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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Seizing his opportunity, the detective pulled out his wallet and counted out $25 with a dramatic flourish. “I am but a stranger to you,” Pinkerton said, avowing his own secessionist fervor, “but that I have no doubt that money is necessary for the success of this patriotic cause.” Pressing the bills into Luckett’s hand, Pinkerton asked that the donation be used “in the best manner possible for Southern rights.” Shrewdly, Pinkerton offered a piece of advice along with his largesse, warning his new friend to be “cautious in talking with outsiders.” One never knew, Pinkerton said, when Northern agents might be listening.

The ploy worked. Luckett took the warning—along with the money—as proof of Pinkerton’s trustworthy nature. He told the detective that only a small handful of men, members of a cabal sworn to the strictest oaths of silence, knew the full extent of the plans being laid. Perhaps, Luckett said, Pinkerton might like to meet the “leading man” of the secret organization, a “true friend of the South” ready to give his life for the cause. His name was Capt. Cypriano Ferrandini.

The name was familiar to Pinkerton, as that of the barber who plied his trade in the basement of Barnum’s. An immigrant from Corsica, Ferrandini was a dark, wiry man with a chevron mustache. A day or so earlier, Hillard had brought Davies around to the barbershop, but Ferrandini had not been there to receive them.

Ferrandini was said to be an admirer of the Italian revolutionary Felice Orsini, a leader of the secret brotherhood known as the Carbonari. In Baltimore, Pinkerton believed, Ferrandini was channeling the inspiration he drew from Orsini into the Southern cause. Whether Ferrandini and a rabidly secessionist young actor known to frequent Barnum’s—John Wilkes Booth—met there remains a matter of conjecture, but it is entirely possible that the two crossed paths.

“Mr. Luckett said that he was not going home this evening,” Pinkerton reported, “and if I would meet him at Barr’s Saloon on South Street, he would introduce me to Ferrandini.”

Captain Ferrandini, he said, “had a plan fixed to prevent Lincoln from passing through Baltimore.” He would see to it that Lincoln would never reach Washington, and never become president. “Every Southern Rights man has confidence in Ferrandini,” Luckett declared. “Before Lincoln should pass through Baltimore, Ferrandini would kill him.” Smiling broadly, Luckett gave a crisp salute and left the room, leaving a stunned Pinkerton staring after him.

Pinkerton had come to Baltimore to protect Samuel Felton’s railroad. With Lincoln’s train already underway, he found himself forced to consider the possibility that Lincoln himself was the target.

Now it was clear to Pinkerton that a warning must be sent to Lincoln. Years before, during his early days in Chicago, Pinkerton had often encountered Norman Judd, the former Illinois state senator who had been instrumental in Lincoln’s election. Judd, Pinkerton knew, was now aboard the special train as a member of the president-elect’s “suite.” The detective reached for a telegraph form. Addressing his dispatch to Judd, “in company with Abraham Lincoln,” Pinkerton fired off a terse communiqué: I have a message of importance for you. Where can it reach you by special Messenger.—Allan Pinkerton

On the night of February 12, Pinkerton stepped around the corner from his office to Barr’s Saloon to keep his appointment with Luckett. Entering the bar, he called out to Luckett, who came forward to present him to Ferrandini. “Luckett introduced me as a resident of Georgia, who was an earnest worker in the cause of secession,” Pinkerton recalled, “and whose sympathy and discretion could be implicitly relied upon.” In a lowered voice, Luckett reminded Ferrandini of “Mr. Hutchinson’s” generous $25 donation.

Luckett’s endorsement had the desired effect. Ferrandini seemed to warm to the detective immediately. After ordering drinks and cigars, the group withdrew to a quiet corner. Within moments, Pinkerton noted, his new acquaintance was expressing himself in terms of high treason. “The South must rule,” Ferrandini insisted. He and his fellow Southerners had been “outraged in their rights by the election of Lincoln, and freely justified resorting to any means to prevent Lincoln from taking his seat.”


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