Abigail Lane: a biography

As she has appeared in two stories on this blog, here is a brief biography of Abigail Lane, Practicing Magician, Office of Occult Affairs.

Abigail Lane was born on November 18, 1851, the only daughter of an impoverished Connecticut cooper, whose wife died in childbirth. She was raised by a maiden aunt in New York, where she received a good education and became friends with many of her Roosevelt cousins. Two of those cousins would play critical roles in her life.

Abigail grew up to be a tall woman, standing five feet, eleven inches. She had dark blonde hair and gray eyes. She was neither pretty, nor slim, nor voluptuous, just a plain, sturdy-looking woman. But behind that unprepossessing appearance was a determined, intelligent, and strong-willed woman.

With the death of the aunt when she was sixteen, Abigail found she had two choices: live on as an unwanted poorer relation with her cousins, or take a poorly paid job that relied on her manual skills, not her mind. She did both, at times. She liked neither. So she sought a way out. She took jobs near colleges and libraries, read, acquired office skills, and finally found employment as a clerk, a librarian, or as an assistant to professors. These jobs did not pay much, either, but they gave her access to people with ideas. She particularly liked jobs that gave her access to large libraries. The people and books fed her mind and soul. In truth, by her mid-twenties, she often knew more than the people who employed her. But without a degree, or even a high school diploma, she had no chance of getting a better job, not that there were many for women.

Toward the end of 1881, when she was thirty years old, her life was changed when she applied for a position as clerk to a Mr. Asa Porter Heard. Heard was a scholarly magician who was moving to Washington, D.C. to work for the United States Secret Service at the start of the new year. Heard discovered Abigail’s talents as a magician, and took her on as a clerk and apprentice magician. He was so delighted with her talents that he went to his boss, Secret Service Chief James Brooks, and demanded Abigail Lane be hired as a magician by the Service. Brooks refused. There were no women in the Service, and he was not going to change that. Instead, he allowed Heard to set up a separate organization to hire magicians. And so the Office of Occult Affairs was born on May 15, 1882, with Asa Porter Heard as its first head, and Abigail Lane as its first practicing magician.

Magic and the Office of Occult Affairs became Abigail’s life. Heads of the Office would come and go, but Abigail was always there, providing the continuity and professionalism the fledgling organization needed, along with her considerable magical talents, of course. She helped develop the Office’s training programs, led fellow magicians on many an assignment, and ensured the organization ran smoothly.

Twice in her years there the Office of Occult Affairs faced destruction, and both times Abigail’s role was crucial to its survival. During the “Dark Days” of 1890, she would help rally the survivors in the wake of Head Solomon Davis’s hideous death. And in 1903, when Head Stephen Alexander Stewart tried to use the Office for corrupt political purposes, it was Abigail Lane along with Martin May who organized a circle of magicians to capture, try, and execute Stewart.

After May was assassinated shortly thereafter, Abigail was the clear leader of the Office of Occult Affairs in fact if not in name. However, Secret Service Chief John Wilkie did not believe a woman could lead or manage an organization. Only under intense pressure from President Theodore Roosevelt, who was Abigail’s cousin, did Wilkie allow Abigail to become the official leader in 1906. But he had her designated only “Acting Head,” and limited her authority. And within days of Roosevelt’s departure from the White House in 1909, Wilkie named a new Head. It was not Abigail.

To find that a man she regarded as barely competent was her successor, with full powers, while she had to return to the ranks, was too much for Abigail to bear. Although she was only fifty-seven and still healthy, she resigned and retired to the home she bought for herself in Connecticut. She could not stop being a magician, but she cut all her ties to the Office of Occult Affairs.

For more than two decades, Abigail had her way. She lived in Connecticut, occasionally traveling, but never to Washington, D.C. And she never inquired about what had happened to the Office of Occult Affairs after her departure.

Then fate, in the person of her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, brought her back. Roosevelt was President in 1934. He invited Abigail to stay as a guest at the White House. And while she was there, he asked her to investigate conditions at the Office of Occult Affairs. It was during her investigation that Abigail made her last and possibly best friend, the tall albino magician Sylvia Reynolds Thompson. The two would stay in constant touch with each other right up to Abigail’s death on February 8, 1938. She was eighty-six when she died. Several magicians from the Office of Occult Affairs attended her funeral to honor her critical role in the development of the organization. And Sylvia Thompson served as one of her pallbearers.

Abigail appears in The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge: A Tale of Magic in the Gilded Age and Nightfeather: Ghosts.

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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11 Responses to Abigail Lane: a biography

  1. E. J. Barnes says:

    “To find that a man she regarded as barely competent Was her successor…”

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Ah, I’d meant to write it either without the “that” but as “as,” or with the “that” and as “was,” but managed to do a bad mix of both. Corrected, thank you!

  2. crimsonprose says:

    As ever succinct and informative. I like your style in these . . . might we call them vignettes. And now I know something of past positions, I can see whence the training. (I’m still trying, unsuccessfully, to emulate – and, yea, I know, my burbling flow of words is what makes me a writer)

    • Brian Bixby says:

      To get an idea of how I compressed this, note that this vignette had four sources:
      1) The unpublished informal history of the Office, of which a snippet appeared in https://sillyverse.com/2012/10/26/dragon-lady-chapter-9-and-the-secret-service/
      2) The unpublished list of the heads of the Office
      3) The account of Abigail in DLS
      https://sillyverse.com/the-dragon-lady-of-stockbridge/dls-ch-9/
      and 4) An unpublished lead-in to an incomplete story about Abigail’s brief return to the Office in 1934.

      I had to select and rearrange from all four, with the point in mind that the result should give prominence to what is important to the readers of this blog. In other words, Abigail’s history had to be anchored on her place in the Office at the time of DLS, and mention how she encountered Valerie Thompson’s mother. And it was quite the cut-and-paste job to begin with, since, for example, only (4) contained her birth and death dates and a description of her early years, and (2) contains the only mention of the events of 1903, and even it only alludes to what happened in 1890.

      • crimsonprose says:

        I think my problem comes in keeping to the ‘what’s important to the reader’; I can define it – at planning stage – but in the writing process it’s: ‘oh, that needs saying’, and ‘I need to just include that’ and . . . wool gathering, and thus long excursions into only semi-relevant material. Yet I’ve seen it as relevant – it’s just not essential to the end-answer, I suppose. I take the blue pencil with intent to be savage – then argue myself out of the cuts. Perhaps this is just my style. It’s not ‘just any old stuffing’ , it’s all supporting material. It completes the picture. Yes, that’s what it does. Now I’m trying to think of an artist who loaded his paintings with supporting features. How about Bruegel?

        • Brian Bixby says:

          I can’t always say I cut well, either. This reminds me of an incident back when I was a history grad student. We have the students fill out review sheets at the end of the semester. One time just after the semester ended, the department chair cornered me, and told me she was amused to read that, according to one of my students, I digress constantly. “And the digressions are all about history!”

          • crimsonprose says:

            That is a sign of someone truly inspired by the subject. I had a history teacher – Welsh rugby player, but we can’t hold that against him – and his love of the subject so bubbled up and overflowed that his sessions seldom ended on time. Those with no interest in history would start to heckle him, but not me. No coincidence he taught medieval history.

            • Brian Bixby says:

              There’s an old joke that the nickname for high school history teachers in the U.S. is “Coach,” but I will definitely not hold it against any coach/history teacher who loves his subject and can get students excited by it. 🙂

  3. danagpeleg1 says:

    Are you absolutly positive there was no connection whatsoever between Abigail Lane and Silly?

  4. danagpeleg1 says:

    I sure will! I knew you were brewing something…

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