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Today we take a trip back in time to 1906 in Path of Peril by Marlie Parker Wasserman. Theodore Roosevelt is president and the Panama Canal is being built. In our excerpt we hear an account from Maurice Latta, years afterward.
About Path of Peril
Would the assassins plotting to kill Theodore Roosevelt on his visit to the Panama Canal succeed? Until this trip, no president while in office had ever traveled abroad. White House secretary Maurice Latta, thrilled to accompany the President, could never have anticipated the adventures and dangers ahead. Latta befriends watchful secret service agents, ambitious journalists, and anxious First Lady Edith Roosevelt on their hot and humid trip, where he observes a country teeming with inequalities and abounding in opportunities. Along the way he learns about his own strengths—what he never imagined he could do, and what he discovers he can’t do.
Theodore Roosevelt did visit Panama in 1906, accompanied by White House staffer Maurice Latta. Path of Peril imagines what the newspapers feared to report and what historians never discovered about Roosevelt’s risky trip.
Sunday, January 19, 1947
For forty-one years I honored my oath to President Theodore Roosevelt and his bodyguard to conceal the events of November 15th and November 17th, 1906. On each of those days I agreed to a conspiracy of silence. Last year, that bodyguard died, and TR is long dead. Before I follow them to the grave, I will disclose the perils we faced during the President’s historic trip to Panama, to clarify the record and to unburden myself.
My tale begins in the White House clerk’s office, where I served as a stenographer during the McKinley administration and where I serve now, with a higher title, fifty years later. At first, I felt no connection with the other fifteen fellows in the clerk’s office. I suppose I looked the part, with my regular features and unremarkable bearing. If my appearance fit in, my background did not. Most men working for the President, even at the turn of the century, were college boys. Some had taken the grand tour of Europe. A few had gone to universities in New England. Three, fancying themselves adventurers, had traveled to the West with President Roosevelt, that is, President Theodore Roosevelt. Two of the older gentlemen had been heroes in battles in the South during the Civil War. Most of the White House office workers had nothing to prove, to the President or to themselves.
I followed a different path to Washington. After an unmemorable youth on a Pennsylvania farm, I moved to Oklahoma, where I took my first job as a junior clerk. I filled in paperwork for the more memorable 1893 land rush. Over time my responsibilities and the commands of the head clerk grew distasteful. A friend back in Pennsylvania recommended me for a position as a clerk for a state senator in Harrisburg. I worked for that state senator for one year and two months. Forgive the precision—I like to be accurate with details. Then the legislator was elected to Congress and took me to Washington. Three years later, almost to the day, word spread across town that President William McKinley’s office needed a stenographer. By that time I had married Clara Hays Bullen and had two sons. I aimed to improve my lowly position and my meager salary.
I moved down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. My official duties, those that were known, started on August 8, 1898. Three years and one month after I started, all hell broke loose in the office. Of course I wouldn’t have used such language then. Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, assassinated President McKinley. Like other Americans, I felt sorrowful. I had seen McKinley pass down the hall daily, but I had never been introduced to him and he never spoke to me.
My clerk’s job continued. Theodore Roosevelt became President. Little changed in the routines of our office, except now the President knew me by my first and last name. Maurice Latta. To be precise, Maurice Cooper Latta.
When the President’s Secretary, William Loeb, promoted me from Stenographic Clerk to Assistant Secretary on June 4, 1906, I hoped I might have the opportunity to travel, at least up and down the East Coast. Two months later, I heard rumors that TR wanted to assess progress on his canal. Oh, let me interrupt myself for a moment. While conducting my official capacities, I called the President President Roosevelt. Informally I called him TR. By the way, he was the first president to be known by his initials. And some called him Teddy, though I never did so. I am told his relatives called him Teedie. You will hear all these names in my tale.
This trip would be the first time a president, while in office, had ever left the United States. Many Americans thought a president should not travel to foreign soil. That seems odd to us now, after Versailles and Yalta. But in 1906 most Americans didn’t give much thought to the rest of the world, not until TR changed that.
I assumed Secretary Loeb, always interested in the press, would accompany the President to the canal. Mr. Loeb would want to shape the stories in the dailies and weeklies. Reporters called him Stonewall Loeb because of the way he controlled their access to the President. To my shock, Mr. Loeb asked me to go in his place.
Today, even after working in the executive offices of nine administrations, now for President Truman (no, I never call him Give ‘Em Hell Harry), and managing a staff of 204 clerks, my title, a rather misleading title, is only Executive Clerk. I am proud, though, that the New York Times has acknowledged my worth. Four years ago, in a Christmas day article my family framed, the reporter wrote, “The actual ‘assistant president’. . . is an official who has been in the White House since 1898 and knows more about its procedure than anyone else. He is Maurice C. Latta, now seventy-four and known as ‘Judge’ Latta to the White House staff.” In truth I know more about what is happening, and what did happen, than most of the presidents I served. That statement is for this memoir only.
I won’t dwell on my years in the White House after Panama, but rather on four days in 1906, in and around the Canal Zone. For the public, I want to add to the historical record, which is silent on certain momentous events. For me and my family, I want to remember the turning point, when I came to realize both my limitations and my strengths. I am writing the tale of what I know, what I saw myself. If you wish, you can fill in gaps with stories you gather from the others present that November, the stories I couldn’t see.
This is a fascinating trip back in time to a plot to kill Theodore Roosevelt. With a myriad of characters and events, the mystery unfolds as to whether the assassination plot will succeed. The sections on the Panama Canal construction were eye-opening. This is a historical mystery with delights for both the mystery lover and the history buff.
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About the Author
Marlie Parker Wasserman writes historical crime fiction, after a career on the other side of the desk in publishing. In addition to Path of Peril, she is the author of The Murderess Must Die (2021) and the forthcoming Inferno on Fifth (2024). Marlie lives with her husband in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Triangle Chapter of Sisters in Crime.
Twitter @Marlie Wasserman