The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War

The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War

by Daniel Stashower
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The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War by Daniel Stashower

"It's history that reads like a race-against-the-clock thriller." Harlan Coben
Daniel Stashower, the two-time Edgar award–winning author of The Beautiful Cigar Girl, uncovers the riveting true story of the "Baltimore Plot," an audacious conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the Civil War in THE HOUR OF PERIL.

In February of 1861, just days before he assumed the presidency, Abraham Lincoln faced a "clear and fully-matured" threat of assassination as he traveled by train from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration. Over a period of thirteen days the legendary detective Allan Pinkerton worked feverishly to detect and thwart the plot, assisted by a captivating young widow named Kate Warne, America's first female private eye.

As Lincoln's train rolled inexorably toward "the seat of danger," Pinkerton struggled to unravel the ever-changing details of the murder plot, even as he contended with the intractability of Lincoln and his advisors, who refused to believe that the danger was real. With time running out Pinkerton took a desperate gamble, staking Lincoln's life—and the future of the nation—on a "perilous feint" that seemed to offer the only chance that Lincoln would survive to become president. Shrouded in secrecy—and, later, mired in controversy—the story of the "Baltimore Plot" is one of the great untold tales of the Civil War era, and Stashower has crafted this spellbinding historical narrative with the pace and urgency of a race-against-the-clock thriller.
A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2013
Winner of the 2014 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime
Winner of the 2013 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction
Winner of the 2014 Anthony Award for Best Critical or Non-fiction Work
Winner of the 2014 Macavity Award for Best Nonfiction

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250042668
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/28/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 516,539
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

DANIEL STASHOWER is an acclaimed biographer and narrative historian and winner of the Edgar, Agatha, and Anthony awards, and the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in Detective Fiction. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, AARP: The Magazine, and National Geographic Traveler as well as other publications.

Read an Excerpt



Let none falter, who thinks he is right, and we may succeed.

—ABRAHAM LINCOLN, Springfield, Illinois, 1839

THE PECULIAR MARCH OF EVENTS that carried Allan Pinkerton to Baltimore had begun twenty-two years earlier—on the night of November 3, 1839—on a rain-soaked field in South Wales. At that time, Abraham Lincoln was still a young legislator in Illinois, voicing early concern over voting rights and the “injustice and bad policy” of slavery. An ocean away, Pinkerton was also throwing himself at what he called “the higher principles of liberty,” even at the risk of his own freedom.

Pinkerton had traveled hundreds of miles from his home in Glasgow to take his place amid a swelling band of protest marchers as they prepared to descend on the Welsh town of Newport. These “crazed and misguided zealots,” as one newspaper called them, were the vanguard of the Chartist agitation, a working-class labor movement struggling to make its voice heard in Britain. Pinkerton, though barely twenty years old, thought of himself as “the most ardent Chartist in Scotland.”

Ragged and footsore, Pinkerton moved among the demonstrators as they huddled beside campfires, listening to firebrand speeches and waiting for reinforcements that would never come. They were, as Pinkerton himself would admit, a sorry-looking group. A few had tattered blankets pulled tight around their shoulders for protection against a chilling rain; others went barefoot in the squelching mud.

The Chartists’ demands, as spelled out in the “People’s Charter” of 1838, included universal suffrage, equitable pay, and other democratic reforms for Britain’s “toiling class.” Lately, the movement had been split by internal conflict, with one faction espousing nonviolent “moral force” to achieve its goals, and another comprised of “physical force men,” who were prepared—perhaps even eager—to take up arms. Matters came to a crisis in July 1839, when the House of Commons rejected a national petition bearing over a million signatures. The following month saw the charismatic Chartist leader Henry Vincent convicted on conspiracy charges, spurring the physical-force wing of the movement toward a large-scale uprising.

Henry Vincent had been imprisoned at Monmouth Castle, outside of Newport, and it was thought that several other Chartist leaders were being held in the town’s Westgate Hotel. As thousands of marchers, many of them miners and mill workers, massed on the outskirts of town, it became clear that they intended to demonstrate their “fervid passions” to the country at large. Exactly how they intended to do so remains a subject of debate. Many believe that the marchers planned to storm the Westgate Hotel and free the prisoners they thought were inside. Others contend that a massive demonstration was planned to secure the release of Henry Vincent from his castle cell, perhaps signaling a nationwide uprising in support of the Chartist agenda. In any event, there were iron pikes and muskets in the hands of many of the marchers, suggesting that their intent could not have been entirely peaceful.

The original plan called for the marchers to advance on Newport under cover of darkness, but it was past nine o’clock in the morning before they finally descended on the town. The delay proved costly: Military forces from a nearby royal regiment had used the time to reinforce the hotel and surrounding buildings. As the rain-soaked, disorganized laborers massed in the village square, they found themselves facing off against a small but well-armed company of battle-trained soldiers.

The details of what followed are not entirely clear. According to some accounts, the Chartists surged forward and banged at the shuttered windows of the hotel to demand the release of the prisoners, only to be met with a withering volley of musket fire. Within minutes, the ranks broke and the marchers fell back in wild disorder, leaving their weapons scattered on the ground. The defending soldiers now turned their guns on a handful of Chartists who had managed to force their way inside the hotel. In moments, said a witness, “there was a scene dreadful beyond expression—the groans of the dying—the shrieks of the wounded, the pallid, ghostly countenances and the bloodshot eyes of the dead, in addition to the shattered windows, and the passages ankle-deep in gore.”

When the smoke cleared, some twenty-two men lay dead, and many others were grievously injured. Most had scattered as the first shots rained down on their heads, fleeing back to their homes, as one witness recorded, like “so many yelping dogs gone to ground.” In the aftermath, many of the Chartist marchers would be captured and their leaders condemned to be hung, drawn, and quartered.

“It was a bad day,” recalled Allan Pinkerton. “We returned to Glasgow by the back streets and lanes, more like thieves than honest working men.” The lessons of the Newport Rising, as the unhappy episode came to be known, would remain with Pinkerton to the end of his days. Within a few years, he would gain international fame as the leading figure of a new type of law enforcement, followed by no small measure of infamy as a strikebreaker, but Pinkerton never entirely fell out of step with the Newport marchers in his efforts for social justice. The tension between the ideals of his youth and the obligations of the career he created for himself—like the split between the moral-force and physical-force Chartists—created a strain in his character that he never entirely resolved. He understood the impulses of the poor and disenfranchised, whether they were criminals or enemy soldiers, but this only sharpened the edge of his ambition. Decades later, while commenting on labor unrest in America, Pinkerton offered a rare public glimpse of the beliefs he had forged in Scotland: “I believe that I of all others have earned the right to say plain things to the countless toilers who were engaged in these strikes. I say I have earned this right. I have been all my lifetime a working man.” Life in America, he insisted, presented common workingmen with opportunities he had been denied in his homeland, with a chance to “rise above their previous conditions, and reach a nobler and happier condition of life.”

If Pinkerton’s words sound naïve and self-serving to the modern ear, it was a sentiment Abraham Lincoln would have recognized. “Twenty-five years ago I was a hired laborer,” Lincoln once declared. “The hired laborer of yesterday labors on his own account today, and will hire others to labor for him tomorrow. Advancement—improvement in condition—is the order of things in a society of equals.”

*   *   *

ALLAN PINKERTON WAS BORN in a two-room tenement flat on Muirhead Street in Glasgow, Scotland, in the summer of 1819. His family lived in the area on the south bank of the River Clyde known as the Gorbals, infamous at that time for its crime, brothels, and “persons in narrow circumstances.” Named for his grandfather, a well-known blacksmith, Allan was one of eleven children, at least four of whom died in infancy. His father, William, a hand-loom weaver, died when Allan was barely ten years old, forcing him to leave school and take a job as an errand boy. He worked “from dawn to dusk for pennies,” as he later recalled, in the shop of a pattern maker named Neil Murphy, who had been a friend of his father. After work, the boy would stand on the street, waiting for his mother, Isabella, to return from her job at a spinning mill. A high point during this cheerless period—and a memory he would often recall in his old age—was the night she came home cradling a single fresh egg for their evening meal.

Pinkerton soon grew restless with what he called the “dreary existence” of an errand boy. At the age of twelve, he took the bold step of resigning in favor of an apprenticeship with a Glasgow cooper named William McAuley, learning the craft of making watertight casks, barrels, and kegs. By the age of eighteen, Pinkerton had earned his journeyman’s card and joined the Coopers’ Union, but by this time McAuley had no further work for him. Pinkerton took to the road and became a “tramp cooper,” traveling the country to pick up piecemeal work at breweries and distilleries. He sent whatever money he could spare back to his mother in Glasgow, but he often found himself living so close to the bone that he slept outdoors and went without food.

Friends from this period described Pinkerton as quiet and rather serious, with penetrating blue eyes beneath a coarse thatch of reddish hair. Most accounts refer to him as a short or “diminutive” man, though his height is sometimes listed as five eight—by no means small for the time. A famous photograph taken many years later shows Pinkerton standing with Abraham Lincoln at the Antietam battlefield. The image gives an initial impression of Pinkerton as undersized and somewhat hunched, though in fact he appears to be only half a head shorter than Lincoln, who was six four. In a second image taken at the same time, however, Lincoln has shifted his stance and Pinkerton appears to have lost several inches in stature. Pinkerton would likely have been pleased by the disparity; in later years, he made a point of masking his appearance by frequently changing his style of dress and facial hair, making it easier to go undercover. At a time when Lincoln cultivated a beard to make his appearance more distinctive, Pinkerton sought to go unnoticed.

As a young barrel maker, Pinkerton earned a reputation as a hard worker, but he was also known for his quick temper and aggressive manner. An avid reader, he grew passionate about social reform, and it was known that he would not back down from a fight over the political issues of the day. His years of work with heavy tools, including a ten-pound cooper’s hammer, gave him a thick torso and powerful arms. Friends sometimes remarked on his top-heavy gait; he tended to tilt forward, as if prepared at any moment to wade into a brawl.

After the Newport Rising, the youthful strain of radicalism in Pinkerton’s character hardened into something dark and implacable. He knew that he had been lucky to escape Newport with his liberty. The death sentences handed out at the time were later commuted, but dozens of his fellow Chartists would be transported to Australia. Still, Pinkerton was undaunted, and he threw himself back into the fight with even greater vigor. Within weeks, after some “rather disagreeable talk” at a gathering of the Glasgow Universal Suffrage Association, Pinkerton stalked out of the meeting hall and launched a group of his own, the Northern Democratic Association, for the purpose of ratifying the People’s Charter—“peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must.”

Pinkerton soon fell under the sway of a controversial activist named Julian Harney, later a friend and supporter of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who was often described as the Chartist movement’s “enfant terrible.” In January of 1840, when Pinkerton invited Harney to address an overflow crowd at Glasgow’s Lyceum Theatre, there were loud jeers and catcalls from the rank and file, many of whom found the young firebrand’s views too extreme. Outraged, Pinkerton sprang to his feet—his face scarlet and his fists clenched—ready to take on all comers. After a few tense moments, cooler heads prevailed and the lecture went ahead as scheduled.

Not all of Pinkerton’s political meetings were so contentious. In the summer of 1841, he called on the choirmaster of a local Unitarian church to arrange a night of song at a neighborhood pub as a “whip round” fund-raiser for his Northern Democratic Association. Pinkerton attended the Thursday-night concert with his mother, and as the music began, he found himself unable to take his eyes off the choir’s young soprano. Though only fourteen years old at the time, she had the bearing and polish of a seasoned performer, and she soon brought the crowd to its feet with a spirited rendition of a forbidden Chartist song. Hopelessly smitten, Pinkerton took his friend Robbie Fergus aside to learn all he could about the young singer. She was a bookbinder’s apprentice from the nearby town of Paisley, Fergus told him, and her name was Joan Carfrae. At future concerts, Pinkerton made a point of sitting in the front row, wearing his best and perhaps only suit. He soon took it upon himself to escort Miss Carfrae home after each appearance. “I got to sort of hanging around her, clinging to her, so to speak,” Pinkerton later wrote, “and I knew I couldn’t live without her.”

Looking back on his courtship of Joan Carfrae in later years, Pinkerton recalled his distress, during the winter months of 1842, when a king’s warrant was issued for his arrest as a prominent leader of the Chartist movement. “I had become an outlaw with a price on my head,” he wrote. A number of his fellow Chartists were rounded up, but by the time the police sought out Pinkerton at his mother’s flat, the young cooper had fled. For several months, Pinkerton’s friends helped to hide him from the law, but he knew it was only a matter of time before he landed in jail, awaiting transportation to Australia. By this stage, many of his friends and Chartist colleagues had already decamped for America, including his friend Robbie Fergus, who had recently established himself in Chicago. Realizing that his options in Scotland were narrowing, Pinkerton resolved to follow Fergus and the others.

Joan Carfrae soon got wind of the plan. “When I had the price set on my head, she found me where I was hiding,” Pinkerton recalled, “and when I told her I was all set up to making American barrels for the rest of my life and ventured it would be a pretty lonesome business without my bonnie singing bird around the shop, she just sang me a Scotch song that meant she’d go too, and God bless her she did.”

In Pinkerton’s memory of the event, he and Joan were married secretly and then—after a hasty good-bye to his mother—smuggled aboard a ship bound for America, under the wing of the kindly Neil Murphy, the family friend who had given Pinkerton his start as a ten-year-old errand boy. “Within a few hours,” runs one early recounting of the drama, “he was both a married man and a wanted criminal fleeing to the New World.”

This is an agreeably dramatic story, but Pinkerton’s account would not have withstood the scrutiny of a sharp-eyed private detective. If the Glasgow police had truly been determined to arrest him, they would have had ample notice of his whereabouts. According to parish records, Pinkerton and Joan Carfrae were married in a public ceremony in a Glasgow church on March 13, 1842. No hint of secrecy or subterfuge is evident in the marriage register, and the Scottish tradition of the “proclamation of the banns”—a public announcement of the intent to marry, posted on three consecutive Sundays so as to allow any lawful impediments to come to light—was duly observed. In fact, the only unusual feature of the wedding appears to have been the bride’s age. Though she claimed to be eighteen, Joan Carfrae was, in fact, just two months past her fifteenth birthday.

If Pinkerton romanticized some of the details, his reasons for seeking a fresh start remained clear: “I know what it is to strive and grope along, with paltry remuneration and no encouragement save that of the hope and ambition planted in every human heart,” he wrote many years later. “I have been a poor lad in Scotland, buffeted and badgered by boorish masters. I have worked weary years through the ‘prentice period, until, by the hardest application, I conquered a trade. I know what it is, from personal experience, to be the tramp journeyman; to carry the stick and bundle; to seek work and not get it; and to get it, and receive but a pittance for it, or suddenly lose it altogether and be compelled to resume the weary search. In fact, I know every bitter experience that the most laborious of laboring men have been or ever will be required to undergo.”

Privately, his memories of his start in life were harsher still. In a letter written nearly twenty years later, at the start of the Civil War, Pinkerton expressed a sentiment that would color every aspect of his new life in America. “In my native country,” he declared, “I was free in name, but a slave in fact.”

Slave was not a word Pinkerton bandied about lightly. Within three years of his flight from Scotland, he would be running a station on the fabled Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves make their way north to freedom.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Stashower

Table of Contents

Author's Note vii

Introduction: Long, Narrow Boxes 1

Part 1 The Cooper and the Rail-Splitter 7

Prologue: His Hour Had Not Yet Come 9

1 The Apprentice 17

2 How I Became a Detective 25

3 Ardent Spirits 37

4 Pink Lady 47

5 Let Us Dare to Do Our Duty 59

6 It's Coming Yet 69

Part 2 Plums and Nuts 77

7 A Pig-Tail Whistle 79

8 Mob town 95

9 Suspicions of Danger 107

10 Hostile Organizations 119

11 The Man and the Hour 133

12 If I Alone Must Do It 145

13 A Postponed Rebellion 159

14 A Rabid Rebel 169

15 A Single Red Ballot 181

16 Whitewash 195

17 The Music Agent 211

18 A Few Determined Men 221

19 An Assault of Some Kind 233

20 The Assassin's Knife 243

Part 3 The Martyr and the Scapegoat 257

21 The Flight of Abraham 259

22 The Hour of Peril 269

23 Some Very Tall Swearing 285

Epilogue: An Infamous Lie 303

Acknowledgments 333

Select Bibliography 335

Index 341



“This trip of ours has been very laborious and exciting,” the young poet wrote to a friend back home in Illinois. “I have had no time to think calmly since we left Springfield. There is one reason why I write to night. Tomorrow we enter slave territory. Saturday evening, according to our arrangements, we will be in Washington. There may be trouble in Baltimore. If so, we will not go to Washington, unless in long, narrow boxes. The telegram will inform you of the result, long before this letter reaches you.”

Twenty- two- year- old John Milton Hay had ample cause for worry as he set down these words in February 1861. He had signed on as a personal secretary to Abraham Lincoln just a few days earlier, on the eve of Lincoln's inauguration as president of the United States. For several weeks, Lincoln had faced a mounting threat of assassination on his journey to the capital, culminating in a “clear and well- considered” murder plot to be carried out at a whistle- stop appearance in Baltimore. Over a period of thirteen days, as the president elect traveled by train from Springfield to Washington, a makeshift, self- appointed security detail raced to uncover hard evidence of the looming peril, in the hope of persuading Lincoln to adopt “necessary and urgent measures” before placing himself in harm's way.

Leading the effort was the detective Allan Pinkerton, whose fame as a fierce and incorruptible lawman was sweeping through America's cities and out to the expanding edges of the frontier. Pinkerton and his agents were becoming legendary for their relentless, single- minded pursuit of lawbreakers, whose photographs were cataloged in a famous “rogue's gallery” at their Chicago headquarters. The dramatic Pinkerton logo— with the motto We Never Sleep coiled beneath the image of a stern, unblinking eye— became a potent emblem of vigilance, bringing the term private eye into the American lexicon.

In Baltimore, however, Pinkerton would be tested as never before. The detective had built his success on a slow, methodical style of investigation—“Our operations are necessarily tedious,” he once declared— but the rapidly evolving situation in Baltimore required speed, improvisation, and no small mea sure of luck. Pinkerton, who had gone to the city to investigate a vague threat against railroad property and equipment, had not expected to uncover an assassination conspiracy. “From my reports you will see how accidentally I discovered the plot,” he later admitted. “I was looking for nothing of the kind, and had certainly not the slightest idea of it.” Once on the scent, however, he pursued it with feverish energy, and he soon became convinced that dramatic measures would be needed to spare the president- elect's life. By this time, however, the train had already left the station, in every sense of the phrase, as Lincoln made his slow, inexorable progress toward the capital, determined to make a public display of openness and goodwill in the days leading up to his inaugural. Pinkerton now found himself contending not only with the conspirators but also with the intractability of Lincoln and his advisers, who were reluctant to alter their careful plans— and invite public scorn— on the basis of vapory rumors. “All imagination,” Lincoln declared at one stage. “What does anyone want to harm me for?”

The stakes were enormous. “Had Mr. Lincoln fallen at that time,” wrote Pinkerton, “it is frightful to think what the consequences might have been.” Lincoln's election three months earlier had thrown the country into crisis. By the time he set off for Washington, seven states had seceded from the Union. Lincoln hoped to “soothe the public mind” on his two-thousand-mile inaugural train journey, giving over a hundred speeches, in which he would offer calming words to the North and extend a hand of reconciliation to the South. Over half a million people flocked to see him at railroad depots and trackside watering stops, all of them anxious for a sign that the country would be safe in his hands. “The gradual disruption of the Union that dark winter lay like an agony of personal bereavement,” wrote one well wisher. “I longed to read in the face of our leader the indications of wisdom and strength that would compel the people to anchor in him and feel safe.”

As the train rolled east, however, the warnings of danger grew more insistent. Newspapers throughout the South reported that a large cash bounty was on offer to “whomsoever” managed to assassinate Lincoln before he took office. There was also a real possibility that the state of Maryland, where Lincoln's train would cross below the Mason-Dixon line for the first time, would secede from the Union before he reached the border. If so, Washington would be entirely cut off from the North. As Mary land went, many believed, so went the nation.

In Baltimore, Pinkerton and his detectives were doggedly piecing together details of a “murderous compact” to be carried out at one of the city's train stations. “It had been fully determined that the assassination should take place at the Calvert Street depot,” Pinkerton wrote. “When the train entered the depot, and Mr. Lincoln attempted to pass through the narrow passage leading to the streets, a party already delegated were to engage in a conflict on the outside, and then the policemen were to rush away to quell the disturbance. At this moment— the police being entirely withdrawn— Mr. Lincoln would find himself surrounded by a dense, excited and hostile crowd, all hustling and jamming against him, and then the fatal blow was to be struck.” As the detective would explain to William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner turned biographer, the plot had been audaciously simple and efficient. “Excuse me for endeavoring to impress the plan upon you,” he wrote. “It was a capital one, and much better conceived than the one which finally succeeded four years after in destroying Mr. Lincoln's life.”

Others believed that an attack would be launched while Lincoln was still aboard his train, and that police and city officials were colluding in the plot. “Statesmen laid the plan, bankers endorsed it, and adventurers were to carry it into effect,” ran an account in the New York Times. “[T]he idea was, if possible, to throw the cars from the road at some point where they would rush down a steep embankment and destroy in a moment the lives of all on board. In case of the failure of this project, their plan was to surround the carriage on the way from depot to depot in Baltimore, and assassinate him with dagger or pistol shot.”

With time running out, Pinkerton hatched a desperate, perhaps foolhardy plan: He would abandon the relative security of Lincoln's small cadre of escorts in favor of a surprise maneuver, catching the plotters unawares. The risks were enormous, as the detective readily admitted. If exposed by a careless word or intercepted message, the president- elect would be left almost entirely unprotected. In Pinkerton's view, however, this perilous feint offered the only chance that Lincoln would survive to become president. As the president- elect's train neared the “seat of danger,” the only remaining difficulty was to convince Lincoln himself.

In approaching the story of the Baltimore plot, a writer must make certain choices and assumptions. Most readers, it would seem, will know that Abraham Lincoln survived the crisis to become president of the United States, and that soon afterward the nation was plunged into the Civil War. The events of February 1861 continue to capture our attention, however, not only for the drama of the plot and its detection but also because Lincoln's handling of the crisis and its fallout would mark a fateful early test of his presidency, with many dark consequences. In charting the sweep of events that carried the nation into war, it is customary to focus on landmarks of policy and social change, such as the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas- Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision. Set against these milestones, the drama in Baltimore is often overlooked, pushed aside by the more pressing urgencies that were to come, and obscured by its own uncertainties and contradictions. Seen in the light of what was to come, however, the Baltimore episode stands as a defining moment, marking a crucial transition from civilized debate to open hostilities, and presenting Lincoln with a grim preview of the challenges he would face as president. In many ways, it was the wrong story at the wrong time; Lincoln himself would be quick to diminish the importance of what had occurred, and its lessons were not learned.

Many dilemmas arise in exploring the facts of the Baltimore plot—sources conflict; historical agendas collide. There is also a certain mythologizing effect cast over the first-hand accounts, most of which were written in the heavy gloom that followed Lincoln's assassination, in 1865. As a result, the fallen president is portrayed as a saintly and resolute figure, preternaturally aware of his own destiny, and much given to gazing heroically into an uncertain future. In many cases, well- intentioned colleagues have placed dialogue in his mouth that might have been lifted from the hackneyed Beadle's Dime Novels of the day. At the same time, the sheer volume of “Lincoln as I knew him” books presents its own challenge. It is quite possible that the two- thousand- mile route from Springfield to Washington could be paved over in volumes of reminiscence, and no two of them would agree on what Lincoln said or thought about the fateful trip through Baltimore, or even on the strangely controversial topic of what he wore on his head.

Allan Pinkerton presents an even greater set of contradictions. “Stormy, husky, brawling,” as Carl Sandburg would say of Chicago, Pinkerton's adopted hometown, the detective and his legacy are riddled with paradoxes. A Scottish immigrant who made good in America, Pinkerton was proud of his rags- to- riches success, and collaborated on more than a dozen lively, self- promoting memoirs that detailed his most celebrated cases. Yet throughout his life, he remained guarded and difficult to read, as enigmatic as one of the cipher keys he used to send encrypted messages to agents in the field. He began his career as an idealistic social reformer, vowing never to investigate “trade- union officers or members in their lawful union activities,” but he is remembered today as a strikebreaker, and a puppet of America's robber barons. Though he rose to fame as America's “Number One Lawman,” he thought nothing of fl outing the law in the service of a greater good, and spent years defying the Fugitive Slave Act, assisting runaways as a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. Civil War historians castigate him for his work as General McClellan's chief of intelligence, during which he supposedly exaggerated his estimates of enemy troop strength, but during the Baltimore affair he came under fire for insisting that the conspiracy was far smaller than others had supposed, and that the danger was all the greater because of it. And finally, at the moment when he wished to collect laurels from the public for his service to President Lincoln, Pinkerton found himself branded a liar, and mired in a bitter feud that would cloud his legacy for generations to come.

As a result of these conflicts and ambiguities, the details of the Baltimore plot soon became a subject of controversy. Some critics questioned whether Pinkerton's actions were justified, while others were quick to point out the flaws in his investigation. Even Lincoln's personal secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay— both of whom traveled with the president-elect on the train from Springfield— were decidedly cautious in stating that Pinkerton's case had “neither been proved nor disproved by the lapse of time.”

There is no denying that at least some of Pinkerton's evidence was pure hearsay. Much of it was obtained in saloons and brothels, under circumstances where the telling of falsehoods is not unknown. But Pinkerton's detractors tend to overlook the fact that his conclusions were confirmed and amplified by Lincoln's most trusted advisers, including Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the United States. There is no question that Pinkerton's methods were high- handed and at times unlawful, but many of the cavils that were heaped upon him in 1861 would not be expressed or even considered today. It is now understood that there are dangers to be apprehended when a president moves freely through a vast crowd or rides in an open conveyance. Those apprehensions did not yet exist at the start of the Lincoln presidency. As one New York newspaper noted at the time, “assassination is not congenial to the American character.” Perhaps not, but it would soon become all too real.

“The events about to be related have been for a long time shrouded in a veil of mystery,” Pinkerton wrote in a memoir published near the end of his life. “While many are aware that a plot existed at this time to assassinate the President- elect upon his contemplated journey to the capital, but few have any knowledge of the mode by which the conspiracy was detected, or the means employed to prevent the accomplishment of that murderous design.”

Strangely, those words are as true today as they were in Pinkerton's time, and the detective was already swimming against a tide of criticism when he wrote them. The distinguished historian John Thomas Scharf, chronicling the history of his native Mary land in 1879, insisted that Pinkerton's actions had been an insult to the “fair fame of one of the chief cities of the country,” and expressed a hope that the matter would “soon be settled once and for all.”

I myself am a resident of Mary land, and I am as partial to blue crabs and black- eyed Susans as the next man. At a remove of 150 years, however,
I believe it is possible to treat this episode without undue risk to the fair fame of Baltimore. It bears noting, however, that to this day our state song—“Maryland, My Maryland”— makes reference to “the despot's heel” and “tyrant's chain” of Lincoln and his kind, and builds to a final, spirited rallying cry: “Huzza! She spurns the Northern scum!” Lincoln would likely have been amused. “Fellow citizens,” he wisely declared in the early years of his presidency, “we cannot escape history.”

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The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
DCLOVELL More than 1 year ago
This is a must read for any history and mystery buffs. It tells the story of a plot that was uncovered to murder Abraham Lincoln while he was traveling to his inauguration. It also provides a history of the Pinkerton Detective Agency as well as information on some of the people Lincoln surrounded himself with. I found the information on the Pinkerton Agency fascinating. They acted on this case line an FBI or CIA. This is not a dry history read, but a page turner! Highly recommended!
VicG More than 1 year ago
Daniel Stashower in his new book, “The Hour of Peril” published by Minotaur Books gives us The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War. From the inside jacket cover: Daniel Stashower, the two-time Edgar award–winning author of The Beautiful Cigar Girl, uncovers the riveting true story of the “Baltimore Plot,” an audacious conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the Civil War in THE HOUR OF PERIL. In February of 1861, just days before he assumed the presidency, Abraham Lincoln faced a “clear and fully-matured” threat of assassination as he traveled by train from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration. Over a period of thirteen days the legendary detective Allan Pinkerton worked feverishly to detect and thwart the plot, assisted by a captivating young widow named Kate Warne, America’s first female private eye. As Lincoln’s train rolled inexorably toward “the seat of danger,” Pinkerton struggled to unravel the ever-changing details of the murder plot, even as he contended with the intractability of Lincoln and his advisors, who refused to believe that the danger was real. With time running out Pinkerton took a desperate gamble, staking Lincoln’s life—and the future of the nation—on a “perilous feint” that seemed to offer the only chance that Lincoln would survive to become president. Shrouded in secrecy—and, later, mired in controversy—the story of the “Baltimore Plot” is one of the great untold tales of the Civil War era, and Stashower has crafted this spellbinding historical narrative with the pace and urgency of a race-against-the-clock thriller. Abraham Lincoln was traveling to Washington by train to be sworn in as President. The problem was in Baltimore. Due to the condition of the rail network back then there was the necessity of a time-consuming transfer of railcars from one station to another. This forced, extended, layover in Baltimore is Lincoln’s hour of peril. He cannot count on the Baltimore police as they might be in on the plot to kill him as some of the policemen were secessionists. He cannot bring guards with him as that will draw attention to him and possible cause Maryland to join the Confederacy. So Allan Pinkerton hatches an ingenious plot to keep the President-Elect alive. Mr. Stashower gives us a brilliantly written assassination plot that is all true history. “The Hour of Peril” is a riveting page turner non-fiction thriller. I really liked this book! Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Minotaur Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The other books I have read by Daniel Stashower were superb - and this is his best yet. I just love his writing style, which carries you along wanting more. Also, a great topic which I knew only vaguely about before, but a fascinating story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Hour of Peril is interesting reading. It's been very informative to learn how Pinkerton got his start in the detective business. It's also amazing to read The Hour of Peril after reading the old book The Lincoln conspiracy. John Wilkes Booth had the save team of kidnappers together for the entire time Lincoln was President, as well as beforehand. Incredible. Lincoln's story gets more fascinating all the time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent Read if you are a history buff. It is also an excellent for women because believe it or not there were women in the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the 1800s. If you love to read about Lincoln or are a train buff, you will find the book interesting and worthwhile.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A well-told, "you are there"-type book. It starts out slow but builds fast. Stashower's a good storyteller. Recommended for all who like learning more about our 16th President. Enjoy the read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
With so many things written about Lincoln who would have thought you could find anything new? This is an obscure event but a very telling story and it's masterfully written. You also get a look at the Pinkerton agency, often talked about but not a overblown old west topic. A wonderful, historical novel!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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I thoroughly enjoyed this book.   
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This is the best book ever
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The history little known.
madamearcati More than 1 year ago
My nephew is a civil war buff. That's why I bought the book for him. He has not yet let me know what he thought of it. The review he had read stimulated him to want to read it. That's all can say. Ignore the star marked above. It has no meaning in this case.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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