard these words come from his own throat that he sensed something unpleasant lurking in himself of late. He was lonely without being able to admit he was lonely. He was melancholy without feeling he had any excuse to be melancholy. He was successful now, somehow, and he had forgotten how to enjoy success. The boy was understandably excited by the adventure at hand today. The question was why Andrew, at the far greater age of fifty-three, felt the same dumb thrill.

With caution they descended the stairs in silence, Andrew going first, carrying the box. They entered the basement of the courthouse. They found a pail. Andrew filled the pail with water, almost to the brim, a few inches left available for the process of displacement, and the boy said, Is this the . . . the proven treatment, Comptroller Green?

Proven? I have no idea.

Next he told the boy to stand back. Then he thought better of it, and sent the boy to hide in a cupboard twenty paces away.

The ridiculousness of all this! And yet wasn’t this how so many citizens died each year – in absurdity? He removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, but what exactly would this achieve? He could hear the boy Samuel breathing hard beyond the cupboard door.

So very gently, so very slowly, shutting his eyes tight like a frightened child, Andrew plunged the package into the water and waited, hands cold, his mind fixed on a remembered baptism. His pulse was slow, which meant what?

He pressed the package all the way to the bottom of the pail. He opened his eyes to see it down there, made vague by the water, remote as a long-gone event.

Time passed in slow-formed thought. Then he heard a tentative knock on the cupboard door and was awoken from his musings. An angel’s voice saying, Comptroller Green, are you alive?

Only now did he become aware of his heart beating fast. Alive, alive! It took a great effort to seem calm. The work, indeed, of a lifetime.

He said to Samuel, Come out, come out! And the boy came out.

Let us go back upstairs, he said. Let us leave the package here in the water awhile. We could have died, I suppose.




Two hours later, as he led the boy back downstairs, he had calmed himself enough to see, more fully, the utter foolishness of having handled the package in the first place. There was nothing unserious about delivering such a bomb on Thanksgiving. The sender must have known it was one of the few days of the year when he would be one of the only men lonely enough to work. In fact, perhaps the timing even suggested a conscience? A desire to spare innocent victims.

And yet he, the intended victim, Andrew Haswell Green, had not even had the decency to properly protect this young messenger boy. He had only asked him to hide in a cupboard, as if that would have helped in the event of an explosion. What an act of selfishness, really. To want to show his bravery to the boy. To be his savior. To want, for once, to not be alone in an event. And now he had accidentally succeeded in making the boy bold and loyal. Young Samuel stood at his side, refused to leave him alone.

They stared at the package together. It looked paler now than it had two hours ago, immersed as it still was in this ludicrous pail of water.

Andrew rolled up his sleeves again. Reached down into the soft water.

The package felt weak and gentle at his fingertips. Malleable, vulnerable. It made no special signs of life as he lifted it – no click, no fizz, no violent blast of color.

The boy in his nervousness had started laughing, and soon Andrew started laughing too, in his case partly from fatigue, the fatigue of spending fifteen hours staring at numbers each day, and another five at night. They stood there, laughing, as the clipped newspaper characters that spelled out ‘andrew Green’ began, of their own accord, to peel away, a whole botched identity vanishing.

The package was a wet, dripping mess in Andrew’s hands. The bells of the nearest church struck up beyond the window, but sounded sad. A strange atmosphere of disappointment descended as they fell into a fresh quiet.

He peeled the rest of the wet paper away as the boy watched. There were a dozen or so wet metallic cartridges inside. Most were upright, but three were lying on their sides, and there was a matchbox that was also wet, and several wet matches sticking out of that matchbox, and also sandpaper, coiled, soaked.

At one stage in its dry little life, this homemade bomb was probably a compact exercise in exactitude. Now some of the wildness of the world had got into it – water, air, elemental realities – and had revealed the whole thing for what it was, the product of crude engineering.

Every project, in its private making, achieves a kind of perfection, Andrew thought now. It is only when the work goes out into the public sphere that stupidity creeps into it, or emerges from where it has been hiding all along. And what does it mean when there is a person out in the world who would like to see you dead? A person who feels something so strong toward you – a passion, a true passion – but a passion to see you gone?

Who might send you such a thing, the boy said.

And Andrew dug up a little line about being the Least Popular Man in New York, competing for this title only with Samuel Tilden. One of Tweed’s men had probably sent it, he explained. It was incredible how you could plunder the public purse and still, with a foolish statement or two, hold on to people’s hearts.

On his way out of the courthouse an hour later, Andrew nodded to Mr Jones, who said, Would you like me to arrange transport, Mr Comptroller? The streetcars today are comical.

He smiled at Jones and offered a wave. Wished him a happy Thanksgiving.

And then he turned back, dug in his pocket, and removed five crisp banknotes.

Would you see that Samuel, the messenger boy upstairs, receives this for his overtime?

Jones stared at the money as if appalled. But then he nodded.

It was now far too late to visit his sisters and their children. He would eat alone instead, a cheese sandwich of thanks back at his lodgings, and then spend a few hours studying numbers in bed. There would be time enough to send apologies in the morning, an offering to alleviate his guilt.


Image, The Mall, Central Park, New York, 1870s

Jonathan Lee

Jonathan Lee is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel High Dive, Joy and Who is Mr Satoshi?. He has been shortlisted for the Edinburgh Festival First Book Award the Desmond Elliott Prize for literature, and longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award.

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