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 believed that if he could spirit the president-elect through Baltimore ahead of schedule, the assassins would be caught off guard. By the time they took their places for the February 23 arrival in Baltimore, Lincoln would already be safe in Washington.

Pinkerton knew that what he was proposing would be risky and perhaps even foolhardy. Even if Lincoln departed ahead of schedule, the route to the capital would pass through Baltimore in any case. If any hint of a change of plan leaked out, Lincoln’s position would become far more precarious. Instead of traveling openly with his full complement of friends and protectors, he would be relatively alone and exposed, with only one or two men at his side. That being the case, Pinkerton knew that secrecy was even more critical than ever.

Shortly after 9 a.m., Pinkerton met Felton and walked with him toward the depot of the PW&B Railroad. He told Felton that his investigation left no room for doubt: “There would be an attempt made to assassinate Mr. Lincoln.” Moreover, Pinkerton concluded, if the plot were successful, Felton’s railroad would be destroyed to prevent retaliation by the arrival of Northern troops. Felton assured Pinkerton that all the resources of the PW&B would be placed at Lincoln’s disposal.

Pinkerton hurried back to his hotel, the St. Louis, and told one of his top operatives, Kate Warne, to stand by for further instructions. In 1856, Warne, a young widow, had stunned Pinkerton when she appeared at his Chicago headquarters, asking to be hired as a detective. Pinkerton at first refused to consider exposing a woman to danger in the field, but Warne persuaded him that she would be invaluable as an undercover agent. She soon demonstrated extraordinary courage, helping to apprehend criminals—from murderers to train robbers.

Pinkerton, before going out to continue making arrangements, also dispatched a trusted young courier to take a message to his old friend, Norman Judd, traveling with Lincoln.

As Lincoln arrived in Philadelphia and made his way to the luxurious Continental hotel, Pinkerton returned to his room at the St. Louis and lit a fire. Felton arrived shortly afterward, Judd at 6:45.

If Lincoln abided by his current itinerary, Pinkerton told Judd, he would be reasonably safe while still on board the special. But from the moment he landed at the Baltimore depot, and especially while riding in the open carriage through the streets, he would be in mortal peril. “I do not believe,” he told Judd, “it is possible he or his personal friends could pass through Baltimore in that style alive.”

“My advice,” Pinkerton continued, “is that Mr. Lincoln shall proceed to Washington this evening by the eleven o’clock train.” Judd made to object, but Pinkerton held up a hand for silence. He explained that if Lincoln altered his schedule in this manner, he would be able to slip through Baltimore unnoticed, before the assassins made their final preparations. “This could be done in safety,” Pinkerton said. In fact, it was the only way.

Judd’s face darkened. “I fear very much that Mr. Lincoln will not accede to this,” he said. “Mr. Judd said that Mr. Lincoln’s confidence in the people was unbounded,” Pinkerton recalled, “and that he did not fear any violent outbreak; that he hoped by his management and conciliatory measures to bring the secessionists back to their allegiance.”

In Judd’s view, the best chance of getting Lincoln to change his mind rested with Pinkerton himself. There is nothing in Pinkerton’s reports to suggest that he expected to take his concerns directly to Lincoln, nor is it likely, given his long-established passion for secrecy, that he welcomed the prospect. He had made a career of operating in the shadows, always taking care to disguise his identity and methods.


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