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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When the cheers subsided, a wave of apprehension passed through the room. “Who should do the deed?” Ferrandini asked his followers. “Who should assume the task of liberating the nation of the foul presence of the abolitionist leader?”

Ferrandini explained that paper ballots had been placed into the wooden chest on the table in front of him. One ballot, he continued, was marked in red to designate the assassin. “In order that none should know who drew the fatal ballot, except he who did so, the room was rendered still darker,” Davies reported, “and everyone was pledged to secrecy as to the color of the ballot he drew.” In this manner, Ferrandini told his followers, the identity of the “honored patriot” would be protected until the last possible instant.

One by one, the “solemn guardians of the South” filed past the box and withdrew a folded ballot slip. Ferrandini himself took the final ballot and held it aloft, telling the assembly in a hushed but steely tone that their business had now come to a close.

Hillard and Davies walked out into the darkened streets together, after first withdrawing to a private corner to open their folded ballots. Davies’ own ballot paper was blank, a fact he conveyed to Hillard with an expression of ill-concealed disappointment. As they set off in search of a stiffening drink, Davies told Hillard that he worried that the man who had been chosen to carry it out—whoever he might be—would lose his nerve at the crucial moment. Ferrandini had anticipated this possibility, Hillard said, and had confided to him that a safeguard was in place. The wooden box, Hillard explained, had contained not one, but eight red ballots. Each man would believe that he alone was charged with the task of murdering Lincoln, and that the cause of the South rested solely upon “his courage, strength and devotion.” In this way, even if one or two of the chosen assassins should fail to act, at least one of the others would be certain to strike the fatal blow.

Moments later, Davies burst into Pinkerton’s office, launching into his account of the evening’s events. Pinkerton sat at his desk furiously scribbling notes as Davies spoke.

It was now clear that Pinkerton’s period of surveillance—or “unceasing shadow,” as he called it—had come to an end.

“My time for action,” he declared, “had now arrived.”


By the morning of February 21, Lincoln was departing New York City for the first leg of that day’s travel to Philadelphia.

Pinkerton had already traveled to Philadelphia by this time, where he was putting the finishing touches on a “plan of operation” he had devised in Baltimore. It had been only three weeks since he had met with Felton in the Quaker City.


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