He soon became a welcome guest at the residences of many of the first families of that refined and aristocratic city. His romantic disposition and the ease of his manner captivated many of the susceptible hearts of the beautiful Baltimore belles, whose eyes grew brighter in his presence, and who listened enraptured to the poetic utterances which were whispered into their ears under the witching spell of music and moonlit nature.
—ALLAN PINKERTON on the efforts of Detective Harry Davies in Baltimore
DURING THE EARLY WEEKS of February 1861, Pinkerton operative Harry Davies began spending a great deal of time in a Baltimore house of prostitution. The dimly lit wooden house at 70 Davis Street, in the shadow of the Calvert Street train station, had a narrow hallway at the front that opened onto a parlor filled with dark curtains, narrow divans, and gilt-framed paintings of wood nymphs and water sprites. Annette Travis, the proprietor, would greet her patrons with a warm smile and a glass of strong spirits. Behind her, two or three young women sat quietly on a painted bench, sometimes busying themselves with needlework. After a few pleasantries, the visitor was led to one of three upstairs chambers, where the business of the evening would be carried out.
It was not the sort of place one would expect to find Davies, the former seminarian. For more than a week, however, the detective had been working hard to cultivate the friendship of a young man named Otis K. Hillard, a sallow-faced, hard-drinking regular of the establishment. 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. It was known that Hillard had recently signed on as a lieutenant in the “Palmetto Guard,” one of several secret military organizations springing up in Baltimore.
Pinkerton had targeted Hillard, who came from a prominent family, as one of the Fire Eaters who regularly gathered at Barnum’s Hotel on Fayette Street, just off Monument Square. “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 tall, lank forms of the long-haired gentlemen who represented the aristocracy of the slaveholding interests. Their conversations were loud and unrestrained, and any one bold enough or sufficiently indiscreet to venture an opinion contrary to the righteousness of their cause, would soon find himself in an unenviable position and frequently the subject of violence.”
On Pinkerton’s orders, Davies took a room at Barnum’s and used the “ready passport” of his New Orleans birth to ingratiate himself with the Southern element. Davies claimed to have come to Baltimore on business, but at every turn, he quietly insinuated that he was far more interested in matters of “rebeldom.” Whenever the crowd at Barnum’s gave voice to anti-Union sentiments, Davies would offer a raised glass and a crisp nod of the head.
Of all the regulars at Barnum’s, Otis Hillard appeared to be the most promising source of information. Davies worked to forge a useful bond, buying drinks with a free hand, and seeking advice on the amusements of Baltimore. Soon, the two men became inseparable. A typical day included dinner at a favorite chophouse called Mann’s, followed by billiards and cigars at Harry Hemling’s, a second-floor “chalk and sawdust” room on Fayette Street. The two were often seen at a concert saloon known as the Pagoda, enjoying the latest in “popular song and genteel merriment.” In the latter stages of the evening, depending on which way Hillard’s moral compass happened to be pointing, they would attend vespers at a local Catholic church or seek the company of Anna Hughes, Hillard’s favored companion at Annette Travis’s establishment. After a particularly eventful evening, if the consumption of alcohol had been such as to render navigation difficult, the two men would sleep in the same room.
“By reason of his high social position,” Pinkerton observed, “Hillard was enabled to introduce his friend to the leading families and into the most aristocratic clubs and societies of which the city boasted, and Davies made many valuable acquaintances through the influence of this rebellious scion of Baltimore aristocracy.” Though these connections proved useful, Hillard himself soon became a source of frustration, as his commitment to the secessionist cause proved to be tenuous. “Because of a weak nature and having been reared in the lap of luxury, he had entered into this movement more from a temporary burst of enthusiasm, and because it was fashionable,” Pinkerton noted. Hillard often spoke of winning fame and glory for himself, but as the calls for armed rebellion grew louder, he appeared to think better of it. “He was inclined to hesitate,” Davies reported, “before the affair had gone too far.” Davies hoped to exploit Hillard’s doubts, pressing him for useful information under the guise of sympathizing with his fears. Hillard, for his part, seemed to enjoy toying with Davies’s obvious interest in Baltimore’s secret cabals. He refused to confide fully in his new friend, preferring instead to dangle his forbidden knowledge just out of reach, always suggesting that he knew more than he could tell, for reasons of personal honor. Undeterred, Pinkerton instructed Davies to keep trying. He was convinced that Hillard would soon become “a pliant tool in our hands.”
Pinkerton appeared willing to go to any lengths. In Chicago, he had often discouraged his operatives from using alcohol as a means of loosening a suspect’s tongue, but in Baltimore, he relied heavily on the “unbridled talk” of the barroom. By the same token, he would later defend against charges that he and his operatives preyed on the weak-willed, exchanging false friendship for information. “Such a technique was distasteful to me,” Pinkerton said of one such case, “but the course pursued was the only one which afforded the slightest promise of success, hence its adoption. Severe moralists may question whether this course is a legitimate or defensible one, but as long as crime exists, the necessity for detection is apparent. In this righteous work the end will unquestionably justify the means adopted to secure the desired result.” Many would disagree, but in this instance—perhaps more so than any other—Pinkerton held himself above criticism. The clock was ticking.
A report from Charles Williams, the operative who had been concerned about passing himself off as a Mississippian, underscored the urgency of the situation. Williams had been trawling for information at Sherwood’s, a “small and rather prim” hotel at the corner of Harrison and Fayette streets, when he noticed that the bartender—Howell Sherwood, the landlord’s brother—appeared visibly troubled, as if struggling with a difficult decision. Taking a seat at the bar, Williams struck up a conversation and found that Sherwood was eager to unburden himself. He began by saying that he was a peaceful man and had no desire to fall in with the “Seces-crowd” of the city. If possible, he insisted, he would prefer to see the Union preserved, but if forced to “give up the Stars and Stripes,” he would pledge his loyalty to the South. Williams allowed as how he felt the same way. Was it inevitable, he asked, that war must come? Sherwood fell silent for several moments, apparently considering his answer carefully. At length, he gave a heavy sigh and began to speak in a halting voice, as if the words themselves were causing him pain. He had overheard murmurs of a horrifying plot against the government, he said—“the vilest proposition that ever was heard of.” In Washington in a few days time, the members of the Electoral College would gather in the United States Capitol to ratify the election of Abraham Lincoln. On that day, Sherwood said, a group of agitators from Baltimore intended to detonate a bomb inside the Capitol, striking a devastating blow to the government and throwing the peaceful transition of power into chaos. “Oh, my God, it is so,” Sherwood insisted. “If anyone had said there was such a conspiracy in this or any other city, I would not have believed it.”
When Williams hurried back to South Street with this information, Pinkerton listened with an air of mounting frustration. He pointed to a stack of reports on his desk, filled with wild stories and outlandish rumors. Alarming as the claims were, none could be confirmed definitively. After more than a week in Baltimore, Pinkerton had yet to achieve the first of the goals he had outlined to Felton—proof of the existence of a plot.
Pinkerton felt certain that Otis Hillard could provide a badly needed shard of evidence, if only he could be induced to do so. A few days earlier, Hillard had been summoned to Washington to answer questions about the rumors surrounding the inauguration. It is likely that Hillard’s summons to Washington was the red flag that caught the attention of the Pinkerton team, but the experience left him more than usually cautious about sharing confidences. Despite Harry Davies’s best efforts, Hillard continued to play coy, offering nothing more than broad hints and vague insinuations.
A significant break came on Tuesday, February 12, when Hillard introduced Davies to a man named Hughes, a daguerreotype photographer recently arrived from New Orleans. As the newcomer gave an enthusiastic report of how matters stood in his home state—Louisiana having seceded the previous month—Davies seized the opening to steer the conversation toward Maryland’s prospects. The visitor warmed to the subject immediately, claiming that officials in Washington had sent out spies to keep an eye on agitators throughout the state. “I understand,” he said, “that they have men watching the railroad bridges between here and Philadelphia. The railroads are afraid that they will be destroyed—but I do not know if it will do any good.” This last remark was accompanied by a significant wink in the direction of Hillard. Davies pressed for more information, but neither man would elaborate on the statement.
For the rest of the day, as the two men made their familiar round of restaurants and saloons, Davies tried to draw Hillard out on the subject. The encounter appeared to have put Hillard in a melancholy mood, and he refused to take the bait. Instead, he brooded on the declining state of his health. Davies, trying to move the conversation forward, suggested that perhaps Hillard’s fondness for prostitutes might be a contributing factor. Hillard drew back and “seemed horrified.”
After a restorative dinner and a round of billiards, Hillard recovered his better humor. His earlier concerns were forgotten as he proposed a visit to Annette Travis’s establishment on Davis Street. Davies willingly tagged along, hoping to maneuver his friend into a more talkative frame of mind. Once again, Hillard arranged to enjoy the company of Anna Hughes, a pale, dark-haired woman who said little but giggled incessantly. Davies turned to leave as the young woman led Hillard toward the stairs, but Hillard laid a hand on his sleeve and asked him to stay. There were still important matters to be discussed, Hillard said with a wink. Reluctantly, Davies followed the couple as they made their way upstairs.
Davies perched awkwardly on a chair in the corner of the room as Hillard made himself at home. “Hillard and his woman seemed very much pleased at meeting,” Davies reported delicately, “and hugged and kissed each other for about an hour.” Even in this setting, Hillard refused to give up his claim to Davies’s attentions. Several times, Davies rose to excuse himself from the room, but each time his friend called him back, suggesting that there was more to be said about “forthcoming events.” As the evening wore on, Hillard teased Davies with hints and preened for Anna Hughes, portraying himself as a man burdened with many secrets, the nature of which would astonish the world. Davies, squirming on his chair in the corner of the room, tried to play along. He alternated words of encouragement with notes of skepticism, suggesting that perhaps Hillard didn’t know as much as he claimed. Try as he might, however, he could not get Hillard to enlarge on his boasts.
Finally, Davies lost patience. Jumping to his feet, he told Hillard that he was leaving, and his tone suggested that the two men would not be seeing each other again. “I started for the door,” Davies said, but as he turned the handle, Hillard called after him, telling him to wait. He seemed to realize, belatedly, that he had pushed his friend too far. For several days, he had been playing a game of cat and mouse, hinting at grand designs of which he dared not speak. Now, it appeared, Davies was prepared to turn his back. All other urgencies were forgotten as Hillard disentangled himself from Miss Hughes and followed Davies out onto the street. At last, he was ready to talk.
The two men made their way back to Davies’s room and sat talking into the early hours of the morning. Hillard spent considerable time describing his activities with the Palmetto Guard, one of the many rifle-toting “committees of safety” that were springing up across the state. He mentioned that his unit would be drilling the following evening at a secret gathering place and that he would be obliged to join with them. Davies listened with rising impatience. Though this was more than Hillard had ever revealed before, it was hardly earth-shattering news. Timothy Webster, the detective Pinkerton had stationed among the railroad crews in Perrymansville, had already managed to join a unit of National Volunteers there, marching along the banks of the Susquehanna River.
Davies changed tactics. Playing up his role as an ardent secessionist, he chided Hillard for being sluggish in his response to the Northern threat. His home state of Louisiana, he reminded Hillard, had already withdrawn from the Union. The practice drills of the Palmetto Guard, by contrast, seemed little more than empty posturing.
Hillard fell silent, apparently stung. He gave a sidelong glance at his friend, then cleared his throat. When he spoke again, his manner had changed. He affected a breezy tone, as if remarking on the weather, but he fixed Davies with an intense gaze, indicating the true import of his words. “He then asked me,” Davies said, “if I had seen a statement of Lincoln’s route to Washington City.”
Davies lifted his head, at last catching sight of a foothold amid all the slippery hearsay. It was the first time that Hillard had made direct reference to Lincoln’s passage through Baltimore, much less suggested a link—oblique as it was—between the president-elect’s movements and the activities of a Maryland militia unit. Struggling to remain composed, Davies said only that he had seen a statement of Lincoln’s itinerary in the newspapers.
The answer appeared to encourage Hillard. “By the by,” he said lightly, “that reminds me that I must go and see a certain party in the morning the first thing.”
Again, Davies was careful not to appear overeager, so as not to put Hillard off. “What about?” he asked.
“About Lincoln’s route,” Hillard replied. “I want to see about the telegraph in Philadelphia and New York and have some arrangements made.”
“How do you mean?” Davies asked.
Hillard gave a shrug to suggest that he was merely speculating, but then he went on to outline a coded system that would allow the progress of the president-elect’s train to be tracked from stop to stop, even if telegraph communications were being monitored for suspicious activity. “We would have some signs to telegraph by,” he explained. “For instance, supposing that we should telegraph to a certain point ‘all set up at 7,’ that would mean that Lincoln would be at such a point at 7 o’clock.”
Davies fell silent, nodding his head. He realized at once that the existence of a cipher of this type signaled a well-developed plot, or “mature arrangement,” involving Lincoln’s train. Once again, he shaped his reply in a manner that would strike at Hillard’s pride, in hopes of drawing out additional details. Why should the guardsmen bother with codes and signals, he asked, when there did not appear to be any specific scheme for using them? “It is very singular,” Davies said, “that some plan of action has not been proposed.”
Hillard chafed at this, his mask slipping a bit. He insisted that there was, in fact, a carefully plotted strategy in place. The codes, he continued, were only a small part of a larger design. “I asked him what it was,” Davies reported, but Hillard would not divulge anything more.
“My friend,” he 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.”
Davies continued to hammer at Hillard’s vanities and insecurities, peppering him with heavily barbed questions for the better part of an hour. At length, it became clear that Hillard would say nothing more, and that he now regretted revealing as much as he had. As the two men parted, Hillard cautioned Davies to say nothing of what had passed between them. Looking pale and fretful, he set off once again to seek comfort in the arms of Anna Hughes. Davies waited until Hillard had passed out of sight, then headed to Pinkerton’s office to make his report.
* * *
IN EXTRACTING EVEN THESE SMALL GLIMMERS of information from Hillard, Davies had succeeded where an official government inquiry had failed. Hillard’s trip to Washington one week earlier had come in response to a summons to appear before an imposing congressional select committee. President Buchanan had reluctantly authorized the inquiry as a response to “alleged hostile organizations” operating within the District of Columbia, and their plans to attack the Capitol or disrupt the forthcoming inauguration. “It is said that serious apprehensions are, to some extent, entertained, in which I do not share, that the peace of this District may be disturbed before the 4th of March,” declared the president in a characteristic display of fence-sitting. “In any event, it will be my duty to preserve it, and this duty shall be performed … and whatever the result may be, I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that I at least meant well for my country.”
While hardly a clarion call, the president’s concerns were sufficient for the purpose. The select committee was impaneled on January 9, 1861. From the first, the investigators approached their task with a certain anxious diffidence, paddling about on the surface of various rumors but never plunging to any depth. Over the course of five weeks the committee heard testimony from two dozen witnesses. The possibility of violence was raised several times but never pursued with any vigor, suggesting that the committee members were reluctant to fan the flames.
The witnesses ranged from concerned government officials such as Winfield Scott and James Berret, the mayor of Washington, to those believed to have knowledge of sinister designs, many of them hailing from Baltimore. Otis K. Hillard, one of the latter category, appeared before the committee on February 6. In spite of what he would tell Harry Davies one week later, Hillard testified under oath that he was “not a member of any military organization,” and he firmly denied any knowledge of plans to interfere with Lincoln’s inauguration. Hillard did tell the committee that he was aware, “altogether from hearsay,” of the doings of a formidable organization known as the National Volunteers. According to Hillard, this group, numbering some six thousand men, had sprung up in Baltimore to prevent “any armed body” from passing through Baltimore with Lincoln. Curiously, in Hillard’s construction of the events, the National Volunteers had no quarrel with Lincoln himself, only with the prospect of a military escort. “Mr. Lincoln will not be interrupted as a citizen alone,” he told the committee. “Individually, they have the greatest respect for Mr. Lincoln, and I think there would not be a solitary thing done, unless some military comes with him, which they look upon in the light of a threat.” Hillard went so far as to say that it made no difference whether these military men came from the North or the South; Baltimore would object in either case. Strangely, the committee sought little clarification on this point, but it instead asked repeatedly for the names of the leaders of the National Volunteers. Hillard declined for “prudential reasons” to give an answer, indicating that he did not wish to compromise his friends. When pressed, he gave a series of Bartleby-like refusals: “I would rather not answer that question,” he declared.
Astonishingly, the select committee accepted this rebuff without demur. Hillard was excused from further testimony, though the investigators reserved the right to recall him should it become necessary to compel him to answer. Though he had come through unscathed, Hillard returned to Baltimore feeling thoroughly rattled. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that he was reticent when the amiable Harry Davies popped up at his elbow a few days later.
As Davies chipped away at Hillard’s defenses in Baltimore, the select committee in Washington turned its attention to a bigger fish. As the secession debate in Maryland intensified, Thomas H. Hicks, the governor of the state, emerged as a central figure in the national crisis. In his inaugural address three years earlier, Hicks had attempted to claim the middle ground: “The people of this State yet know of no grievances for which disunion is a remedy,” he declared, “and they have always, in the words of Washington, discountenanced whatever might suggest even the slightest suspicion that Union can, in any event, be abandoned.” At the same time, however, the new governor insisted that the people of Maryland “will hearken to no suggestion inimical to the slaveholding States, for she herself is one of them.”
This balancing act, a political expedient in 1858, had become untenable after Lincoln’s election, with many of Hicks’s most powerful constituents clamoring for Maryland to withdraw from the Union. As the state legislature pushed Hicks to convene a special session—at which a vote on secession was expected—the governor engaged in a series of desperate stalling and blocking measures. This “sulphurous dithering” infuriated his colleagues and many of his constituents, but it won praise from the Northern press. “We know of no man who occupies a more prominent position at the present time than the Governor of the State of Maryland,” declared the February 16 issue of Harper’s Weekly. “To his wise and patriotic action, in firmly resisting the tide of partisan feeling in his State, he has so far averted civil war, and preserved Maryland as a nucleus about which, if politic counsels prevail, our glorious Union may be preserved.”
It is perhaps closer to the truth to say that Hicks was trying to gauge which way the wind was blowing. A slave owner himself, Hicks was fiercely committed to the preservation of what he called “southern ideals,” and he had recoiled at the election of Abraham Lincoln. A letter attributed to him at that time, quite possibly written in jest, offered a startling suggestion for a recently formed Maryland militia unit: “Will they be good men to send out to kill Lincoln and his men?” Whatever his private feelings may have been, however, he saw clearly that secession would bring disastrous consequences for his state. The previous December, after South Carolina announced its withdrawal, Hicks was told that Southern leaders were intent on “hurrying Maryland out of the Union,” so as to set the stage for a Southern takeover of Washington. “If this can be accomplished before the 4th of next March,” Hicks was informed, Southern forces would succeed in “divesting the North of the seat of Government.”
Hicks regarded the prospect with dread. At the beginning of January he issued a startling but little-heeded proclamation to the people of Maryland, stating that he had been warned “by persons having the opportunity to know” that secessionist power brokers in Washington intended to force Maryland to cast her lot with the cotton states. “They have resolved to seize the Federal capital and public archives, so that they may be in a position to be acknowledged by foreign governments,” he declared. “The assent of Maryland is necessary, as the District of Columbia would revert to her in case of a dissolution of the Union. The plan contemplates forcible opposition to Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration, and consequently civil war upon Maryland soil, and a transfer of its horrors from the States which are to provoke it.”
The nature of these horrors was clear enough. If a war was to be fought for control of Washington, Hicks knew, Maryland would likely be flattened in the process. On the other hand, if war was avoided, Maryland would be made to suffer the consequences if she declared for the South. Hicks continued to stall for time, hoping, as many others did, that a compromise would be reached before Lincoln took office. Publicly, he declared that the people of Maryland would not consent to secession “until every honorable, constitutional and lawful effort” had been exhausted.
As the calls for a special session of the legislature grew louder, Hicks tried desperately to hold his ground. “The people of Baltimore are all tired of waiting,” a witness told the select committee in Washington. “They believe that they have the right to speak upon this subject.” As the stonewalling dragged on, an angry group of National Volunteers attempted to batter down the door to the governor’s office.
Lincoln himself was well aware of Hicks’s dilemma. “The pressure there upon Hicks is fearful,” he was told by Alexander K. McClure, a Pennsylvania Republican. “Indeed, so embittered are the disunionists in Maryland that Gov. Hicks is seriously concerned for his personal safety. He has been advised that his assassination has been plotted, & is still entertained, in order to throw the government into the hands of the Speaker of the Senate, who is a ranting Secession disunionist.” The governor’s struggle, McClure believed, had serious implications for the president-elect. “If he should be compelled to yield,” he told Lincoln, “you could never get to Washington except within a circle of bayonets.”
At the height of Hicks’s standoff, a disturbing letter crossed his desk. Sent from Annapolis on February 7, it was written by George Stearns, an employee of Samuel Felton’s Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, and concerned the passage of Lincoln’s train through Maryland:
On Sunday last a man who said he was from Baltimore called on our Bridge tender at Back River and informed him an attempt would be made by parties from Baltimore and other places to burn the bridge just before the train should pass, which should have Mr. Lincoln on Board and in the excitement to assassinate him. The man who imparted this information will not give his name.
It is not known whether Hicks took any action or even made a reply to this remarkable warning. It is reasonably certain, however, that the letter was on the governor’s mind the following week, when he was compelled to testify before the select committee investigators in Washington. Hicks had come to Washington under duress. In the previous weeks, he had ignored repeated calls to appear—even when the committee offered to take his testimony in Annapolis—using the same dodges and feints with which he had confounded his own state legislature. On the morning of February 13, having exhausted every avenue of escape, Hicks was finally sworn in. The governor’s testimony proved to be a masterpiece of half-truths and contradictions. He admitted to having heard open declarations that “the installation of Lincoln and Hamlin would never come off,” but he insisted that he attached no great importance to such talk. When asked if he had knowledge of plans to attack Washington, he offered unsupported reassurances: “I have not; although I believe it was decidedly contemplated at one time … I think it was the settled determination some time ago to make an attack; but I do not believe there is the slightest danger of it now.” He declined to give the names of any men suspected in these plots, as it might, he said, “deprive me of sources of information which may be important hereafter.”
At one stage, Hicks briefly touched on darker concerns, only to dismiss them as unimportant:
Now I have letters going to show that there is a design contemplated to burn a particular bridge and to assassinate particular individuals. All this is to be done in the State of Maryland. But I attach no consequence to this information. I have no doubt these things are talked over, but by a set of men who, in my opinion, cannot organize a system that they can carry out. But that the matter is talked over in secret conclave, I have no doubt.
The select committee, anxious to move on to other business, somehow chose not to press the point. The official report notes only that “[a]fter further discussion, the question was overruled.” It is entirely possible that Governor Hicks believed, or wished to believe, the substance of his testimony before the committee. His own life had been threatened repeatedly during this period, which may well have inured him to warnings of this type. In omitting certain details, however, he had denied the investigators the opportunity to exercise their own judgment. Hicks freely admitted receiving letters that detailed plans for hostile acts against the government, but he pointedly refused to make them available. “If I believed for a moment that it would conduce to the public interest and safety, I would leave all this pile of letters with the committee,” he stated, “but I refrain from doing so, that, as one of the guardians at least of the public interest and safety, I may keep the way open hereafter for advice and information.” The William Stearns letter, with its unequivocal threat against Lincoln, would remain buried among the governor’s papers for years to come.
Governor Hicks would be the select committee’s final witness. To a large extent, his testimony had come too late to be of any practical use. One of the committee’s principal concerns had been to chase down the threat of “persons or hostile organizations” with designs to prevent the Electoral College from ratifying Lincoln’s election. By the time Hicks finally appeared, after several weeks of evasions, that mission had been rendered all but moot. The governor wrapped up his long-delayed testimony shortly before noon on February 13, 1861. The Electoral College was scheduled to convene later that same afternoon. If the investigators appeared to gloss over some of the governor’s more provocative statements, it had much to do with the fact that they had already formed their conclusions at this late date, and looked to Hicks for nothing more than an eleventh-hour confirmation. The select committee’s official report, released the following day, would state that the investigation had found no proof of “the existence of a secret organization here or elsewhere hostile to the government,” and foresaw no “interruption of any of the functions of government.”
By that time, Lincoln’s train was already under way.