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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Pinkerton found that he could not dismiss Ferrandini as just another crackpot, noting the steel in his voice and easy command of the men clustered about him. The detective recognized that this potent blend of fiery rhetoric and icy resolve made Ferrandini a dangerous adversary. “He is a man well calculated for controlling and directing the ardent minded,” the detective admitted. “Even I myself felt the influence of this man’s strange power, and wrong though I knew him to be, I felt strangely unable to keep my mind balanced against him.”

“Never, never shall Lincoln be president,” Ferrandini vowed. “He must die—and die he shall.”

Despite Pinkerton’s efforts to draw him out further that night, Ferrandini did not disclose details of the plot, saying only, “Our plans are fully arranged and they cannot fail. We shall show the North that we fear them not.”


By Sunday, February 17, Pinkerton, after piecing together rumors and reports, had formed a working theory of Ferrandini’s plan. “A vast crowd would meet [Lincoln] at the Calvert Street depot,” Pinkerton stated. “Here it was arranged that but a small force of policemen should be stationed, and as the president arrived a disturbance would be created.” While the police rushed off to deal with this diversion, he continued, “it would be an easy task for a determined man to shoot the President, and, aided by his companions, succeed in making his escape.”

Pinkerton was convinced that Otis Hillard held the key to uncovering the final details of the plot, as well as the identity of the designated assassin. Hillard, he believed, was the weak link in Ferrandini’s chain of command.

The next evening, February 18, as Hillard and Davies dined together, Hillard confirmed that his National Volunteers unit might soon “draw lots to see who would kill Lincoln.” If the responsibility fell upon him, Hillard boasted, “I would do it willingly.”

Davies demanded to be taken to this fateful meeting, insisting that he, too, be given the “opportunity to immortalize himself” by murdering the president-elect. By February 20, Hillard returned to Davies in exuberant spirits. If he would swear an oath of loyalty, Davies could join Ferrandini’s band of “Southern patriots” that very night.

As evening fell, Hillard conducted Davies to the home of a man well known among the secessionists. The pair were ushered into a large drawing room, where 20 men stood waiting silently. Ferrandini, dressed for the occasion in funereal black from head to toe, greeted Davies with a crisp nod.

In the flickering light of candles, the “rebel spirits” formed a circle as Ferrandini instructed Davies to raise his hand and swear allegiance to the cause of Southern freedom. The initiation completed, Ferrandini reviewed the plan to divert police at the Calvert Street Station. As he brought his remarks to a “fiery crescendo,” he drew a long, curved blade from beneath his coat and brandished it high above his head. “Gentlemen,” he cried to roars of approval, “this hireling Lincoln shall never, never be President!”


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