Military history

CHAPTER TWENTY

THE ASSASSIN’S KNIFE

Tomorrow we enter slave territory. There may be trouble in Baltimore. If so, we will not go to Washington, unless in long, narrow boxes.

—JOHN HAY, in a letter dated February 22, 1861

SHORTLY AFTER NOON ON THE FOLLOWING DAY, February 22, an unusual train rolled into Baltimore’s President Street Station, the southern terminus of Samuel Felton’s Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. A special sleeper car had been coupled to the regular passenger train and darkened with drawn curtains, although the train was running in broad daylight.

The atmosphere at the depot was charged. “The station was filled with rough characters,” according to one source, “and the temper of the crowd was unmistakably hostile to the Union. There were oaths heard that ‘no damned abolitionist like Lincoln or Hamlin should enter the White House,’ and the mob seemed capable of carrying out its threats.” As Felton’s train stood idling at the platform, a small contingent of “ruffians” pushed their way aboard and swarmed through the carriages, apparently looking for Lincoln. They made their way into the sleeper car at the back of the train and made a noisy search, even pushing back the curtains, where a man and his wife lay quietly on their berths. For a long moment, the intruders glared down at the couple, who stared back with expressions of polite confusion. Finally, finding themselves frustrated in their search, “the uncleanly creatures took themselves away, leaving an atmosphere of profanity and whiskey.”

Left behind in their sleeping compartment, unrecognized by the hooligans, were Hannibal Hamlin and his wife, Ellen.

*   *   *

IN THE OFFICES OF THE BALTIMORE SUN, meanwhile, a special editorial was being prepared for the next day’s paper. In a small masterpiece of benign contempt, the editors offered a plea for civility even as they thumbed their noses at the incoming president:

Mr. Lincoln, President-elect of the United States, is expected, in fulfillment of the route programme, to arrive in Baltimore today. He will thus put his foot upon Southern soil, and enter that section of territory in which those institutions exist and are esteemed by the people against which he has declared an “irrepressible conflict.” He comes into that territorial division of the country from which he received not one electoral vote, and in which but a meagre representation of his party and his views is to be found. To these few he might be very properly committed. But Mr. Lincoln, by virtue of the office to which he is elected, and the somewhat eccentric style, oratorical and otherwise, in which he approaches the capital, will be an object of curiosity to thousands, no doubt, consequently he may expect to meet a large multitude who, having nothing better to do, in this “artificial crisis,” will avail themselves of a free ticket to have a look at him. With all this we have little concern, but we have for something else.

It is of great concern to all who love and would honor the State of Maryland and the city of Baltimore that no demonstration whatsoever should be made, even by a single individual, inconsistent with our self-respect. We would a thousand times rather see the most elaborate exhibition of official courtesy, unbecoming as it would be in such a case, than that the slightest personal disrespect should mar the occasion, or blur the reputation of our well-ordered city.

Elsewhere in the city, an anonymous citizen was composing an urgent letter to be placed in the hands of Lincoln himself:

Dear Sir

I think it my duty to inform you that I was assured last night by a gentleman that there existed in Baltimore a league of ten persons who had sworn that you should never pass through that city alive—This may be but one of the thousand threats against you that have emanated from some paltry Southerners, but you should know it that your friends may be watchful while you are in the place, as it was asserted positively to be the fact. God defend and bless you—The prayers of many go with you!

A Lady

In Philadelphia, Allan Pinkerton had been busy. With the help of Norman Judd, Samuel Felton, and others, the detective had worked through the night in an eleventh-hour effort to revise his plan for Lincoln’s safe passage through Baltimore. There were now two extra difficulties to overcome. First, Lincoln’s scheduled appearance in Baltimore was now only one day away. As the appointed hour drew closer, the chances of slipping through the city unnoticed became more remote. As Hamlin’s unnerving experience at the President Street Station would demonstrate, the city’s hostile elements were already on alert.

At the same time, Lincoln’s insistence on making the time-consuming trip to Harrisburg had brought an extra dimension of difficulty to the planning. The state capital was roughly one hundred miles to the west of Philadelphia, adding an extra four hours of train travel in each direction. In order to accommodate this detour, Pinkerton would have to involve a second set of railroad men and telegraph operators, any one of whom could compromise the secrecy of the plan. Where possible, Pinkerton employed the latest word-substitution cipher from the Chicago office, in which the critical terms were replaced with the names of random foodstuffs. Over the wires, Pinkerton himself would be identified as “Plums,” and—in a bizarrely inappropriate quirk of circumstance—Lincoln would be known as “Nuts.”

The detective was also anxious to keep tabs on matters in Baltimore. For this, he turned to George Dunn, an agent of the local Harnden’s Express Company, with whom he had worked on previous operations. Dunn was sent off to Baltimore with a key to the office on South Street, where he was to collect the reports Pinkerton’s field agents had filed in the detective’s absence. Kate Warne’s report of that day, written while she was still in Philadelphia, offers a passing glimpse of Pinkerton’s hectic efforts. She recorded that Pinkerton came to her room at three o’clock that morning—“sick, and tired out”—with a fresh set of instructions, pausing only a few moments before ducking back out into the night.

“Every possible contingency was discussed and re-discussed,” said Norman Judd. Pinkerton crisscrossed the city, rousing railroad authorities from their beds and dispatching errand boys on secret missions. By the time he made his way back to the St. Louis for a quick change of clothes, swarms of people were converging on Independence Hall to witness Lincoln’s flag-raising ceremony—“which,” the detective noted wearily in his field report, “was announced for sun-rise.”

Kate Warne would be on hand for the celebrations that morning, looking out from a crowd of some thirty thousand people as Lincoln’s open carriage rolled slowly onto the plaza behind an honor guard of Mexican War veterans. Head uncovered, the president-elect climbed down and was led into the chamber where the Declaration of Independence had been signed, his features “betraying the emotion with which he stood in that historic room.”

Speaking before the city council and other prominent citizens, Lincoln offered a moving tribute to the Founding Fathers. “He gave a most eloquent expression to the emotions and associations which were suggested by the day and by the historic old hall where he then stood,” Pinkerton would remark, adding that a “tinge of sadness pervaded his remarks, never noticed before, and which were occasioned no doubt by the revelations of the preceding night.” Elsewhere, Pinkerton would attempt to recall a particular line of the speech that hinted at Lincoln’s uneasy state of mind. “I cannot quote it correctly,” he admitted. “It was something like this: ‘I will preserve the Union even if the assassin’s knife is at my heart.’”

Lincoln’s actual remarks, given in response to an introduction from Theodore Cuyler, an outspoken advocate of concession to the slaveholding states, were far more subtle, if no less dramatic. By this time, Lincoln had become a master at drawing urgent, timely lessons from the pages of history.

I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place, where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live. You have kindly suggested to me that in my hands is the task of restoring peace to the present distracted condition of the country. I can say in return, Sir, that all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated and were given to the world from this hall. I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here, and framed and adopted that Declaration of Independence. I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army who achieved that Independence. I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland, but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle …

Lincoln paused here for a long moment, his head bowed before the portraits of Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. When he spoke again, having apparently struggled to find the proper words, his voice was firm and clear. “I was about to say,” he declared, “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

Norman Judd would have been one of the few who understood the full significance of this extraordinary remark. In his mind, there was no doubt that the dramatic reference to “sacrificing himself for his country” sprang from Lincoln’s meeting with Pinkerton the previous evening, and from thoughts of what lay ahead in Baltimore.

The somber moment passed quickly. As Lincoln brought his remarks to a close, he was led to a wooden platform outside the hall, where he looked down on the vast cheering crowd that had gathered for the flag raising. “They had come, many of them, from a distance,” wrote Joseph Howard in the New York Times, “that they might witness the performance of a deed, the solemn beauty of which cannot well be overestimated.” Stepping forward, Lincoln “threw off his overcoat in an offhand, easy manner” and took hold of the halyards. Pulling hand over hand, he ran the oversized American flag up the pole and watched as it unfurled overhead. The air filled with patriotic music as the soldiers below fired off a crisp salute. Lincoln’s expression, according to more than one observer, was serene.

*   *   *

JUST AFTER 8:00 A.M., Pinkerton met again with Norman Judd at the Continental Hotel, where he learned that Lincoln had “signified his readiness to do whatever was required of him.” Pinkerton remained secretive about the details of his plan—“No particulars were given and none were asked,” he said—but it was understood that the broad strokes would remain the same, with Lincoln passing through Baltimore ahead of schedule. In this way, Pinkerton believed, he might yet catch the assassins off guard. “The common and accepted belief was that Mr. Lincoln would journey from Harrisburg to Baltimore over the Northern Central Railroad, and the plans of the conspirators were arranged accordingly,” Pinkerton wrote. “It became a matter of the utmost importance, therefore, that no intimation of our movements should reach that city.”

There were several channels by which this crucial information might reach Baltimore. Pinkerton had arranged to place friendly operators on the major telegraph lines to watch for suspicious messages, but he worried that this precaution would not be sufficient. If, as he believed, “agents of the conspirators” were shadowing the presidential party at all times, it was essential not to arouse suspicion. Any deviation from the official itinerary might signal an awareness of the plot. Toward that end, Pinkerton remained determined to withhold the details of his plan from all but the central participants. “I requested Mr. Lincoln that none but Mr. Judd and myself should know anything about this arrangement,” Pinkerton recalled. “I said that secrecy was so necessary for our success that I deemed it best that as few as possible should know anything of our movements: that I knew all the men with whom it was necessary for me to instruct my movements and that my share of this secret should be safe, and that if it only was kept quiet I should answer for his safety with my life.”

As Pinkerton reviewed the details that morning, Judd had grave misgivings. He admitted that the detective’s plan appeared to be “the only feasible one under the circumstances,” but he sorely regretted that it would “doubtless create a great deal of excitement throughout the country.” Pinkerton saw no other option: “I assured Mr. Judd that I fully believed the course I had indicated was the only one to save the country from bloodshed at the present time.”

Pinkerton now realized that he wasn’t alone in this view. “I also learned that morning that General Scott and Mr. Seward had discovered some evidence of a plot to assassinate Mr. Lincoln,” he reported, though he could not resist adding that the New York detectives had not illuminated the matter “as clearly as my own men.” By the time Pinkerton learned of the parallel investigation, however, Frederick Seward had already been sent back to Washington “with just enough information” to prepare for Lincoln’s surreptitious arrival. “I told Mr. Seward,” Judd recalled, “that he could say to his father that all had been arranged, so far as human foresight could predict.”

*   *   *

THE LINCOLN SPECIAL PULLED AWAY from the Pennsylvania Railroad’s West Philadelphia depot at 9:30 that morning, bound for Harrisburg. John Hay, unaware of what was transpiring behind the scenes, took note of Lincoln’s apparent distraction and reported him to be “so unwell he could hardly be persuaded to show himself.” In fact, Lincoln spent a portion of the long journey sequestered with Judd, who briefed him on the latest report from Pinkerton. The detective himself stayed behind in Philadelphia to complete his arrangements. As the train pushed toward the state capital, Judd’s secret knowledge weighed heavily on him. He told Lincoln that he “felt exceedingly the responsibility, as no member of the party had been informed of anything connected with the matter.”

By this time, an atmosphere of foreboding had settled over the train. Ward Lamon and Colonel Ellsworth could see that “something was on foot,” Judd recalled, “but very judiciously refrained from asking questions.” John Nicolay could not muster the same restraint. “Judd,” he said at one stage, “there is something up. What is it, if it is proper that I should know?” “There is no necessity for your knowing,” Judd replied, “and one man can keep a matter better than two.”

As the train neared Harrisburg, Judd’s resolve crumbled. Though he had promised his silence to Pinkerton, he now told Lincoln that the matter was “so important that I felt that it should be communicated to the other gentlemen of the party.” Lincoln concurred. “I reckon they will laugh at us, Judd,” he said, “but you had better get them together.”

Pinkerton would have been horrified at this development, but Judd was resolved. “It was therefore arranged,” he said, “that after the reception at the State House had taken place, and before they sat down to dinner, the matter should be fully laid before the following gentlemen of the party: Judge David Davis, Colonel Sumner, Major David Hunter, Captain John Pope and Ward H. Lamon.” Looking back on Judd’s decision in later years, Pinkerton attempted to strike a diplomatic note. The full weight of the responsibility, he said, had been too much for one man.

Arriving in Harrisburg at 1:30 P.M., Lincoln made his way to the city’s capitol building for an address to the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Of all present, only Judd and Lincoln himself knew that it would be the final speech of the long inaugural journey. Once again, Lincoln seized the moment, spinning a deceptively simple anecdote into a masterly statement of national unity and resolve:

This morning I was, for the first time, allowed the privilege of standing in Old Independence Hall. Our friends had provided a magnificent flag of our country, and they had arranged it so that I was given the honor of raising it to the head of its staff, and when it went up I was pleased that it went to its place by the strength of my own feeble arm. When, according to the arrangement, the cord was pulled, and it flaunted gloriously to the wind, without an accident, in the bright glowing sunshine of the morning, I could not help hoping that there was, in the entire success of that beautiful ceremony, at least something of an omen of what is to come. Nor could I help feeling then, as I have often felt, that in the whole of that proceeding I was a very humble instrument. I had not provided the flag. I had not made the arrangement for elevating it to its place. I had applied a very small portion even of my feeble strength in raising it. In the whole transaction I was in the hands of the people who had arranged it. And if I can have the same generous cooperation of the people of this nation, I think the flag of our country may yet be kept flaunting gloriously.

Afterward, traveling to the Jones House hotel with his host, Governor Andrew Curtin, Lincoln made a surprising decision to take Curtin into his confidence, telling the governor that “a conspiracy had been discovered to assassinate him in Baltimore on his way through that city the next day.” Curtin, a Republican who had forged a close alliance with Lincoln during the presidential campaign, pledged his full cooperation. He reported that Lincoln “seemed pained and surprised that a design to take his life existed.” Nevertheless, he remained “very calm, and neither in his conversation or manner exhibited alarm or fear.”

On reaching the Jones House, it was announced that Lincoln had allowed himself a period of rest before dinner. Instead, as the reporters and well-wishers dispersed, he withdrew into a private parlor for Norman Judd’s emergency meeting. One by one, David Davis, Colonel Sumner, Major Hunter, Captain Pope, and Ward Lamon made their way into the room and found seats, all of them aware by this time that there was something very peculiar in the wind. Lincoln sat back and gave control of the meeting to Judd. He said little but listened attentively, as would become his habit in the White House, letting the others debate the matter before he entered the fray himself. “The facts were laid before them by me,” Judd recalled, “together with the details of the proposed plan of action.” Judd gave a tidy précis of the previous day’s meeting with Pinkerton, and revealed that Lincoln had agreed to break away from the inaugural party in Harrisburg and travel through to Washington—ahead of schedule—under the detective’s protection.

As Judd had expected, his fellow travelers were shocked by the revelation of a threat on Lincoln’s life. As the discussion continued, however, they were perhaps even more unsettled by the extreme measures suggested by Pinkerton. “There was a diversity of opinion and some warm discussion,” Judd allowed, “and I was subjected to a very rigid cross-examination.”

As the debate over Pinkerton’s proposal grew more and more heated, Colonel Sumner, the senior military officer in the room, offered a blunt appraisal. “That proceeding,” he said, “will be a damned piece of cowardice.”

Judd had expected this, and there was a note of weary impatience in his response: “I replied to this pointed hit by saying that that view of the case had already been presented to Mr. Lincoln.” Sumner would not be placated. “I’ll get a squad of cavalry, sir,” he said heatedly, “and cut our way to Washington, sir.”

In the circumstances, this struck Judd as empty posturing. Even if it were practical to exercise a military option, he explained with mounting irritation, it would be a time-consuming enterprise, and one that was likely to drag on past inauguration day. “It is important,” he said drily, “that Mr. Lincoln should be in Washington that day.”

As Judd and Sumner glared at each other, Judge Davis stepped in to take charge of the situation, displaying the instincts that would soon carry him to the Supreme Court. Judd would recall that Davis “expressed no opinion but contented himself with asking rather pointed questions,” reviewing the facts in a cool, methodical manner that succeeded in lowering the temperature of the room. At length, when Judd had been made to reiterate all of the salient points, Davis turned to the president-elect and cut to the heart of the issue. “Well, Mr. Lincoln,” he asked, “what is your judgment upon this matter?”

Lincoln sighed and gathered himself to speak for the first time. “I have thought over this matter considerably since I went over the ground with Pinkerton last night,” he began. “The appearance of Mr. Frederick Seward, with warning from another source, confirms my belief in Mr. Pinkerton’s statement. Unless there are some other reasons, besides fear of ridicule, I am disposed to carry out Judd’s plan.”

Davis turned to the others. “That settles the matter, gentlemen,” he said. The room fell silent. There remained one final point to be decided. Pinkerton’s plan allowed for one member of the suite to accompany Lincoln on the journey, along with the detective himself. “Now,” said Judd, “the question was—who should go with him to Washington?” Tempers flared once again as each man present began arguing his own suitability. In Colonel Sumner’s view, there could be no room for debate. Obviously, a military man would be the best choice, and he was the senior officer present.

Significantly, Col. Elmer Ellsworth was not in the room for these discussions. The young officer would undoubtedly have pressed hard for the position, being the only member of the party with any official designation as Lincoln’s bodyguard. As it happened, Lincoln’s train had been met in Harrisburg by a large delegation of Zouave soldiers, of the type made famous by Ellsworth’s own drill team. “The corps of Zouaves elicited special attention,” wrote Hay. “Colonel Ellsworth was in his glory.” Ellsworth may well have been off reviewing the Zouave unit during the conference at the Jones House, or possibly he was fulfilling a second duty that had been pressed on him during the journey—entertaining Tad and Willie Lincoln. In any case, Ellsworth’s fame would have made him a liability for the task ahead. He was nearly as recognizable as Lincoln himself. Captain Hazzard, who had been so prescient about the perils of Baltimore, was also absent from the discussions that afternoon. Although Major Hunter was present, and had spoken in favor of Pinkerton’s plan, he would not have been seriously considered: His arm was still in a sling after the shoulder injury he had sustained in Buffalo.

Judd attempted to quiet the debate by proposing Ward Lamon as a compromise candidate. The others made to object, Judd said, but “Lincoln agreed with me, or I should have been kicked out of court.” The burly, powerful Lamon, who had already done so much to protect Lincoln from the crush of unruly crowds along the way, never doubted that he would be chosen. There had already been discussions to that effect between Judd and Lincoln, he later reported, and “I had been selected as the proper person.” In Lincoln’s view, his wife would insist on Lamon, a man she knew and trusted.

Even now, Colonel Sumner would not be dissuaded. “It is against my judgment,” he said of the planned subterfuge, “but I have undertaken to go to Washington with Mr. Lincoln, and I shall do it.” The sixty-four-year-old Sumner, a veteran of the Black Hawk and Mexican-American wars, was perhaps not the most vigorous member of the party, but he was easily the most stubborn. His nickname of “Bullhead,” according to legend, arose from the fact that a musket ball had once bounced off his head with little ill effect. Such men are not easily deterred. “I tried to convince him that any additional person added to the risk,” Judd reported, “but the spirit of the gallant old soldier was up, and debate was useless.” As the meeting came to a close, both Sumner and Lamon expected to travel with Lincoln to the capital.

*   *   *

AT FIVE O’CLOCK THAT EVENING, Lincoln sat down to dinner at the Jones House with Governor Curtin and several other prominent Pennsylvanians. Norman Judd was not at the table. He was said to be “giving personal attention to Mrs. Lincoln,” who had now been notified of her husband’s change of itinerary. Earlier, Lincoln had told Pinkerton that he would not be able to avoid bringing his wife in on the scheme. “This he said he could not avoid,” Pinkerton reported, “as otherwise she would be very much excited at his absence.” It appears that she was very much excited in any case. Though Judd and the other gentleman present that night declined to give any detail, it is clear that Mrs. Lincoln signaled her displeasure in no uncertain terms, and at such high volume that it threatened to give the game away. According to state senator Alexander K. McClure, one of the dinner guests that evening, “she narrowly escaped attracting attention to the movements which required utmost secrecy.”

At about 5:45, having delivered the unhappy news to Mrs. Lincoln, Judd stepped into the dining room and tapped her husband on the shoulder. Lincoln had already shrugged off one or two similar signals, as if reluctant to acknowledge the necessity of his departure. McClure would later claim that Lincoln had expressed reservations at the table that night. He recalled, perhaps fancifully, that Lincoln spoke with “impressive earnestness” on the subject: “What would the nation think of its President stealing into the Capital like a thief in the night?” Be that as it may, Lincoln now rose from the table and excused himself, pleading fatigue for the benefit of any onlookers. Taking Governor Curtin by the arm, Lincoln strolled from the room without drawing any particular notice.

Upstairs in his room, Lincoln gathered a few articles of clothing for the journey. “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 Lamon and Colonel Sumner, the latter in full uniform, both waiting to depart with Lincoln. Drawing Lamon aside, Curtin asked if he was armed. Lamon “at once uncovered a small arsenal of deadly weapons, showing that he was literally armed to the teeth. 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 to 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. At this, Judd stepped forward, steeling himself for the first of the evening’s many deceits. “Colonel Sumner was following close after Mr. Lincoln,” Judd recalled. “I put my hand gently on his shoulder. He turned round to see what was wanted, and before I had time to explain the carriage was off.” Sumner, left behind on the pavement like a dim-witted schoolboy, was outraged. “A madder man you never saw,” said Judd. One account has it that the old soldier wept with indignation.

Judd apologized in heartfelt terms. “When we get to Washington,” he said, “Mr. Lincoln shall determine what apology is due you.” Privately, Judd was relieved. The first phase of Pinkerton’s scheme had gone according to plan.

*   *   *

TO THE END OF HIS LIFE, Pinkerton would enjoy telling a story concerning two newspapermen—possibly Joseph Howard of the New York Times and Simon Hanscom of the New York Herald—who were singled out for special treatment that evening. These two “knights of the quill,” Pinkerton recalled, were preparing to attend a scheduled evening reception for Lincoln when “a gentlemanly individual, well-known to me” appeared at the door of their hotel room. “The visitor quickly informed the gentlemen that Mr. Lincoln had left the city and was now flying over the road in the direction of Washington,” Pinkerton related. The reporters, startled by this unexpected news, “hastily arose, and, grasping their hats, started for the door,” eager to get this bulletin onto the telegraph wires. “Their visitor, however, was too quick for them,” Pinkerton noted with satisfaction, “and standing before the door with a revolver in each hand, he addressed them: ‘You cannot leave this room, gentlemen, without my permission!’”

A heated exchange followed: “‘What does this mean?’ inquired one of the surprised gentlemen, blinking through his spectacles.”

“‘It means that you cannot leave this room until the safety of Mr. Lincoln justifies it,’ calmly replied the other.”

Before the journalists could protest further, the unnamed gentleman struck a deal. If they would bide their time until morning, he would “make matters interesting,” with a full account of the “flank movement on the Baltimoreans.”

“Their indignation and fright subsided at once,” Pinkerton related, “and they quietly sat down. Refreshments were sent for, and soon the nimble pencils of the reporters were rapidly jotting down as much of the information as was advisable to be made public at that time.”

Pinkerton’s account bears the stamp of wishful thinking, but it is at least partially true. Years later, Joseph Howard of the Times would admit that he had been pulled aside that night and notified of what was transpiring. “The information had been given under an injunction of secrecy,” he said. “We were bound by honor not to attempt to use it until the morning, and did not.” Howard did, however, file a seemingly innocuous dispatch of earlier events in Harrisburg, which appeared the following morning. Seen in retrospect, the article appears freighted with secret knowledge of Lincoln’s unexplained absence that evening: “Mr. Lincoln being physically prostrated by hard labor, did not give the anticipated reception, but like a prudent man went to bed early,” Howard wrote. “We anticipate an exciting time today, and praying that it may prove an agreeable excitement, having a prosperous termination, I close.”

Howard’s next dispatch would be the most sensational of his career.

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