How Allan Pinkerton, America's first private eye, saved Abraham Lincoln's life in 1861 is a little-known story now told in full in The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War.
Historian Daniel Stashower details the plan cooked up by a barber named Capt. Cypriano Ferrandini, a Corsican immigrant who was just one of thousands of secessionist sympathizers in Baltimore as Lincoln's train rolled through the city in February 1861.
The logistics of Lincoln's whistle-stop tour were a matter of public record, so Ferrandini and his band of 20 fellow "Southern patriots" easily learned that the president-elect was slated to arrive at the city's Calvert Street Station on the morning of Feb. 23, where he would have to walk through a narrow passage to reach the street outside.
At that moment the assassins planned to stage a distraction that would draw the local police away from Lincoln's side, then box in the president and strike the fatal blow.
Pinkerton got the drop on the would-be killers. Having learned of the plot by infiltrating the cabal with one of his agents, he persuaded Lincoln to pass through Baltimore a full 12 hours earlier than originally planned. But that would require tricky transfers from one train to another, with an awkwardly timed carriage ride in between: How were they to hide the 6-foot-4, instantly recognizable Lincoln from public view?
Pinkerton came up with a plan that he thought would work — so long as the 16th chief executive was willing to display some decidedly unpresidential behavior, and garb, to pull it off. Stashower tells us how events unfolded "the first time they tried to kill Lincoln."
Q: Another book on Lincoln?
A: Right — some people will know this is not the first one to feature the man. The Ford's Theatre Center in D.C. has that 34-foot-high tower of Lincoln books. You could probably build a bridge from here to Illinois made from "Lincoln-as-I-knew-him" personal reminiscences. Oddly, no two of them agree on what happened in Baltimore — or even what he was wearing on his head.
Q: So what was he wearing on his head? And how real was "the Baltimore plot"?
A: We know he held a cloak over his face to disguise his trademark beard, and that he traded in his stovepipe hat for a soft wool hat. He slouched down to conceal his height. As for the plot, there's confusion about how it was foiled. I found a lot to criticize about Pinkerton's operation, but the existence of a threat [to the president] is beyond dispute. Even Horace Greeley, the famous newspaper publisher, said, "There was 40 times the reason for shooting [Lincoln] in 1860 than there was in '65, and at least 40 times as many intent on killing or having him killed."
Q: And his secretary expected trouble, too.
A: That's right. John Hay was Lincoln's 22-year-old personal secretary, and he described events as they unfolded. As the Lincoln Special[train] was about to carry Lincoln south of the Mason-Dixon line for the first time, Hay wrote a friend back home, "Tomorrow we enter slave territory. ... There may be trouble in Baltimore. If so, we will not go to Washington, unless in long, narrow boxes."
Q: Didn't Lincoln have any protection?
A: He had a 300-pound, self-appointed bodyguard named Ward Lamon — a hard-drinking, glad-handing, banjo-playing lawyer from Lincoln's early days. He followed Lincoln around, armed with two pistols, a knife, a slungshot [a heavy weight on a wrist strap] and, for good measure, a set of brass knuckles.
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