May 10, 2013 9:37:38 AM
We are used to Secret Service men preparing the way for a presidential trip, and for worry and groundwork being done to make sure all is safe beforehand. We know all too well that assassins may be lurking. It was no sure thing in Lincoln's time; he himself tended to scoff at the idea that anyone might be gunning for him. He fell to an assassin's bullet, but he might have been murdered even before he took office. The plot of John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators has meant that a previous plot is nearly forgotten, but in The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War (Minotaur Books), historian Daniel Stashower gives an account of plot and counterplot that would, if things had not turned out the way they did, have changed the nation forever. Although self-interested parties at the time tried to play down even the existence of a plot, Stashower presents a strong case that wise precautions kept a disaster from happening. He takes us on the rails as Lincoln traveled from Springfield to Washington, into the city halls, hotel suites, and ladies' parlors on the route, and into brothels and taverns, and into the offices of the detectives as they tried to assess the threat and counter it. We know how it turns out, but this is still an exciting tale.
The book is mostly the story of Allan Pinkerton, America's first professional detective. He had been a barrel-maker when he immigrated from Scotland. He was asked to help catch counterfeiters passing bad bills in Dundee, Illinois, in 1847. It was to be the turning point in his life. He set up the Pinkerton's National Detective Agency in Chicago, and adopted the logo of an unblinking eye and the motto "We never sleep." He might have been prickly and self-important, but he was also daring and incorruptible. He felt that ends justify means, if the ends are for justice. For all his support of the law, he was a champion of abolition and worked with John Brown and the underground railroad, which put him in violation of state and federal laws. He was careful to pick good men for his organization, but good women, too. Some of the story here has to do with Mrs. Kate Warne, a young widow who came into his office seeking employment; Pinkerton was surprised to learn, after telling her that there were no secretarial positions open, that she wanted to be a detective. The idea was completely novel, but Pinkerton heard her out. She became an invaluable asset, the first female professional detective in America. She plays important roles in the effort against the assassination plot.
Pinkerton had a reputation for his work on railway security, and was hired by Samuel Fulton, president of a rail line link between Washington and points north. Fulton had heard rumors that Lincoln's railroad trip might bring sabotage to rails or bridges, and he asked Pinkerton to investigate the threats. Thus Pinkerton's force was hunting around Baltimore when they learned about a plot by Southern sympathizers not against the railway but against the president-elect himself. Baltimore was as far into secessionist territory as Lincoln was going to go on his tour into Washington, and had a mayor and police chief sympathetic to the Southern cause. At Baltimore, Lincoln and his party would have to disembark from one station, cross the city, and embark at another to get to Washington, a complicated transfer that would leave them vulnerable. The threat had to be taken seriously. Lincoln had been the recipient of vehement hate mail and threats. "We are going to put a spider in your dumpling and play the Devil with you," said one of the stranger and milder threats; others promised flaying, hanging, burning, and decapitation.
Central to the Baltimore plot against Lincoln was an Italian immigrant and barber, Cypriano Ferrandini, who Pinkerton's agents heard swear, "If I alone must do it, I shall. Lincoln shall die in this city." He was not planning to do it alone; the mysterious army of Southern sympathizers of which he was a part intended to distract police by their numbers during the change of trains and kill Lincoln in the melee. Stashower gives as many facts as he can about the murky plot, but it remains largely mysterious. Neither Ferrandini nor anyone else was afterwards arrested for any of their plans, but that may have been only because the plans were thwarted by Pinkerton's actions. He was able to convince the aides surrounding Lincoln and Lincoln himself that something needed to be done.
Lincoln was reluctant to change the schedule. Like the other stops on the train trip to Washington, Baltimore was to be a hub where he could be seen and heard, reaching out to his constituents as he was about to take on the presidency. Baltimore, however, had especial importance. Maryland was a border state that Lincoln needed for the preservation of the Union, and he did not want to alienate it. Nonetheless, Pinkerton's were not the only investigators that were worried about a threat from Baltimore's underground, and Lincoln eventually assented to bypass the planned public events. In accordance with Pinkerton's plans, Lincoln was quietly escorted through the city at night, earlier than the conspirators would have expected. He probably had a subdued outfit on, but the first dispatch described him as wearing "a Scotch plaid cap and a very long military cloak," a description that may not have been true but was seized upon by editorial writers and cartoonists. It was easy to portray Lincoln as a cringing coward, but he never seems to have thought himself threatened by anyone, and even during the tense transfer in Baltimore, Pinkerton said he "remained quietly in his berth, joking with rare good humor."
The conspirators were disappointed that they had not had more of a chance for action, but they felt they had had good effect. One said, "It is a good thing that Lincoln passed through here as he did, because it will change the feeling of the Union men. They will think him a coward and it will help our cause." Indeed, Lincoln was embarrassed about this prelude to his administration, and was happy to get to Washington and put it behind him. What exactly would have happened if he had made his scheduled transfer and public appearances in Baltimore will never be known; it is significant that others, like the New York police superintendent, came forward years later after Lincoln's death and tried to take some of Pinkerton's credit for stopping the earlier attempt. Stashower's account is convincing that there was a high risk to Lincoln, and his story builds in tension as the train journey from Springfield continues. Pinkerton could do nothing for Lincoln when the actual assassination happened four years later, but perhaps it was only his efforts in Baltimore that got us Lincoln's leadership for our nation during its time of great divide.
5. A Stone's Throw: The veil COLUMNS