By Dan Stashower
“This trip of ours has been very laborious and exciting,” the young poet wrote to a friend back home in Illinois. “I have had no time to think calmly since we left Springﬁeld. There is one reason why I write tonight. Tomorrow we enter slave territory. Saturday evening, according to our arrangements, we will be in Washington. There may be trouble in Baltimore. If so, we will not go to Washington, unless in long, narrow boxes. The telegram will inform you of the result, long before this letter reaches you.”
Twenty-two -year- old John Milton Hay had ample cause for worry as he set down these words in February 1861. He had signed on as a personal secretary to Abraham Lincoln just a few days earlier, on the eve of Lincoln’s inauguration as president of the United States.
For several weeks, Lincoln had faced a mounting threat of assassination on his journey to the capital, culminating in a “clear and well-considered” murder plot to be carried out at a whistle-stop appearance in Baltimore. Over a period of thirteen days, as the president- elect traveled by train from Springﬁeld to Washington, a makeshift, self-appointed security detail raced to uncover hard evidence of the looming peril, in the hope of persuading Lincoln to adopt “necessary and urgent measures” before placing himself in harm’s way.
Leading the eﬀort was the detective Allan Pinkerton, whose fame as a ﬁerce and incorruptible lawman was sweeping through America’s cities and out to the expanding edges of the frontier. Pinkerton and his agents were becoming legendary for their relentless, single-minded pursuit of lawbreakers, whose photographs were cataloged in a famous “rogue’s gallery” at their Chicago headquarters. The dramatic Pinkerton logo—with the motto We Never Sleep coiled beneath the image of a stern, unblinking eye—became a potent emblem of vigilance, bringing the term private eye into the American lexicon.
In Baltimore, however, Pinkerton would be tested as never before. The detective had built his success on a slow, methodical style of investigation—“Our operations are necessarily tedious,” he once declared—but the rapidly evolving situation in Baltimore required speed, improvisation, and no small measure of luck. Pinkerton, who had gone to the city to investigate a vague threat against railroad property and equipment, had not expected to uncover an assassination conspiracy. “From my reports you will see how accidentally I discovered the plot,” he later admitted. “I was looking for nothing of the kind, and had certainly not the slightest idea of it.” Once on the scent, however, he pursued it with feverish energy, and he soon became convinced that dramatic measures would be needed to spare the president-elect’s life. By this time, however, the train had already left the station, in every sense of the phrase, as Lincoln made his slow, inexorable progress toward the capital, determined to make a public display of openness and goodwill in the days leading up to his inaugural. Pinkerton now found himself contending not only with the conspirators but also with the intractability of Lincoln and his advisers, who were reluctant to alter their careful plans—and invite public scorn—on the basis of vapory rumors. “All imagination,” Lincoln declared at one stage. “What does anyone want to harm me for?”
The stakes were enormous. “Had Mr. Lincoln fallen at that time,” wrote Pinkerton, “it is frightful to think what the consequences might have been.” Lincoln’s election three months earlier had thrown the country into crisis. By the time he set oﬀ for Washington, seven states had seceded from the Union. Lincoln hoped to “soothe the public mind” on his two-thousand- mile inaugural train journey, giving over a hundred speeches, in which he would oﬀer calming words to the North and extend a hand of reconciliation to the South. Over half a million people ﬂocked to see him at railroad depots and trackside watering stops, all of them anxious for a sign that the country would be safe in his hands. “The gradual disruption of the Union that dark winter lay like an agony of personal bereavement,” wrote one well- wisher. “I longed to read in the face of our leader the indications of wisdom and strength that would compel the people to anchor in him and feel safe.” As the train rolled east, however, the warnings of danger grew more insistent. Newspapers throughout the South reported that a large cash bounty was on oﬀer to “whomsoever” managed to assassinate Lincoln before he took oﬃce. There was also a real possibility that the state of Maryland, where Lincoln’s train would cross below the Mason-Dixon line for the ﬁrst time, would secede from the Union before he reached the border. If so, Washington would be entirely cut oﬀ from the North. As Maryland
went, many believed, so went the nation.
In Baltimore, Pinkerton and his detectives were doggedly piecing together details of a “murderous compact” to be carried out at one of the city’s train stations. “It had been fully determined that the assassination should take place at the Calvert Street depot,” Pinkerton wrote. “When the train entered the depot, and Mr. Lincoln attempted to pass through the narrow passage leading to the streets, a party already delegated were to engage in a conﬂict on the outside, and then the policemen were to rush away to quell the disturbance. At this moment—the police being entirely withdrawn—Mr. Lincoln would ﬁnd himself surrounded by a dense, excited and hostile crowd, all hustling and jamming against him, and then the fatal blow was to be struck.” As the detective would explain to William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner turned biographer, the plot had been audaciously simple and eﬃcient. “Excuse me for endeavoring to impress the plan upon you,” he wrote. “It was a capital one, and much better conceived than the one which ﬁnally succeeded four years after in destroying Mr. Lincoln’s life.”
Others believed that an attack would be launched while Lincoln was still aboard his train, and that police and city oﬃcials were colluding in the plot. “Statesmen laid the plan, bankers endorsed it, and adventurers were to carry it into eﬀect,” ran an account in the New York Times. “[T]he idea was, if possible, to throw the cars from the road at some point where they would rush down a steep embankment and destroy in a moment the lives of all on board. In case of the failure of this project, their plan was to surround the carriage on the way from depot to depot in Baltimore, and assassinate him with dagger or pistol shot.”
With time running out, Pinkerton hatched a desperate, perhaps fool- hardy plan: He would abandon the relative security of Lincoln’s small cadre of escorts in favor of a surprise maneuver, catching the plotters unawares. The risks were enormous, as the detective readily admitted. If exposed by a careless word or intercepted message, the president-elect would be left almost entirely unprotected. In Pinkerton’s view, however, this perilous feint oﬀered the only chance that Lincoln would survive to become presi- dent. As the president-elect’s train neared the “seat of danger,” the only remaining diﬃculty was to convince Lincoln himself.
DANIEL STASHOWER is an acclaimed biographer and narrative historian and winner of the Edgar, Agatha, and Anthony awards, and the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in Detective Fiction. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, AARP: The Magazine, and National Geographic Traveler as well as other publications. His most recent book is Hour of Peril. (Link: http://us.macmillan.com/thehourofperil/DanielStashower)