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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Upstairs, Lincoln gathered a few articles of clothing. “In New York some friend had given me a new beaver hat in a box, and in it had placed a soft wool hat,” he later commented. “I had never worn one of the latter in my life. I had this box in my room. Having informed a very few friends of the secret of my new movements, and the cause, I put on an old overcoat that I had with me, and putting the soft hat in my pocket, I walked out of the house at a back door, bareheaded, without exciting any special curiosity. Then I put on the soft hat and joined my friends without being recognized by strangers, for I was not the same man.”

A “vast throng” had gathered at the front of the Jones House, perhaps hoping to hear one of Lincoln’s balcony speeches. Governor Curtin, anxious to quiet any rumors if Lincoln were spotted leaving the hotel, called out orders to a carriage driver that the president-elect was to be taken to the Executive Mansion. If the departure drew any notice, he reasoned, it would be assumed that Lincoln was simply paying a visit to the governor’s residence. As Curtin made his way back inside, he was joined by Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s friend and self-appointed bodyguard. Drawing Lamon aside, Curtin asked if he was armed. Lamon “at once uncovered a small arsenal of deadly weapons. In addition to a pair of heavy revolvers, he had a slung-shot and brass knuckles and a huge knife nestled under his vest.” The slung-shot, a crude street weapon involving a weight tied to a wrist strap, was popular at that time among street gangs.

When Lincoln emerged, Judd would report, he carried a shawl draped over his arm. The shawl, according to Lamon, would help mask Lincoln’s features as he emerged from the hotel. Curtin led the group toward the side entrance of the hotel, where a carriage waited. As they made their way along the corridor, Judd whispered to Lamon: “As soon as Mr. Lincoln is in the carriage, drive off. The crowd must not be allowed to identify him.”

Reaching the side door, Lamon climbed into the carriage first, then turned to help Lincoln and Curtin. The first phase of Pinkerton’s scheme had gone according to plan.

Among the crew of Felton’s railroad, it appeared that the most notable thing to occur on the evening of February 22 had been a set of special instructions concerning the 11 p.m. train from Philadelphia. Felton himself had directed the conductor to hold his train at the station to await the arrival of a special courier, who would hand off a vitally important parcel. Under no circumstance could the train depart without it, Felton warned, “as this package must go through to Washington on tonight’s train.”

In fact, the package was a decoy, part of an elaborate web of bluffs and blinds that Pinkerton had constructed. In order to make the package convincing, Felton would recall, he and Pinkerton assembled a formidable-looking parcel done up with an impressive wax seal. Inside was a stack of useless old railroad reports. “I marked it ‘Very important — To be delivered, without fail, by eleven o’clock train,’” Felton recalled.

Lincoln would have to cover more than 200 miles in a single night, running in darkness for most of the route, with two changes of train. The revised scheme would accomplish Pinkerton’s original goal of bringing Lincoln through Baltimore earlier than expected. In addition, Lincoln would make his approach to the city on a different rail line, and arrive at a different station.

Though Lincoln would be making the first leg of his trip in a private train, Pinkerton could not risk using special equipment for the remaining two segments of the journey, as it would draw attention to Lincoln’s movements to have an unscheduled special on the tracks that night. In order to travel anonymously, Lincoln would have to ride on regular passenger trains, gambling that the privacy of an ordinary sleeping compartment would be sufficient to conceal his presence.

Having charted this route, Pinkerton now confronted a scheduling problem. The train carrying Lincoln from Harrisburg would likely not reach Philadelphia in time to connect with the second segment of the journey, the 11 p.m. train to Baltimore. Felton’s decoy parcel, it was hoped, would hold the Baltimore-bound train at the depot without drawing undue suspicion, until Lincoln could be smuggled aboard. If all went according to plan, Lincoln would arrive in Baltimore in the dead of night. His sleeper car would be unhitched and drawn by horse to Camden Street Station, where it would be coupled to a Washington-bound train.

The task of getting Lincoln safely aboard the Baltimore-bound passenger train would be especially delicate, as it would have to be done in plain view of passengers and crew. For this, Pinkerton needed a second decoy, and he counted on Kate Warne to supply it. In Philadelphia, Warne made arrangements to reserve four double berths on the sleeper car at the back of the train. She had been instructed by Pinkerton to “get in the sleeping car and keep possession” until he arrived with Lincoln.


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