Special Report

The Unsuccessful Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

On the eve of his first inauguration, President Lincoln snuck into Washington at night, evading the would-be assassins who waited for him in Baltimore

Lincoln sat at the back of the train in disguise to escape his assassins. (Edward Kinsella III)
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Once aboard that night, Warne flagged down a conductor and pressed some money into his hand. She needed a special favor, she said, because she would be traveling with her “invalid brother,” who would retire immediately to his compartment and remain there behind closed blinds. A group of spaces, she implored, must be held at the back of the train, to ensure his comfort and privacy. The conductor, seeing the concern in the young woman’s face, nodded his head and took up a position at the rear door of the train, to fend off any arriving passengers.


In Harrisburg, arrangements were carried out by a late addition to Pinkerton’s network: George C. Franciscus, a superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Pinkerton had confided in Franciscus the previous day, since the last-minute revision of his plan required Lincoln to make the first leg of his journey on Franciscus’ line. “I had no hesitation in telling him what I desired,” Pinkerton reported, because he had worked with Franciscus previously and knew him to be “a true and loyal man.”

A Pennsylvania Railroad fireman, Daniel Garman, later recalled that Franciscus came hurrying up to him, “very much excited,” with orders to get a special train charged and ready. “I quick went and oiled up the engine and lighted the head light and turned up my fire,” Garman recalled. As he finished, he looked out to see engineer Edward Black running along the track at full speed, having been ordered by Franciscus to report for emergency duty. Black hopped up into the cab and scrambled to make ready, apparently under the impression that a private train was needed to carry a group of railroad executives to Philadelphia. They ran the two-car special a mile south toward Front Street, as instructed, and idled at a track crossing to wait for their passengers.

Franciscus, meanwhile, had circled back to the Jones House in a carriage, pulling up just as Governor Curtin, Lamon and Lincoln himself—his appearance masked by his unfamiliar hat and shawl—emerged from the side entrance of the hotel. As the door closed behind the passengers, Franciscus flicked his whip and started off in the direction of the railroad tracks.

At the Front Street crossing, Black and Garman looked on as a tall figure, escorted by Franciscus, quietly alighted from a carriage and made his way down the tracks to the saloon car. Lincoln’s 250-mile dash to Washington was underway.

Even as the train vanished into the darkness, a lineman directed by Pinkerton was climbing a wooden utility pole two miles south of town, cutting off telegraph communication between Harrisburg and Baltimore. Governor Curtin, meanwhile, returned to the Executive Mansion and spent the evening turning away callers, so as to give the impression that Lincoln was resting inside.

On board the train, Black and Garman were making the best time of their lives. All trains had been shunted off the main line to allow the special an unimpeded run.

In the passenger coach, Lincoln and his fellow travelers sat in the dark, so as to reduce the chance that the president-elect would be spotted during watering stops. The precaution wasn’t entirely successful. At one of the stops, as Garman bent to connect a hose pipe, he caught sight of Lincoln in the moonlight streaming through the door of the coach. He ran forward to tell Black that “the rail-splitter was on the train,” only to be muzzled by Franciscus, who warned him not to say a word. “You bet I kept quiet then,” Garman recalled. Climbing into the cab alongside Black, Garman could not entirely contain his excitement. He cautiously asked his colleague if he had any idea what was going on in the saloon car. “I don’t know,” the engineer replied, “but just keep the engine hot.” By that time, Black may have had his own suspicions. “I have often wondered what people thought of that short train whizzing through the night,” Black would later say. “A case of life and death, perhaps, and so it was.”

In Philadelphia, Pinkerton readied himself for the next phase of the operation. At the Pennsylvania Railroad’s West Philadelphia depot, Pinkerton left a closed carriage waiting at the curb. He was joined by H.F. Kenney, another of Felton’s employees. Kenney reported that he had just come from the PW&B depot across town, where he had issued orders to hold the Baltimore-bound train for Felton’s “important parcel.”


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