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Special Report
Lincoln sat at the back of the train in disguise to escape his assassins. (Edward Kinsella III)

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

A timetable for Lincoln’s journey was supplied to the press. From the moment the train departed Springfield, anyone wishing to cause harm would be able to track his movements in unprecedented detail, even, at some points, down to the minute. All the while, moreover, Lincoln continued to receive daily threats of death by bullet, knife, poisoned ink—and, in one instance, spider-filled dumpling.

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In Baltimore, meanwhile, Davies set to work cultivating the friendship of a young man named Otis K. Hillard, a hard-drinking regular of Barnum’s. Hillard, according to Pinkerton, “was one of the fast ‘bloods’ of the city.” On his chest he wore a gold badge stamped with a palmetto, the symbol of South Carolina’s secession. Hillard had recently signed on as a lieutenant in the Palmetto Guards, one of several secret military organizations springing up in Baltimore.

Pinkerton had targeted Hillard because of his association with Barnum’s. “The visitors from all portions of the South located at this house,” Pinkerton noted, “and in the evenings the corridors and parlors would be thronged by the long-haired gentlemen who represented the aristocracy of the slaveholding interests.”

Although Davies claimed to have come to Baltimore on business, at every turn, he quietly insinuated that he was far more interested in matters of “rebeldom.” Davies and Hillard soon became inseparable.

Just before 7:30 on the morning of Monday, February 11, 1861, Abraham Lincoln began knotting a hank of rope around his traveling cases. When the trunks were neatly bundled, he hastily scrawled an address: “A. Lincoln, White House, Washington, D.C.” At the stroke of 8 o’clock, the train bells sounded, signaling the hour of departure from Springfield. Lincoln turned to face the crowd from the rear platform. “My friends,” he said, “no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything...I now leave, not knowing when or whether I may return, to a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” Moments later, the Lincoln Special gathered steam and pushed east toward Indianapolis.

The next day, Tuesday, February 12, a significant break came for Pinkerton and Davies. In Davies’ room, he and Hillard sat talking into the early hours of the morning. “[Hillard] then asked me,” Davies reported later, “if I had seen a statement of Lincoln’s route to Washington City.” Davies lifted his head, at last catching sight of a foothold among all the slippery hearsay.

Hillard outlined his knowledge of a coded system that would allow the president-elect’s train to be tracked from stop to stop, even if telegraph communications were being monitored for suspicious activity. The codes, he continued, were only a small part of a larger design. “My friend,” Hillard said grimly, “that is what I would like to tell you, but I dare not—I wish I could—anything almost I would be willing to do for you, but to tell you that I dare not.” As the two men parted, Hillard cautioned Davies to say nothing of what had passed between them.

Meanwhile, Pinkerton, posing as the gregarious stockbroker Hutchinson, was engaged in a running debate with businessman James H. Luckett, who occupied a neighboring office.

The detective steered the conversation toward Lincoln’s impending passage through Baltimore. At the mention of Lincoln’s journey, Luckett turned suddenly cautious. “He may pass through quietly,” Luckett said, “but I doubt it.”

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