He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.…
He is a great observer and he looks / Quite through the deeds of men …
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease / Whiles they behold a greater than themselves, / And therefore are they very dangerous.
FOR SEVERAL WEEKS IN MAY 1861, an enormous “Stars and Bars” could be seen clearly from the windows of the White House. The newly adopted flag of the Confederacy had been raised above the Marshall House hotel, directly across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. Though Virginia was still technically a state of the Union, with a vote on secession scheduled for May 23, the Confederate banner gave a clear indication of which way the wind was blowing. Newspapers carried reports of rebel troops massing in Alexandria and warned that an attack on Washington was imminent.
“The Flight of Abraham,” as depicted in Harper’s Weekly.
For Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a regular visitor to the Lincoln White House, the sight of the rebel flag was a particularly bitter affront. In the days following the inauguration, Ellsworth had been sidelined with a case of measles contracted from Tad and Willie Lincoln, who so often had been under his care during the long journey from Springfield. On recovery, as the new president issued a proclamation calling up 75,000 militiamen, Ellsworth was eager to get into the fight. With Lincoln’s help, he secured a commission and raised a regiment of battle-ready volunteers from among the “turbulent spirits” of the New York City Fire Department. “They are sleeping on a volcano in Washington,” Ellsworth told a reporter, “and I want men who can go into a fight.”
On the evening of May 23, as Virginia’s secession became official, Ellsworth pulled strings to ensure that his “Fire Zouaves” would have the honor of being the first to march upon the Old Dominion state. Plans were laid to secure Alexandria the following morning. At midnight, alone in his tent on the banks of the Potomac, Ellsworth poured his feelings into a heartfelt letter to his fiancée:
My own darling Kitty,
My regiment is ordered to cross the river & move on Alexandria within six hours. We may meet with a warm reception & my darling among so many careless fellows one is somewhat likely to be hit.
If anything should happen—Darling just accept this assurance, the only thing I can leave you—the highest happiness I looked for on earth was a union with you.… I love you with all the ardor I am capable of.… God bless you, as you deserve and grant you a happy & useful life & us a union hereafter.
Truly your own,
At dawn, federal troop steamers ferried Ellsworth and his men across the Potomac toward Virginia. On his chest, the “gallant little Colonel” wore a gold medal inscribed with the Latin phrase Non nobis, sed pro patria, meaning “Not for ourselves, but for country.” Setting down at an Alexandria wharf, Ellsworth’s regiment met no resistance. A thin line of Virginia militiamen had pulled back an hour earlier. Advancing quickly, Ellsworth dispatched a company of men to secure the train station while he led a separate column toward the telegraph office. Heading up King Street, in the center of town, Ellsworth passed the Marshall House and caught sight of the Confederate flag that had “long swung insolently” in full view of the White House. “Boys,” he said, “we must have that down before we return.”
Ellsworth paused for a moment, torn between his objective of cutting the city’s telegraph wires and his desire to pull down the offending flag. With a sudden resolve, he turned toward the Marshall House. Posting three guards on the ground floor, Ellsworth dashed up the stairs with a small detachment of men, trailed by reporter Edward House of the New-York Tribune. Scrambling up an attic ladder onto the roof, Ellsworth cut down the rebel banner and began rolling it up to carry back across the river. With Corp. Francis E. Brownell in the lead, Ellsworth climbed back down the ladder, still absorbed in gathering the flag as he made his way to the stairs. Edward House followed close behind, laying a balancing hand on Ellsworth’s shoulder.
Suddenly, at the third-floor landing, a man leapt out from the shadows. James W. Jackson, the innkeeper, had sworn that the Stars and Bars would come down only over his dead body. Now, as he leveled a double-barreled shotgun, he intended to make good on the vow. Corporal Brownell batted at the weapon with his rifle, but Jackson pulled the trigger, firing one of its two barrels and striking Colonel Ellsworth square in the chest. “He seemed to fall almost from my grasp,” the reporter Edward House said. “He was on the second or third step from the landing, and he dropped forward with that heavy, horrible, headlong weight which always comes of sudden death.”
As Ellsworth fell, Jackson fired the second barrel, narrowly missing Corporal Brownell. At the same moment, the young soldier swung his rifle and returned fire. “The assassin staggered backward,” House wrote. “He was hit exactly in the middle of the face.” As Jackson crashed down the stairs, Brownell thrust his bayonet twice through the body.
“The sudden shock only for an instant paralyzed us,” one of the soldiers would recall. Recovering, they turned their attention to Ellsworth, who lay facedown at the bottom of the stairs, “his life’s blood perfectly saturating the secession flag.” His men carried him to a bedroom and ran water over his face, attempting to revive him, but to no avail. Unbuttoning his coat, they discovered that the blast had driven Ellsworth’s gold medal deep into his chest. “We saw that all hope must be resigned,” wrote House. Ellsworth was dead at the age of twenty-four, the first Union officer to fall in the line of duty.
The news reached the White House later that morning. Lincoln, who stared in anguish across the Potomac to the spot where the flag had flown, found himself unable to speak. By that time, church bells were tolling across the city and flags were being lowered to half-mast. An honor guard brought the body to the East Room, where funeral ceremonies were held the following day. “My boy! My boy!” cried Lincoln at the sight of the body. “Was it necessary that this sacrifice should be made?” Ellsworth’s men were so aggrieved that they had to be confined to a ship anchored in the middle of the Potomac, to be certain that they would not burn Alexandria to the ground. As the body lay in state at the White House, Lincoln composed a poignant letter to Ellsworth’s parents. “In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here is scarcely less than your own,” he wrote. “In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child. May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power.” In the days to come, the phrase “Remember Ellsworth!” became the rallying cry of Union recruitment drives, and a regiment known as “Ellsworth’s Avengers” was raised in his native New York. “We needed just such a sacrifice as this,” declared one clergyman. “Let the war go on!”
The death of Colonel Ellsworth in Alexandria, Virginia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
* * *
IN BALTIMORE, THE FIRST CASUALTIES of the war had already fallen. On the morning of April 19, a thirty-five-car military train had departed Philadelphia on Samuel Felton’s railroad, answering President Lincoln’s call for troops to reinforce the capital. On board were seven hundred well-equipped soldiers of the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, as well as several companies of Pennsylvania infantrymen, who had not yet been issued arms or uniforms. In order to reach Washington, the troops would have to follow the same path through Baltimore that Lincoln had taken two months earlier, arriving at the President Street Station and passing through the center of town to Camden Street.
Trouble was expected. “You will undoubtedly be insulted, abused, and perhaps assaulted,” the men were told. They were ordered to pay no attention, and to continue marching with their faces to the front, even if pelted with stones and bricks. Should they be fired upon, however, their officers would order them to return fire. If this should occur, the men were instructed to target any person seen with a weapon and “be sure you drop him.”
On arrival at the President Street Station, it was decided that the troops would not march through the streets in columns, as expected. Instead, the train cars would be drawn through the city by horse while the soldiers remained inside, perhaps to avoid a provocative display of military force. For a time, all appeared well. The first few cars reached Camden Street, wrote Baltimore’s mayor, George Brown, “being assailed only with jeers and hisses.” As each successive car passed through the streets, however, the crowds of onlookers swelled, and “the feeling of indignation grew more intense.” Soon, paving stones and bricks were thrown, breaking the windows of the train carriages and striking some of the soldiers inside. Elsewhere, a group of “intemperate spirits” dumped a cartload of sand in the path of one of the carriages, while others dragged heavy anchors into position from a nearby dock. The progress of the troop cars came to a halt.
When word of these obstructions reached the President Street Station, the remaining troops climbed down from their carriages and formed into columns, preparing to march through the center of town, come what may. By now, word of the movement of the soldiers had spread to every corner of the city. As the marchers advanced onto Pratt Street, an ever-growing mob of angry citizens threatened and pressed from both sides, “uttering cheers for Jefferson Davis and the Southern Confederacy, and groans for Lincoln and the north, with much abusive language.” Soon, a Confederate flag appeared, spurring the crowd to greater extremes. As the columns of marchers skirted the docks, a shower of stones and bottles rained down, and two soldiers fell to the ground, seriously injured. Officers now ordered the men to a “double-quick” pace, in hopes of passing through the mob before the situation worsened. This action, according to one soldier’s account, seemed to throw fuel on the crowd’s rage.
Soon, shots rang out. The exact sequence of events remains a matter of dispute, but within minutes the troops were taking fire—some of it from street level, some from the upper stories of surrounding buildings—and at least one soldier fell dead. The order to return fire was promptly given, though some of the soldiers could barely raise their weapons under the press of the crowd. “It was impossible for the troops to discriminate between the rioters and the by-standers,” wrote Mayor Brown. “The soldiers fired at will.”
According to several accounts, Mayor Brown and Marshal Kane made a valiant effort to contain the violence. Brown boldly waded through the mob to extend his hand to a Massachusetts officer, “exerting all his influence to preserve peace.” Kane also faced off with the rioters, placing himself in harm’s way, just as he had years earlier in Annapolis. “Keep back, men,” he shouted at the rioters, “or I shoot!” The maneuver “was gallantly executed,” reported Brown. “The mob recoiled like water from a rock.” In the end, however, these efforts proved futile. When the smoke cleared, as many as twenty-one people lay dead—both soldiers and civilians—with dozens of others badly injured. The death toll would likely have climbed higher if the troops had carried out a proposed counterattack from the Camden Street Station, but cooler heads prevailed. Instead, the soldiers departed as planned for Washington, where Lincoln himself was on hand to meet them. “Thank God you have come,” the president declared.
“But peace even for the day had not come,” Mayor Brown lamented. “It was manifest that no more troops, while the excitement lasted, could pass through without a bloody conflict. All citizens, no matter what were their political opinions, appeared to agree in this—the strongest friends of the Union as well as its foes.” Accordingly, a telegram was sent to Lincoln at the White House, signed by both Brown and Governor Thomas Hicks. “A collision between the citizens and the northern troops has taken place in Baltimore,” it read, “and the excitement is fearful. Send no more troops here. We will endeavor to prevent all bloodshed. A public meeting of citizens has been called, and the troops of the State and the city have been called out to preserve the peace. They will be enough.”
Before Lincoln could respond, however, Brown received word that more troops were, in fact, coming by rail from both Harrisburg and Philadelphia. In the absence of guidance from Washington, he and other city authorities now made an extraordinary decision: “[I]t was necessary to burn or disable the bridges on both railroads so far as was required to prevent the ingress of troops,” the mayor insisted. Later that night, two squads of men, including members of the police and the National Volunteers, set out from Baltimore armed with “picks, axes, crowbars and a good supply of turpentine.” Several railroad bridges were set alight and badly damaged, though none would be entirely destroyed, perhaps owing in part to Samuel Felton’s “nine-days wonder” of salt and alum whitewashing.
To the end of his life, Mayor Brown argued that this incendiary tactic had been calculated to preserve the peace—averting a second, perhaps even more violent confrontation by cutting off access to the city. It remains unclear whether Governor Hicks, who had become notorious for his vacillations and stalling tactics, approved the measure. Brown would attest that Hicks gave his assent under Brown’s own roof before removing himself to the relative safety of Annapolis, where he subsequently denied any part in the action. In either case, the following day word came from Washington that President Lincoln would send no more troops through the city for the time being. Mayor Brown himself went to the White House on April 21—two days after the bloodshed—and learned that Lincoln was seeking alternate routes through Maryland, circumventing Baltimore to avoid sparking further trouble. The president insisted, however, on the “irresistible necessity” of having clear passage through the state. “Our men are not moles, and can’t dig under the earth; they are not birds, and can’t fly through the air,” he told a subsequent delegation of Marylanders. “There is no way but to march across, and that they must do.”
Despite these efforts, the situation in Baltimore remained tense, and the calls for secession grew louder by the day. Chief among the agitators was Marshal Kane, whose heroics in the early hours of the crisis were soon overshadowed by a call for armed resistance to the passage of any further troops. “We will fight them,” Kane declared, “and whip them—or die.” Mayor Brown conceded that Kane’s pronouncement was “embarrassing in the highest degree to the city authorities,” but he defended Kane as a valuable officer of the peace who had simply been “carried away by the frenzy of the hour.”
Kane was not alone. “The war spirit raged throughout the city,” reported the Baltimore American, “with an ardor which seemed to gather fresh force each hour.” In the days to come, Lincoln would take a heavy hand in suppressing the secessionist element in order to keep Maryland in the Union and preserve the vital conduit to the North. By the end of the month, he would suspend the writ of habeas corpus along the route between Philadelphia and Washington, effectively allowing military authorities to make summary arrests of suspected Confederate sympathizers and detain them indefinitely. Critics judged the decision harshly, challenging it on both legal and moral grounds, but in some respects Lincoln had chosen a moderate path. At the time, Horace Greeley and others were calling for Baltimore to be put to the torch.
On the night of May 13, a violent thunderstorm rolled across the city, driving “all but the livestock” to shelter. When the city’s residents emerged under clearing skies the following morning, they were astonished to find a battery of heavy artillery pointing down from the heights of Federal Hill, overlooking the harbor and business district, and fortified by some one thousand Union soldiers. Gen. Benjamin Butler, having been dispatched to repair the damaged railroad routes and reopen the lines of communication, had now concentrated his forces on Baltimore. For Butler, a Massachusetts man, the action was a direct response to the previous month’s rioting. “I had promised my old comrades of the Sixth Regiment, with whom I had served for many years, that I would march them through Baltimore and revenge the cowardly attack made upon them,” Butler wrote. Mayor Brown was outraged at Butler’s audacity. “He immediately issued a proclamation,” Brown complained, “as if he were in a conquered city subject to military law.” In fact, Butler had acted without official sanction, and he was immediately stripped of command by an infuriated General Scott. Lincoln’s view may be judged by Butler’s subsequent elevation to the rank of major general, effective two days after the action on Federal Hill.
Authorized or not, Butler’s show of force had a profound effect. “In the days to come,” wrote Mayor Brown, “it became plain that no movement would be made towards secession.” Many of the city’s able-bodied men now went south to join the ranks of the Confederacy. For those who remained, the grip of martial law tightened. Within weeks, more than twenty members of Maryland’s state legislature, along with several Baltimore newspaper editors, were placed under arrest.
Among those rounded up and shipped off to federal prison forts were Mayor Brown and Marshal Kane. The mayor’s arrest came at the hands of a team of men led by none other than Allan Pinkerton, acting on orders from Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Brown recalled asking his accusers to produce a warrant, “but they had none.” Marshal Kane was shipped off to New York’s Fort Lafayette, where he protested to President Lincoln about the overcrowded conditions and “offensive and pestiferous” atmosphere. Kane had contracted a malarial fever en route to the prison, which added to the miseries of prison life. “Whilst suffering great agony from the promptings of nature and effects of my debility I am frequently kept for a long time at the door of my cell waiting for permission to go to the water-closet,” he told Lincoln, “owing to the utter indifference of some of my keepers to the ordinary demands of humanity.” Such treatment, he insisted, “cannot meet with the sanction of the President of the United States.”
Mayor Brown would remain stoic about the hardships he endured as a prisoner at Boston’s Fort Warren, but he had bitter words for the conduct of Governor Hicks, who managed to avoid arrest in spite of his “treasonable” actions in the previous months. The governor made a conspicuous, if belated, show of loyalty to the North, Brown wrote, so that he might “reap splendid rewards and high honors as the most patriotic and devoted Union man in Maryland.”
Not surprisingly, Brown also had harsh words for Lincoln. In the mayor’s view, much of this “dark and bitter” chapter of Baltimore’s history might have been avoided if Lincoln had simply kept to schedule two months earlier and passed through the city “in the light of day.” If Lincoln had set aside the advice of a certain “celebrated detective,” Brown suggested, the tide of ill feeling might have been turned. “If Mr. Lincoln had arrived in Baltimore at the time expected, and had spoken a few words to the people who had gathered to hear him,” Brown wrote, “he could not have failed to make a very different impression.” Instead, Lincoln had demonstrated a “want of confidence and respect,” thereby aggravating the city’s grievances. “On such an occasion as this even trifles are of importance, and this incident was not a trifle,” he insisted. “The emotional part of human nature is its strongest side and soonest leads to action. It was so with the people of Baltimore.”
Others felt differently. Lincoln’s allies and supporters saw the violence of April 19 as a forceful validation of his “midnight flight.” In a letter to Allan Pinkerton, Norman Judd declared that Lincoln would have faced the “same spirit that slaughtered the Massachusetts soldiers” if he had appeared openly in Baltimore two months earlier. Pinkerton himself would speak of the riot as the “crowning act of disloyalty,” and he decried the scenes of bloodshed as among the worst that had ever “blackened a page of American history.”
Both Pinkerton and Mayor Brown had ample reason to be passionate in their views, but neither man could pretend to be objective. It is naïve to suggest that had Lincoln followed through with his public program on February 23, a few well-wrought phrases would have sufficed to quell the growing turbulence in the city. By the same token, it is too much to say with certainty that there would have been outright carnage if he had made the attempt. A great deal had transpired in the interim between Lincoln’s passage and the fatal riot, not least of which was the bombardment of Fort Sumter. At the same time, many of Baltimore’s most rabid secessionists had been at pains to say—even before Lincoln left Springfield—that the flash point of any violence would not be the president-elect himself, but a hostile intent signaled by the presence of a “military escort.” As Otis K. Hillard had testified in Washington, he expected that Baltimore’s residents would receive Lincoln with respect—“unless some military comes with him, which they look upon in the light of a threat.” It is by no means clear that such reasoning would have withstood a trial by fire, but it is significant that so many in Baltimore had voiced objections to any display of armed force. Lincoln himself would likely have brushed aside such rationalizations and cut to the heart of the matter. “There is no grievance,” he had declared years earlier in Springfield, “that is a fit object for redress by mob law.”
Incredibly, while Mayor Brown and Marshal Kane were being rounded up, the “sinister Italian barber,” Cypriano Ferrandini, escaped punishment entirely. There is no record to suggest that Ferrandini, Otis Hillard, or any of their fellow conspirators was ever arrested or even questioned in the matter. In his memoirs, Pinkerton would gloss over this peculiar lapse: “A general sentiment of rage and disappointment pervaded the entire circle of conspirators and secessionists,” he wrote. “Finding that their plans had been discovered, and fearing that the vengeance of the government would overtake them, the leading conspirators had suddenly disappeared. All their courage and bravado was gone, and now, like the miserable cowards that they were, they had sought safety in flight.”
It is probably true that Ferrandini and the others fled the scene in the immediate aftermath of the drama. Some of them undoubtedly joined the forces of the Confederacy, and others may have simply vanished into new lives to escape arrest. If Ferrandini was among those who bolted, his absence was brief. Soon enough, he could be seen back in his shop at Barnum’s Hotel, razor and leather strop in hand, carrying on his work as Baltimore’s “best-known hair-dresser.” He remained there, a respected member of the community, for many years to come. The Baltimore Sun reported his death in December 1910, at the age of eighty-eight, under the headline ADORNED CITY’S FAIREST. Any involvement with the events of 1861 went unmentioned.
It has often been suggested that the absence of formal charges against Ferrandini and his men absolves them of blame, but this ignores the state of political turbulence that existed in Baltimore in the early months of 1861. If the conspirators were known to have fled the scene, it is unlikely that authorities would have pursued a formal investigation, given the urgencies of the moment. Lincoln would not have wanted to draw any further attention to a matter that had made him an object of scorn, especially at a time when he was struggling to keep Maryland in the Union. Even so, it is striking that Ferrandini should have been able to return to his comfortable life at Barnum’s without consequence, but he was not the only controversial figure to do so. Marshal Kane, who gave service to the Confederacy after his release from federal prison, would be elected mayor of Baltimore in 1877.
The riot of April 19 would cast a long shadow over the city, and foster lasting resentments. A Baltimore native named James Ryder Randall, who lost a close friend to the violence, gave voice to the divisive moment with a poem entitled “Maryland, My Maryland.” Randall’s sympathies were clear from the opening lines:
The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!
The poem went on to revile Lincoln as a tyrant and a vandal, and exhorted Maryland to stand with her Confederate sisters: “Huzza! She spurns the Northern scum!” It became wildly popular in Maryland and throughout the South, and was soon set to music, achieving even greater acclaim as “the Marseillaise of the Confederacy.” In time, “Maryland, My Maryland” would be adopted as the official state song, and it remains so to this day.
* * *
IN THE EARLIEST DAYS OF THE WAR, Allan Pinkerton believed that his service to the Union would be a natural extension of the work he had done in Baltimore. As he wrote in his letter to Lincoln, he had unbounded faith in the “courage, skill & devotion” of his operatives, and believed that they could supply vital information as to the “movements of the traitors.” From the beginning, Pinkerton tied his fortunes to those of Gen. George B. McClellan, his dear friend and colleague from his days on the Illinois Central Railroad. As McClellan took command of the Army of the Potomac, Pinkerton signed on as his chief of intelligence. Operating as “Major E. J. Allen,” Pinkerton attempted to adapt the skills he had pioneered in his civilian detective work to the gathering of military intelligence. Many of his undercover operatives, both male and female, now plied their trade behind enemy lines, sending back detailed reports on troop movements and artillery emplacements. In the capital, Pinkerton apprehended the notorious “Wild Rose of the Confederacy,” Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a prominent society figure who had been passing along vital information to Southern officers. Pinkerton even conducted an unprecedented wartime aerial reconnaissance, sending his fifteen-year-old son, William, aloft in a hot-air balloon to scout enemy positions.
Not all of his efforts were successful, though his failures were perhaps not as absolute as commonly believed. For generations, Pinkerton has been the target of blame and ridicule for his “wildly inflated” estimates of enemy troop strength in the early years of the war. It is often claimed that Pinkerton’s faulty intelligence was almost wholly responsible for the failures of McClellan’s command. The “Young Napoleon,” critics charge, hesitated at crucial moments and failed to press his advantages because he believed—on Pinkerton’s information—that the forces arrayed against him were far greater than they actually were. If not for Pinkerton’s blundering, it is suggested, the war would have ended much sooner, and with dramatically reduced casualties. In fact, though Pinkerton is far from blameless, a number of modern scholars have argued that his failures have been subject to their own form of exaggeration. McClellan’s correspondence and official records make it clear that the general himself was prone to inflate the size of the forces arrayed against him, even before Pinkerton’s operations were up and running. It is also apparent that Pinkerton’s voice was only one in a chorus of advisers, whose information McClellan at times embroidered to advance his own agenda. It remains clear that Pinkerton’s reports were flawed, but it is also evident on occasion that he exaggerated the Confederate numbers with McClellan’s knowledge and approval, as fleetingly glimpsed in the detective’s writings at the time. “The estimate was founded upon all information then in my possession,” Pinkerton reported to McClellan in one instance, “and was made large, as intimated to you at the time, so as to be sure and cover the entire number of the enemy that our army was to meet.” If Pinkerton cooked the numbers, he was not the only one stirring the pot.
In spite of his private admissions, Pinkerton never wavered in his public insistence that there had been “no serious mistake in the estimates” he presented to McClellan. “Self-constituted critics, whose avenues of information were limited and unreliable, have attempted to prove that the force opposed to General McClellan was much less than was really the case,” he wrote near the end of his life, “and upon this hypothesis have been led into unjust and undeserved censure of the commanding general. From my own experience, I know to the contrary.” History disputes him on this point—John Hay and John Nicolay would write of the general’s “mutinous imbecility”—but Pinkererton’s conviction is understandable. He was defending not only McClellan’s honor—and, by extension, his own wartime service—but also the reputation of Timothy Webster, his “most capable and brilliant detective,” who had met a horrifying death while helping to gather the disputed intelligence.
In the early months of the war, Webster had leveraged his undercover work in Perrymansville and Baltimore into a growing reputation as a Southern patriot. Soon he was working a perilous trade as a Confederate courier, carrying information back and forth to Richmond, where he won the confidence of no less a figure than Judah Benjamin, the Confederate secretary of war. Webster filled the role so successfully that he was once arrested by Union patrolmen and thrown into a federal prison, leaving Pinkerton with the delicate job of securing his release without arousing suspicion. From his base of operations at a Richmond hotel, Webster smuggled out reports to Pinkerton at McClellan’s headquarters, detailing the placement of Confederate gun batteries and breastworks.
At the start of 1862, Webster fell mysteriously silent. “I heard nothing further from him directly, and for weeks was utterly ignorant of his movements or condition,” Pinkerton reported. “I began to grow alarmed.” Only later would Pinkerton learn that Webster had become seriously ill, the result of a plunge into icy waters to assist the passengers of a foundering boat. For weeks, Webster lay close to death in his Richmond hotel room, barely able to move.
“As the days and weeks passed, and brought no tidings from him, my apprehensions became so strong that I resolved to send one or two of my men to the rebel capital,” Pinkerton recalled. It was a decision he would soon regret. Up to this point, Webster had carefully avoided any association with known Northern sympathizers, to avoid exposure as a federal agent. Pinkerton was well aware of the risks, and to avoid compromising his valuable operative, he selected two men—Pryce Lewis and John Scully—who had established themselves as “ardent secessionists” during the operations in Baltimore.
Lewis and Scully, having been made “fully conscious of the danger before them,” set off on their delicate mission in February, promising to send word to Pinkerton as soon as they made contact with Webster. “Tortured by the uncertainty of their fate, I passed many an anxious hour,” the detective wrote. It was not until April, as he paged through a captured Richmond newspaper, that he came across a chilling bulletin: Lewis and Scully had been arrested as Union spies and sentenced to death by hanging. Worse yet, their arrival in Richmond had also exposed Webster. “I cannot detail the effect which this announcement produced upon me,” Pinkerton wrote. “For a moment I sat almost stupefied, and unable to move. My blood seemed to freeze in my veins—my heart stood still—I was speechless.”
Pinkerton worked frantically to secure the release of his men, pleading with both McClellan and Lincoln to offer an exchange of prisoners under a flag of truce. A message was sent to Jefferson Davis, reminding him that the Union had thus far been “lenient and forbearing” toward captured Confederate spies. If the death sentences were carried out, the message implied, the North would “initiate a system of retaliation.”
In the end, the efforts were to no avail. Lewis and Scully would eventually be released after a long and harrowing imprisonment, but not before Scully had provided his captors with damning evidence against Webster. Scully was widely denounced as a traitor, but Pinkerton refused to join in the recriminations: “Who can blame this man? Who, that has stood before the frowning scaffold, and with a free world before him, can utter words of censure? Only those who have suffered as he did, prostrated as he was, can know the terrible agony through which he passed ere the fatal words were forced from his trembling lips.” Pinkerton was far less forgiving of his own actions. “For myself,” he said bitterly, “I have no judgment to utter.”
Weakened by illness and scarcely able to stand, Timothy Webster climbed the gallows at Richmond’s Camp Lee on April 29, 1862. An inept executioner bungled the first attempt to hang him, leaving Webster horribly injured as he mounted the platform a second time. “I suffer a double death!” he cried as the noose tightened once again. “In a second the trap was again sprung,” Pinkerton wrote. “Treason had done its worst, and the loyal spy was dead.”
A heartsick Pinkerton appealed to have the body sent north across enemy lines, but Webster would instead be buried in a pauper’s unmarked grave in Richmond. This indignity drew a pained response from Pinkerton, who echoed the words of Sir Walter Scott in eulogizing his fallen colleague as “a martyr to the cause of the Union, who lies in unhallowed soil, unwept, unhonored and unsung.” After the war, Pinkerton would recover Webster’s body and erect a huge memorial at the Pinkerton family plot in Chicago. The inscription praised the fallen operative as a “patriot and martyr,” and gave him a full measure of credit for his role in the Baltimore episode:
ON THE NIGHT OF FEBR. 22, 1861,
and KATE WARNE
A CONSPIRACY HAVING BEEN DISCOVERED
FOR HIS ASSASSINATION, FROM
PHILADELPHIA TO WASHINGTON,
WHERE HE WAS INAUGURATED
PRESIDENT OF THE U.S.
MARCH 4TH, 1861
Soon enough, Kate Warne would also have a memorial alongside Webster’s. Mrs. Warne succumbed to a lingering illness in January 1868, at the age of thirty-five, with Pinkerton himself at her bedside. In the coming years, as Pinkerton collaborated on a series of books drawn from celebrated cases, he repeatedly praised Mrs. Warne as “an intelligent, brilliant, and accomplished lady.” His high regard for her, together with the fact of her internment in the Pinkerton family plot, has led some to suppose that relations between them had progressed beyond the confines of business. This remains a matter of speculation. If Mrs. Warne’s final resting place is to be counted as suggestive, however, it should be mentioned that she is only one of several Pinkerton employees who came to be buried there.
* * *
BY THE TIME TIMOTHY WEBSTER and Kate Warne were laid to rest in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, Pinkerton had resolved that their roles in “sparing our President’s life” would not be forgotten. Barely four years after the drama in Baltimore, as Lincoln fell to an assassin’s bullet at Ford’s Theatre, the detective would be moved to a rare burst of emotion over the “great man who now sleeps in a martyr’s grave.” Pinkerton, his son William recalled, wept bitterly at the news of Lincoln’s death. By that time, he had long since departed as chief of intelligence, following McClellan’s dismissal, and had returned to Chicago to resume his detective operations. The unhappy bulletin from Washington reached him in New Orleans a full five days after the fact, in a newspaper account that detailed not only the events at Ford’s Theatre but also the attack on Secretary of State Seward and his son Frederick, whose skull had been fractured as he struggled to defend his father. Based on the early, incomplete reporting, Pinkerton concluded that Seward was also dead.
Even now, Pinkerton could not seem to accept that his “Secret Service” days were over. Adopting his familiar wartime alias of “E. J. Allen,” he dispatched a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. His message, however well intentioned, carried a note of ill-timed posturing:
This morning’s papers contain the deplorable intelligence of the assassination of President Lincoln and Secretary Seward. Under the providence of God, in February 1861, I was enabled to save him from the fate he has now met. How I regret that I had not been near him previous to this fatal act. I might have been the means to arrest it. If I can be of any service please let me know. The service of my whole force, or life itself, is at your disposal, and I trust you will excuse me for impressing upon you the necessity of great personal caution on your part. At this time the nation cannot spare you.
By the time Pinkerton received Stanton’s halfhearted reply, with advice to “watch the Western Rivers and you may get him,” John Wilkes Booth was already dead.
Pinkerton mourned Lincoln as a friend and as a statesman. Though he had grown thoroughly disenchanted with Washington by this time, he continued to regard Lincoln as a man of noble principle. “If only I had been there to protect him,” he declared wistfully, “as I had done before.”
In the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, there would be a brief resurgence of interest in the Baltimore plot, amid rumors of a link between Booth and the earlier plotters. At least one memorial service for the fallen president forged a connection between Lincoln’s assassin and those who had “organized a band of murderers to take [his] life while on his way to the seat of Government.” On the surface, there were many provocative parallels. Booth was known to frequent Barnum’s Hotel in Baltimore, where Cypriano Ferrandini plied his trade as a barber, and the actor even held meetings there with fellow conspirators Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen. There were also unverified accounts that placed Booth in Baltimore at the time of the rioting. Worthington Snethen, of Lincoln’s “gallant little band” of supporters in Baltimore, accused the actor of heading one of the groups of “desperadoes” that had set fire to Maryland’s railroad bridges after the April riot. “He escaped condign punishment,” Snethen wrote, “through the mistaken leniency of the government.” Snethen’s account is almost certainly fanciful, one of many wild theories thrown up in the tumult that followed the assassination. No concrete link between the two events would ever be established.
Speculation about the Baltimore plot was only beginning, however. In the years to come, many of the men who had taken part in the events of 1861 would come forward with reminiscences and memoirs. Several would suggest that Lincoln had been advised poorly in the matter. Left to his own instincts, they claimed, the president-elect would have preferred to face the residents of Baltimore openly. This appeared to be consistent with views that Lincoln himself had expressed on the few occasions when he made reference to the episode. “I did not then, nor do I now believe I should have been assassinated had I gone through Baltimore as first contemplated,” he had told an Illinois congressman, “but I thought it wise to run no risk where no risk was necessary.” This would have been a politically expedient thing to say at the time, given the ridicule he had endured over the matter, but it stopped short of expressing regret for the course he had taken.
Others would claim that he had been greatly pained by the decision. “I have several times heard Lincoln refer to this journey, and always with regret,” wrote the Pennsylvania Republican Alexander K. McClure. “Indeed, he seemed to regard it as one of the grave mistakes in his public career.” James G. Blaine, a future secretary of state, would write that Lincoln took the night journey “much against his own will and to his subsequent chagrin and mortification.” Blaine insisted that “to the end of his life he regretted that he had not, according to his own desire, gone through Baltimore in open day, trusting to the hospitality of the city, to the loyalty of its people, to the rightfulness of his cause and the righteousness of his aims and ends.” Elihu B. Washburne, who had been the first to see Lincoln on his arrival in Washington, took issue with this interpretation. “I know he was neither ‘mortified’ nor ‘chagrined’ at the manner in which he reached Washington,” the Illinois congressman wrote. “He expressed to me in the warmest terms his satisfaction at the complete success of his journey.… I do not believe that Mr. Lincoln ever expressed a regret that he had not, ‘according to his own desire, gone through Baltimore in open day,’ etc. It is safe to say he never had any such ‘desire.’”
For a few years, Pinkerton kept his silence. In 1868, at the time of Kate Warne’s death, however, he began to feel differently. As George Bangs, his right-hand man in Chicago, sadly noted, the “old group” had now dwindled to a proud few. Mindful of the passing years, Pinkerton decided to lift the veil on what had transpired in Baltimore. He began work on a pamphlet he would call History and Evidence of the Passage of Abraham Lincoln from Harrisburg, Pa., to Washington, D.C., on the 22nd and 23rd of February, 1861. In spite of the unwieldy title, the document was characteristically short and blunt. Pinkerton gave a businesslike summary of his role in the affair—addressed to “The People of the United States”—and attached several letters from witnesses and participants. Norman Judd, Samuel Felton, Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania, and the intrepid George Dunn of Harnden’s Express—keeper of the key to the back door of the sleeper—all attested to Pinkerton’s skill and prescience in delivering Lincoln safely to Washington. Even Andrew Wynne, who had cut the telegraph wires leading out of Harrisburg, produced what he called a “truthful statement of what passed.”
Pinkerton insisted that he sought no glory for himself. “It would be egotistical on my part,” he claimed, “to parade before the public my acts.” Rather, he suggested, he had come forward merely to set the record straight, and to make history aware of the efforts of fallen comrades such as Timothy Webster. “He, amongst all the force who went with me, deserves the credit of saving the life of Mr. Lincoln,” Pinkerton declared, “even more than I do.”
For all his professed reluctance, Pinkerton had a transparent agenda. He had been goaded into writing the pamphlet by the actions of New York’s police superintendent, John Kennedy, who at the time was noisily staking a claim to his share of the credit. The previous year, an article had appeared in the New York Times under the headline WHO SAVED MR. LINCOLN’S LIFE IN 1861? In it, Kennedy gave details of the work of his men in uncovering the plot, and expressed regret that there appeared to be confusion as “to whom the country is indebted” for the president-elect’s safe passage. Kennedy stated confidently that “the assassination consummated in April, 1865, would have taken place in February of 1861” if not for the efforts of his men. He emphasized the role of David Bookstaver in carrying a timely warning to General Scott in Washington, which, Kennedy claimed, had been the clinching piece of evidence. “Mr. Lincoln has stated that it was this note which induced him to change his journey as he did,” Kennedy wrote. He finished with a pointed swipe at the Chicago team: “I know nothing of any connection of Mr. Pinkerton with the matter.”
“In this respect Mr. Kennedy spoke the truth,” Pinkerton fired back, “[for] he did not know of my connection with the passage of Mr. Lincoln, nor was it my intention that he should know of it.” The details of his secret plan for the night journey, he explained, had been imparted “only to those whom it was necessary should know it,” and not to interlopers such as Kennedy. Pinkerton allowed that the superintendent had “done much service for the Union,” but he gave damning evidence that Kennedy had not been a key figure in the Baltimore drama. During Lincoln’s ride from Philadelphia to Baltimore, Pinkerton revealed, Kennedy had been “on the same train and occupied the third berth in the same sleeping car,” although he remained oblivious of Lincoln’s presence. Pinkerton’s message was clear: Though Kennedy now claimed to have orchestrated the events, he had, in fact, been clueless as the plan unfolded under his nose.
Pinkerton’s irritation with Kennedy was understandable, especially in light of the oddly conflicting statements the New York detective had made in the aftermath of the drama. Three days after Lincoln’s arrival in Washington, Kennedy had written a cordial letter to Pinkerton. He expressed regret that he had not known of Pinkerton’s presence in Baltimore, and offered his full cooperation now that the “field of operation” had transferred to the capital. Only two days later, however, Kennedy reversed course, sending a letter to Marshal Kane in Baltimore, in which he stated his belief that “there was no foundation in the story” of a plot to murder Lincoln. Moreover, Kennedy claimed that he had written to William Wood, Lincoln’s “Superintendent of Arrangements,” to assure him that the route to Washington was “perfectly safe.” Given Kennedy’s dismissal of the danger at the time, his later attempt to hog the credit would have been all the more exasperating to Pinkerton.
It would not be the last time Pinkerton felt the need to defend his record. Though the History and Evidence pamphlet included many impressive testimonials, one name was notably absent. Ward Lamon, who had traveled side by side with Lincoln and Pinkerton on the fateful journey, would not lend his voice to the chorus of praise.
Pinkerton realized that a statement from Lamon would carry considerable weight, and he tried earnestly to get one. Lamon had spent the war years as marshal of the District of Columbia, and he had often been found at Lincoln’s side. He had continued to hold himself responsible for Lincoln’s safety in the White House, often sleeping outside the door of the president’s bedroom with his private arsenal at the ready, and he can be glimpsed in the only known photograph of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in November 1863. After Lincoln’s death, Lamon often expressed his belief that he would have been able to save the president’s life had he not been sent out of town at the time of the assassination. “I wanted him to promise me that he would not go out after night while I was gone,” Lamon was quoted as saying, “particularly to the theatre.”
On the very day that Superintendent Kennedy’s comments appeared in the New York Times, Pinkerton composed a letter to Lamon, asking, “as a favor,” for his recollections. Pinkerton knew that Lamon probably still harbored hard feelings over the unpleasant scene at Willard’s Hotel, where Pinkerton had exploded over Lamon’s drunken disclosures to the press. In addition, there had been Pinkerton’s sharp rebuff in Philadelphia when Lamon offered a pistol and knife to Lincoln. Writing to him now, Pinkerton appealed to Lamon’s sense of fair play. “If Mr. Kennedy or Mr. Seward is entitled to any credit in this, I beg of you to give it to them,” Pinkerton wrote. “If I am entitled to any, I hope you will do the same by me.”
No reply came. Pinkerton would try twice more, but Lamon maintained a stony silence. Lincoln’s “particular friend,” it seemed, was carrying a grudge.
Soon enough, Pinkerton would inadvertently hand him an instrument of revenge. For some time, Lincoln’s former law partner William Herndon had been compiling research materials for the biography he intended to write. Learning of Pinkerton’s detailed records of the Baltimore episode, Herndon wrote to the detective in 1866, asking permission to make use of them. Pinkerton readily agreed. Though Superintendent Kennedy had not yet come forward at that stage, Pinkerton was already eager for a chance to go on record with his side of the story. “Your book must be one of great interest to the American People,” he told Herndon, “owing to your long and intimate acquaintance with Mr. Lincoln; and if I can add a mite to aid you it shall be done cheerfully.”
Mindful of the sensitivity of the material, Pinkerton laid down a pair of conditions. First, Pinkerton asked Herndon to omit the name of James Luckett, who had occupied the neighboring office in Baltimore, and for whom he had feelings of genuine friendship. Luckett, the detective said, “was undoubtedly a rebel at heart, yet he is a man of not much means; he has lost considerable during the war, and the publication of his name might tend to his serious injury in business. I deprecate this in any publications coming from my records.” Pinkerton’s second condition addressed the more sensitive matter of his squabbles with Lamon. Even before his attempt to extract a testimonial, Pinkerton realized that the comments in his record books—especially his dismissal of Lamon as a “brainless egotistical fool”—would cause unnecessary embarrassment if they came to light. To avoid stirring up trouble, he told Herndon to “consider as confidential any remarks which are found therein concerning Ward H. Lamon, Esq.”
Pinkerton might just as easily have blacked out the offending comments, but as he expected Herndon to make a copy of the record books and return the originals, it must have seemed sufficient to rely on Herndon’s discretion without censoring his own materials. As it happened, Herndon would fail miserably in honoring Pinkerton’s conditions. Within a few years, having suffered a number of financial reverses, Herndon would sell off his research archive, including the copies of Pinkerton’s records, to another prospective Lincoln biographer, who also happened to be a former law partner of Lincoln’s—none other than Ward H. Lamon, Esq.
Lamon soon came across Pinkerton’s unflattering remarks, and his reaction is clearly recorded in the transcript itself: “A falsehood of Allen Pinkerton the Detective,” he wrote on a scrap of paper jammed into the pages. In the margins of the text he scribbled an even more forceful denial: “This is an infamous lie from beginning to end. This detective, Allen Pinkerton was angry with me because I would not take sides with him—and make a publication in his favor when he and Kennedy—the New York detective—had the difficulty as to which of them the credit of saving Lincoln’s life was due from the public—Ward H. Lamon.”
Lamon’s anger had apparently clouded his logic; Pinkerton’s offending comments clearly date to February 1861, whereas the turf battle with Kennedy would not occur for another seven years. In any case, Lamon does not appear to have known that Pinkerton tried to suppress the remarks, nor is it likely that he would have been placated. Lamon’s long-simmering resentments now came to a boil. In 1872, when Lamon’s The Life of Abraham Lincoln appeared in print, it contained a bitter and prolonged attack on the detective. Lamon began with a claim that Lincoln “soon learned to regret the midnight ride” through Baltimore:
His friends reproached him, his enemies taunted him. He was convinced that he had committed a grave mistake in yielding to the solicitations of a professional spy and of friends too easily alarmed. He saw that he had fled from a danger purely imaginary, and felt the shame and mortification natural to a brave man under such circumstances. But he was not disposed to take all the responsibility to himself, and frequently upbraided the writer for having aided and assisted him to demean himself at the very moment in all his life when his behavior should have exhibited the utmost dignity and composure.
Others had already suggested that Lincoln regretted the decision, but Lamon was not content to leave the matter there. He went on to accuse Pinkerton of having fabricated the entire episode to burnish his own reputation. The Baltimore plot, according to Lamon, had been a total fraud, “a mare’s nest gotten up by a vainglorious detective.” Pinkerton’s motive, as Lamon explained it, had been a simple matter of advancing his own career:
Being intensely ambitious to shine in the professional way, and something of a politician besides, it struck him that it would be a particularly fine thing to discover a dreadful plot to assassinate the President elect; and he discovered it accordingly. It was easy to get that far: to furnish tangible proofs of an imaginary conspiracy was a more difficult matter. But Baltimore was seething with political excitement.… It would seem like an easy thing to beguile a few individuals of this angry and excited multitude into the expression of some criminal desire; and the opportunity was not wholly lost, although the limited success of the detective under such favorable circumstances is absolutely wonderful.
In disparaging the “limited success” of Pinkerton’s efforts, Lamon was referring to the fact that the detective had uncovered only a tiny cabal of potential assassins, in contrast to William Seward’s claim that “about fifteen thousand men were organized” to prevent Lincoln’s passage through Baltimore. “Here,” Lamon claimed, “was a plot big enough to swallow up the little one.” Pinkerton, in his view, had been blind to a more serious danger while focusing on a comparatively unimportant, if not wholly imaginary, threat.
The more serious charge, however, was that Pinkerton had set out for Baltimore with every intention of discovering an assassination conspiracy, whether one existed or not. “The process of investigation began,” Lamon wrote, “with a strong bias in favor of the conclusion at which the detective had arrived.” He went on to ridicule Pinkerton’s methods, as well as his grammar, tearing apart the record books that had passed into his hands by way of Herndon. He complained that the daily reports were nothing more than accounts of “when the spies went to bed, when they rose, where they ate, what saloons and brothels they visited, and what blackguards they met and ‘drinked’ with.” In these circumstances, Lamon insisted, there could be little wonder in the fact that several willing informants soon appeared to Pinkerton and his operatives. “One of them ‘shadowed’ a loud-mouthed, drinking fellow, named Luckett, and another, a poor scapegrace and braggart, named Hillard,” he reported. “These wretches ‘drinked’ and talked a great deal, hung about bars, haunted disreputable houses, were constantly half-drunk, and easily excited to use big and threatening words by the faithless protestations and cunning management of the spies.”
Lamon appeared to score a telling point in highlighting the fact that Cypriano Ferrandini, the supposed ringleader, was never brought to account for his role in the conspiracy. “If it had had any foundation in fact, we are inclined to believe that the sprightly and eloquent barber would have dangled at a rope’s end long since,” he wrote. “He would hardly have been left to shave and plot in peace, while the members of the Legislature, the police-marshal, and numerous private gentlemen, were locked up in Federal prisons.”
Finally, having laid out his charges with lawyerly skill, Lamon delivered his summation:
For ten years the author implicitly believed in the reality of the atrocious plot which these spies were supposed to have detected and thwarted; and for ten years he had pleased himself with the reflection that he also had done something to defeat the bloody purpose of the assassins. It was a conviction which could scarcely have been overthrown by evidence less powerful than the detective’s weak and contradictory account of his own case. In that account there is literally nothing to sustain the accusation, and much to rebut it. It is perfectly manifest that there was no conspiracy—no conspiracy of a hundred, of fifty, of twenty, of three; no definite purpose in the heart of even one man to murder Mr. Lincoln at Baltimore.
Lamon’s indictment, all but glowing with righteous indignation, would take an enormous toll on Pinkerton and his reputation. Initially, however, Lamon’s book was widely condemned for its portrait of Lincoln himself, which critics judged to be overly derogatory. “It is an oft repeated proverb that no man is a hero to his valet,” said one reviewer. “It would seem from the character of this volume that no man is a hero to his law partner.” Over time, however, the book would be reexamined for instances in which Lamon’s long friendship with Lincoln gave him a unique perspective. The Baltimore episode appeared to be one such case. Lamon had, after all, been at Lincoln’s side during the fateful journey, and perfectly positioned to take a clear and informed view of the matter.
Or so it seemed. In time, it became known that Lamon had not written the book himself; his “authentic biography of Mr. Lincoln” was, in fact, the product of a ghostwriter, who later asserted that “Lamon did not compose a line.” His poor choice of a collaborator explained many of the book’s shortcomings, but even so it remained evident that the personal venom directed at Pinkerton had originated with Lamon himself. Soon, the remarks concerning the Baltimore plot were seized upon and amplified by others. Mayor Brown of Baltimore was one of many who found vindication in Lamon’s views, highlighting in his own memoir that Lamon had pronounced the conspiracy to be a “mere fiction.” Maryland historian John Scharf, writing in 1879, quoted Lamon’s account at length to show that there was “absolutely not a particle” of truth in Pinkerton’s conspiracy. For generations to come, Lamon’s “mingled disgust and astonishment,” in Scharf’s phrase, would fuel a lasting debate over Pinkerton’s actions and motivations, and create an atmosphere of uncertainty as to whether any danger had ever existed in Baltimore.
* * *
PINKERTON HIMSELF WAS TAKEN ABACK when he read Lamon’s denunciation. He fired off a letter demanding an explanation, but once again Lamon declined to reply. The best Pinkerton could do was to plan a book of his own, more detailed than hisHistory and Evidence pamphlet, in which he could defend not only his actions in Baltimore but also his subsequent service to General McClellan. By providing a “truthful record,” he claimed, he could “leave to the impartial reader, and historian, the question whether the course I pursued, and the General whom I loved and faithfully served, are deserving of censure, or are entitled to the praises of a free and enlightened people.”
Pinkerton’s memoir would be a long time in coming. Lamon’s attack had been only the latest in a series of setbacks that would mark his declining years. “I feel no power on earth is able to check me,” he had told George Bangs at the end of 1868, “no power in Heaven or Hell can influence me when I know I am right.” It soon began to appear as if he had been tempting fate. A few months later, while dictating letters at his desk, Pinkerton suffered a devastating stroke, which left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Through sheer determination and an aggressive, radical course of treatment—including mud baths and painful leg braces—Pinkerton managed to drag himself out of his wheelchair and onto a pair of walking sticks. Over time, he slowly regained the use of his legs, forcing himself to take rigorous morning walks, and eventually covering distances of more than ten miles on a daily basis.
Further troubles lay ahead. The Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed Pinkerton’s home office, taking his treasured case files and records with it, at a cost he estimated to be $250,000. Determined to battle back after this latest blow, Pinkerton found himself at odds with his sons William and Robert, who had assumed control of much of the business during his long convalescence. For some time, the agency had been contending with a new and more daring breed of train robbers, such as the Reno Brothers Gang, leading to violent clashes and increasingly heavy-handed tactics. An explosive standoff with the James-Younger Gang in 1875 resulted in the death of an eight-year-old boy—the half brother of Frank and Jesse James—and public opinion turned sour. Pinkerton’s methods were now reviled as “needlessly barbarous,” and he himself was branded a vigilante. Pinkerton was unrepentant, and he continued to claim, as he had done so often before, that “the ends justify the means, if the ends are for the accomplishment of Justice.”
* * *
DURING THE SAME PERIOD, as the nation struggled with the effects of a crippling economic downturn, Pinkerton interceded in a vicious ongoing dispute between mine workers and local tycoons in the coal districts of eastern Pennsylvania, becoming entangled with a secretive society of Irish immigrants known as the “Molly Maguires,” whose tactics were said to include arson, kidnapping, and murder. They were men without “an iota of moral principle,” Pinkerton was told, and the entire region struggled in the “vise-like grip of this midnight, dark-lantern, murderous-minded fraternity.” Pinkerton sent a rugged Ulster immigrant named James McParland, posing as a fugitive named James McKenna, whose Irish-Catholic background gave him the best chance of success in infiltrating the organization. In time, McParland gave dramatic testimony in a sensational murder trial that resulted in the execution of several alleged “Mollies,” thereby sparking an enduring controversy. Pinkerton believed McParland’s “noble effort” had brought a just and fitting verdict, but others saw the condemned men as martyrs to the cause of organized labor, and they dismissed Pinkerton as a tool of an emerging class of robber barons. The detective who had marched with the Chartists in his native Scotland, wrote one critic, now “preyed upon social freedom in America.”
It was a charge that would stick. Pinkerton and his men came to be reviled as strikebreakers and skull-crackers, an image that would be cemented in years to come by the ghastly carnage during a strike at Andrew Carnegie’s steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in which ten people died. This unhappy episode occurred during the tenure of his sons, several years after Pinkerton’s death, but history has attached the blame to the agency’s founder.
* * *
AMID THE TURMOIL OF HIS LATER YEARS, Pinkerton would have been especially sensitive to Ward Lamon’s debunking of his efforts in Baltimore. He had come to regard the episode as the highlight of his career, and it would have been particularly galling to find himself accused of having stacked the cards in advance, determined to find an assassination plot upon arrival in Maryland. “From my reports you will see how accidentally I discovered the plot,” he had candidly admitted when passing over his records to Herndon. “I was looking for nothing of the kind, and had certainly not the slightest idea of it.” By the same token, in light of the tragedy at Ford’s Theatre, he would have been shocked to find himself ridiculed for focusing his efforts on a small band of plotters, rather than on a rumored conspiracy of thousands. The “scapegrace” Otis Hillard, who likened his dilemma to that of Brutus, would not have been out of place in the company of John Wilkes Booth.
There is a measure of justice, however, in Lamon’s criticism of Pinkerton’s methods. As the detective admitted to Samuel Felton, he and his operatives were forced to cut corners due to limited time, and they adopted a course of action that amounted to entrapment, using alcohol and pledges of money to draw out revelations about the conspiracy. Pinkerton himself had written, in his agency’s founding documents, that any confessions of guilt that relied on alcohol should not be trusted, as they tended to fall apart in court. It is fair to wonder how many of the statements made in the saloons of Baltimore would have held up to that scrutiny. By that standard, however, Pinkerton would have been in good company. Lincoln’s own adherence to legal procedure had become a subject of debate by this time, following the summary arrests throughout the state of Maryland.
Lamon was also correct in pointing out that no one was ever arrested for having a direct connection to the plot. The fact that Cypriano Ferrandini returned to Barnum’s Hotel and carried on with his barbering as if nothing had happened appears to weigh heavily against Pinkerton’s accounting of the case, and remains one of the most bizarre features of the episode. Lamon described Ferrandini as an innocent, if foolishly outspoken, dupe, a “poor knight of the soap-pot,” falsely accused and stitched up by Pinkerton to cover the weaknesses of the evidence. It is entirely possible that Pinkerton exaggerated and embellished Ferrandini’s many operatic pronouncements, but it is disingenuous to suggest that the “noble Captain” was nothing more than Pinkerton’s witless patsy. Nowhere did Lamon mention that Ferrandini’s secessionist activities had already brought him before the select committee in Washington—before Pinkerton ever met him—or that a fiery Italian barber had featured in other, independent accounts of the drama. Similarly, when Lamon insisted that Ferrandini “would have dangled at a rope’s end” if there had been any truth in the charges, he overlooked Lincoln’s own agenda. Lincoln had been eager to put the matter behind him as he entered the White House, and soon enough the plot and its aftershocks would fade from the public mind, overtaken by the fast march of events on the battlefields of the Civil War. By the time the war had finished, when attention might have returned to the plot in Baltimore, Lincoln had fallen to an assassin’s bullet. A photograph of the accused conspirators—including Mary Surratt—dangling at the ends of ropes soon became one of the indelible images of this dark chapter, amid lasting controversy. At a time when Washington was eager to move forward, there could not have been much political incentive to stir the ashes of a conspiracy that had failed.
Lamon intended to put the seal on his argument by charging that Pinkerton had fabricated the danger. There never was a threat, he insisted; the notion existed only in Pinkerton’s mind, a product of ambition and an overheated imagination. Even if one sets aside Lamon’s personal grudge, however, the conclusion is absurd. While the degree of the threat remains a legitimate subject for debate, the existence of a threat is beyond dispute, even by the measure of Lamon’s own statements. Though Lamon admitted that Lincoln had made his decision based on independent warnings from William Seward and General Scott—and even acknowledged the vast scale of those warnings—he finally rejected the possibility of murderous intent, “in the heart of even one man,” for fear that it might reflect credit on Pinkerton. This is nothing more than the expression of a small man’s petty grudge. There is much to criticize about Pinkerton’s efforts in Baltimore, and we can never know if Lincoln would have died had he attempted to pass through the city openly, but the coming years would bring a number of hard lessons on the subject of presidential security. By today’s standards, it is hard to fault Pinkerton’s conclusion that a small band of glory-seeking malcontents—men who vowed in the presence of witnesses that Lincoln would die in Baltimore—posed a viable threat. History has shown that such men are dangerous.
It was a point that Lamon appeared to reconsider in later life, though not without a characteristically oblique twist. A second volume of his collected writings about Lincoln appeared in 1895, assembled after Lamon’s death by his daughter, who admitted that the result might appear “fragmentary and lacking in purpose.” The new volume brought no fresh insight to the Baltimore plot, but Lamon touched on the matter briefly in his discussion of the journey from Springfield. In his manuscript, Lamon wrote, “There was never an hour from the time he entered Washington on the 23rd of February, 1861, to the 15th of April, 1865, that he was not in danger of his life from violence.…”
Dorothy Lamon, perhaps looking to dispel her father’s old rancor, made a small but telling alteration: “It is now an acknowledged fact that there never was a moment from the day he crossed the Maryland line, up to the time of the assassination, that he was not in danger of death by violence.…”
* * *
PINKERTON DID NOT LIVE TO READ these words. He died more than a decade earlier, on July 1, 1884, a few days short of his sixty-fifth birthday. The man who had survived a pistol shot in the back at close range met his death through a bizarre and painful accident. On one of his customary morning walks, he tripped and fell to the ground, biting his tongue severely. He succumbed to infection three weeks later.
The previous year, Pinkerton had at last published his volume of wartime memoirs, The Spy of the Rebellion, a final attempt to put forward his version of his service to Lincoln and the Union. “Very often, as I sit in the twilight, my mind reverts back to those stirring scenes of by-gone days,” he wrote, “and I recall with pleasure my own connection with the suppression of the rebellion, and in upholding the flag of our fathers. My task is done. In a few brief pages I have attempted to depict the work of years.”
Pinkerton made no direct reference to his grievance with Lamon, saying only that he had attempted “a truthful narration” of what had occurred on that fateful night in Baltimore. “Exaggerated stories and unauthorized statements have been freely made with regard to this journey of Mr. Lincoln,” he allowed. “The fact remains that Mr. Lincoln, as a gentleman, and in the company of gentlemen, successfully passed through the camp of the conspirators and reached in safety the capital of the county.”
He closed on a note of quiet satisfaction: “I had informed Mr. Lincoln in Philadelphia that I would answer with my life for his safe arrival in Washington, and I had redeemed my pledge.”