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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 7)

It was now nearly 9 in the evening. If they were going to get Lincoln on a train that night, they had barely two hours in which to act.

Finally, at 10:15, Pinkerton, by now waiting at the Continental, got word that Lincoln had retired for the evening. Judd dashed off a note asking the president-elect to come to his room: “so soon as convenient on private business of importance.” At last, Lincoln himself ducked through the doorway. Lincoln “at once recollected me,” Pinkerton said, from the days when both men had given service to the Illinois Central Railroad, Lincoln as a lawyer representing the railroad and Pinkerton as a detective overseeing security. The president-elect had a kind word of greeting for his old acquaintance. “Lincoln liked Pinkerton,” Judd observed, and “had the utmost confidence in him as a gentleman—and a man of sagacity.”

Pinkerton carefully reviewed “the circumstances connected with Ferrandini, Hillard and others,” who were “ready and willing to die to rid their country of a tyrant, as they considered Lincoln to be.” He told Lincoln in blunt terms that if he kept to the published schedule, “an assault of some kind would be made upon his person with a view to taking his life.”

“During the entire interview, he had not evinced the slightest evidence of agitation or fear,” Pinkerton said of Lincoln. “Calm and self-possessed, his only sentiments appeared to be those of profound regret, that the Southern sympathizers could be so far led away by the excitement of the hour, as to consider his death a necessity for the furtherance of their cause.”

Lincoln rose from his chair. “I cannot go tonight,” he said firmly. “I have promised to raise the flag over Independence Hall tomorrow morning, and to visit the legislature at Harrisburg in the afternoon—beyond that I have no engagements. Any plan that may be adopted that will enable me to fulfill these promises I will accede to, and you can inform me what is concluded upon tomorrow.” With these words, Lincoln turned and left the room.

The detective saw no alternative but to accede to Lincoln’s wishes, and immediately set to work on a new plan. Struggling to anticipate “all the contingencies that could be imagined,” Pinkerton would work through the entire night.

Just after 8 a.m., Pinkerton met again with Judd at the Continental. The detective remained secretive about the details of his plan, but it was understood that the broad strokes would remain the same: Lincoln would pass through Baltimore ahead of schedule.

The Lincoln Special pulled away from the West Philadelphia depot at 9:30 that morning, bound for Harrisburg. The detective himself stayed behind in Philadelphia to complete his arrangements. As the train neared Harrisburg, Judd told Lincoln that the matter was “so important that I felt that it should be communicated to the other gentlemen of the party.” Lincoln concurred. “I reckon they will laugh at us, Judd,” he said, “but you had better get them together.” Pinkerton would have been horrified at this development, but Judd was resolved to notify Lincoln’s inner circle before they sat down to dinner.

Arriving in Harrisburg at 1:30 p.m., and making his way to the Jones House hotel with his host, Gov. Andrew Curtin, Lincoln also decided to bring Curtin into his confidence. He told the governor that “a conspiracy had been discovered to assassinate him in Baltimore on his way through that city the next day.” Curtin, a Republican who had forged a close alliance with Lincoln during the presidential campaign, pledged his full cooperation. He reported that Lincoln “seemed pained and surprised that a design to take his life existed.” Nevertheless, he remained “very calm, and neither in his conversation or manner exhibited alarm or fear.”

At 5 that evening, Lincoln dined at the Jones House with Curtin and several other prominent Pennsylvanians. At about 5:45, Judd stepped into the room and tapped the president-elect on the shoulder. Lincoln now rose and excused himself, pleading fatigue for the benefit of any onlookers. Taking Governor Curtin by the arm, Lincoln strolled from the room.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus