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Charmed Life

Night Train to Baltimore

Sam Holden
(With kind permission of the B&O Museum)

By Charles Cohen | Posted 2/20/2002

This Saturday marks the 141st anniversary of the assassination that might have been.

The target: Abraham Lincoln. The date: Feb. 23, 1861, as the president-elect made his way to Washington for his inauguration. The place: Baltimore, somewhere between the Calvert Street station and the Camden Station as Lincoln changed trains for the final leg of his journey.

Talk about your history-changing events. Eliminate Lincoln from the American time line three months before the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, and the United States as we now know it might not exist.

Then again, this monumental might-have-been might not, in fact, have been. The details of the so-called "Baltimore plot" remain vague, and many have questioned whether there was such a thing, among them a key eyewitness.

But everyone knows what controversy does to news hounds. And given the historical magnitude of the person at the center of the action (or lack thereof), there will no doubt always be hacks like me roaming through the Enoch Pratt Free Library's well-thumbed copy of the 1949 volume Lincoln and the Baltimore Plot, churning out clippings bound for a vertical file in the library's Maryland Room.

The conspiracy theorizing is part of the legacy of Allan Pinkerton (1819-'84), founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and reputedly the world's first private eye. (The term derived from the agency's "all-seeing-eye" logo.) Pinkerton, already famed for his investigative prowess, had been retained by the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad (later the Pennsylvania Central) to check out rumors that Maryland secessionists planned to sabotage the rails. With the Southern states seceding one by one and the new president vowing to preserve the Union, political ferment and potential violence were in the air.

"In Mr. Lincoln's mailbags, they are calling him all sort of names," says Ken Bauer, who, as Lincoln curator of the Henry Horner Lincoln Collection at the Illinois State Historic Library, has access to such stuff.

According to Lincoln and the Baltimore Plot, edited by Norma Barrett Cuthbert from Pinkerton's personal papers, the detective spent much of early 1861 hanging out in Baltimore hotels, billiard rooms, and bordellos picking up information (his journals impressively detail barroom life on the eve of the Civil War), and uncovered a plot led by a barber named Cipriano Ferrandini to kill Lincoln as he traveled from Calvert Street Station to Camden to catch a B&O train for D.C. (Other sources, including the Pinkerton Service Corp.'s Web site, credit the discovery to a Pinkerton agent named Timothy Webster, who infiltrated pro-Rebel groups in Baltimore posing as a Southern gentleman.)

Pinkerton implored Lincoln to bypass Baltimore, or at least change his schedule in order to slip through town unnoticed. Lincoln did the latter, quietly leaving a Feb. 22 function in Harrisburg to take an earlier train. Accompanied by Pinkerton and bundled into a military cloak and tam-o'-shanter cap, the president-elect passed through Baltimore undetected, arriving in Washington early on the morning of Feb. 23 (and leaving his wife and children, following the original itinerary, to face a largely pro-secession crowd of 10,000 in Baltimore, according to Pinkerton biographer James Mackay). The anti-Lincoln press had a field day with the notion of the president skulking into the capital in the wee hours (one famous cartoon depicts him in disguise, peering from a boxcar), but an apparently grateful Lincoln appointed Pinkerton chief of what would become the federal Secret Service.

Pinkerton's story was not universally accepted. Ward Lamon, Lincoln's personal bodyguard on that train trip and later the head of White House security, dismissed the famous detective's account as nonsense. In a biography published after Lincoln's actual assassination, Lamon wrote that Lincoln made "a grave mistake listening to the solicitations of a professional spy." John Wentworth, the mayor of Chicago (Pinkerton's base of operations) in 1861, contended the detective conjured the plot to enhance his reputation. Critics point out that supposed ringleader Ferrandini was never arrested--even, as Richard Reese noted in a 1961 Sun article, as "scores of prominent Baltimoreans were being locked up . . . for their Southern sympathies."

Cuthbert produced Lincoln and the Baltimore Plot in part to refute Lamon and other naysayers. She notes that Lamon was apparently offended by Pinkerton's assessment of him in the private eye's journals and may have held a grudge. And current thinking among Lincoln historians is that there probably was a plot, or at least probable cause for the president-elect's coterie to fear one.

"We have good, solid evidence that there seems to [have been] a threat; we just don't have the particulars," the Illinois State Historic Library's Bauer says. There was open talk of revolt throughout the country, and border state Maryland was a hotbed of pro-Rebel and anti-Lincoln sentiment. (The Illinoisan got fewer than 2,300 of 90,000 Maryland votes in the 1860 presidential election.) Bauer likens the national air of uncertainty and unease to today's terrorism-related tension, with its vague government warnings and states of alert.

Lincoln himself was apparently not convinced he'd dodged a bullet but was certain he'd made the right call on altering his travel plans. "I did not then nor do I now believe I should have been assassinated, had I gone through Baltimore as first contemplated," he said about the matter, according to Mackay's 1997 Pinkerton bio, "but I thought it wise to run no risk, where no risk was necessary."

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