Monday, August 15, 2011

Pinkerton's Baltimore Plot Against Lincoln

Part 2 of 2: Dorothy Lamon Edits Her Father's Account

Ward Hill Lamon died in 1893. Two years after his death, Lamon’s daughter, Dorothy Lamon, published a heavily edited version of Lamon’s “The Life of President Lincoln.” In this new volume the chapter on the Baltimore Plot was carefully scrubbed of all of Lamon’s earlier, derisive references to Pinkerton. Nothing of Lamon’s heated indictment of the detective remained in the newly edited version.

Two years after Lamon’s death, when he could no longer debate the facts, this new edition of his original work carried the following language regarding the alleged Baltimore Plot:

“Neither [Lincoln] nor the country generally then understood the true facts concerning the dangers to his life. 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 his assassination, that he was not in danger of death by violence, and that his life was spared until the night of the 14th of April, 1865, only through the ceaseless and watchful care of the guards thrown around him.”


Fifty-six years passed with little light shed on the wide discrepancies contained in the two published editions of Lamon’s work.

In 1949 librarian Norma Cuthbert edited a volume published from the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Titled “Lincoln and the Baltimore Plot,” this third version contained documents given in 1914 to Henry Huntington, founder of the San Marino library.

In her acknowledgements Cuthbert offered thanks in particular to “Messrs. Robert A. Pinkerton and Ralph Dudley who have been so very generous in making available every resource of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, even to the extent of shipping to California valuable archives of the firm.” Robert Pinkerton II, Allan’s great-grandson, assisted Cuthbert with her 1949 effort.

In her 1949 work, Cuthbert transformed Allan Pinkerton from Lamon’s spy in pursuit of a base vocation to “Allan Pinkerton, pioneer detective and founder of the famous organization which in its century of growth has so remarkably kept pace with the development and expansion of the nation.”

Cuthbert challenged Lamon’s 1872 characterization of the Baltimore Plot. She accused Lamon of profiteering, saying: “The minute Lamon heard about Herndon’s records, he had visions of a fortune to be made out of them.” Pinkerton himself, Cuthbert observed, had characterized Lincoln’s friend and confidante, Lamon, as “a ‘brainless egotistical fool.’”

As editor of the 1949 volume, Cuthbert brought forward William Herndon’s notes on Lincoln, supplied to Huntington in 1914. According to Herndon’s account, Lincoln had confidence in Pinkerton as “a gentleman, and a man of sagacity.” Seventy-seven years after the fact, the Pinkertons had finally found a challenge to Lamon’s scathing 1872 portrait of Pinkerton.

Most notably, Cuthbert made this statement about the two versions of Lamon’s description of Lincoln’s night ride through Baltimore. She declared Lamon, who accompanied Lincoln “through every step of the entire journey,” “in a better position to judge than any other of Lincoln’s biographers.” And, in Cuthbert’s words, Lamon “dissented” in his 1872 “Life of Abraham Lincoln,” and “later concurred” in his 1895 “Recollections of Abraham Lincoln.” According to Cuthbert, Lamon had provided the public with two vastly differing versions of the same event.

Cuthbert made no reference to Lamon’s death in 1893. She made no reference to his inability to refute the new, edited version of events published posthumously by his daughter in the 1895 volume. But, she noted, “biographers relying on Lamon perforce have fallen into two camps.”


Thus is history written—and rewritten. From Allan Pinkerton himself; from Lincoln’s friend, Lamon; from Lamon's daughter, Dorothy; from Lincoln’s former law partner, Herndon; and, finally, from a staff librarian at Huntington Library, assisted by Robert Pinkerton II; come dramatically differing views of one event.

Of one thing, observers of history can be sure. Where Pinkertons marked the trail, controversy—and violent death—often followed.

And there were many Pinkerton trails over the decades—from the Baltimore Plot against Lincoln to Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguires” to the Haymarket trials in Chicago to the Homestead debacle in western Pennsylvania to the Idaho trial of “Big Bill” Haywood, president of the Western Federation of Miners.

So many trails. So much obfuscation. And so much controversy. Those noted above are just one part of the legacy that Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency left to U. S. history.

References to Allan Pinkerton inform even the current political debate. In a blog published in February 2011 in The New York Times “Opinionator,” Howard Holzer entered the discussion. Holzer titled this post on the Baltimore Plot “Like a Thief in the Night." It described Pinkerton in fairly mild terms.

This contemporary historian said of Pinkerton: “Today he is best remembered not as a lifesaver but a chronic worry wart and exaggerator; his wildly inflated estimates of Confederate troop strength in 1862 scared Union General George B. McClellan into virtual paralysis.”

But more than a century after the Haymarket trials in Chicago, an American president who hails from that city’s political arena referred more darkly to Pinkerton’s legacy.

In “Dreams From My Father,” written nine years before his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama said of a Chicago housing project’s myriad troubles: “Who was responsible … I found myself asking. There were no cigar-chomping crackers like Bull Connor out there, no club-wielding Pinkerton thugs. Just a small band … characterized less by malice or calculation than by fear and small greeds.”

Thus the concept of “Pinkerton thugs” remains a symbol even in today’s political consciousness.

And the debate over Allan Pinkerton's character—and motives—continues into the 21st century.


Coming September 1, 2011 - The Politics of Schuylkill's "Molly Maguires": To Assuage the Sufferings of Our Brothers in Toil

Monday, August 1, 2011

Pinkerton's Baltimore Plot Against Lincoln

Part 1 of 2: "Hireling Spies and Paid Informers"

“With the rich and mighty,” the saying goes, “always a little patience.”

And with Allan Pinkerton, made rich and mighty by his detective agency, often a heated controversy.

Pinkerton, founder of his namesake Pinkerton National Detective Agency, remains one of the most divisive figures in U.S. history. Where Pinkerton’s operatives advanced, controversy followed. These men—and women—left in their wake a froth of historians arguing events from all sides.

One event, more than any other, helped establish Pinkerton’s fledging agency. It came to be known as the “Baltimore Plot.” The plot centered on allegations made by Pinkerton to Abraham Lincoln of a supposed assassination attempt planned against the president-elect. Threatened less than two weeks before the scheduled 1861 inauguration, this supposed attempt would take place on the last leg of Lincoln’s whistle-stop tour from Springfield, Illinois, to the nation’s capital.

For a century and a half historians have argued differing versions of this event.


Lincoln’s friend and former law partner Ward Hill Lamon provided one of the earliest published accounts of the Baltimore Plot in his 1872 work "The Life of Abraham Lincoln." Basing his observations on reports which surfaced after Lincoln's assassination, Lamon scrutinized Pinkerton's accounts “with an earnest and conscientious desire to discover the truth, if, perchance, any trace of truth might be in them.”

For ten years, Lamon said, he had “implicitly believed in the reality of the atrocious plot which these spies were supposed to have detected and thwarted.” But after reading Pinkerton’s self-serving reports in their original, a “weak and contradictory account of his own case,” Lamon was now convinced that Pinkerton’s alleged plot was simply—and wholly—contrived.

Pinkerton had warned that the attack would take place in Baltimore, while Lincoln’s railroad car, drawn by horses between two Baltimore rail stations, made its last stop before traveling to Washington.

Lamon gave an eye-witness account of events. He had traveled with Lincoln on every mile of the journey from Springfield to Washington. Lamon's account revealed no such attempt—or sign of an attempt—at Baltimore.

After Lincoln's assassination Pinkerton provided his hand-written reports to Lincoln's former law partner William Herndon. The “detective,” Lamon said dryly after reading these first-hand reports, “went about his business with the zeal which necessarily marks his peculiar profession.”

Lamon ascribed dubious motives to Pinkerton: “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.” The reports of Pinkerton’s operatives, Lamon concluded, proved little “but the baseness of the vocation which gave them existence.”

Of Pinkerton’s own account of the alleged conspiracy against Lincoln, Lamon said, “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, or of three; no definite purpose in the heart of even one man to murder Mr. Lincoln at Baltimore.”


During that pivotal month of February 1861, the state of Maryland seethed with political division. Politicians fought vigorously over the issue of secession. “It would seem like an easy thing,” said Lamon, “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.”

These early Pinkerton reports were prototypes of those that would figure prominently in the agency’s doings for decades to come. Of these early reports, Lamon observed: “The reports are all in the form of personal narratives, and for the most relate 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.”

Pinkerton’s operatives shadowed numerous dubious characters “These wretches ‘drinked’ and talked a great deal, hung about bars, haunted disreputable houses, were constantly half-drunk,” said Lamon, “and easily excited to use big and threatening words by the faithless protestations and cunning management of the spies.”

Two of these characters, named Luckett and Hilliard, hinted to operatives of a “Brutus” who aimed to kill Lincoln. In their dramatic reveal, they settled on a barber named Ferrandina as the assassin. In Pinkerton’s heavily biased observation, Ferrandina “shows the Italian in, I think, a very marked degree.” His eyes, the detective reported, “fairly glared and glistened.”

Eleven years after Ferrandina’s supposed plot to assassinate the president-elect, Lamon noted wryly “his place of business [is] beneath Barnum’s Hotel, where the sign of the bloodthirsty villain still invites the unsuspecting public to come in for a shave.”

Lamon ultimately dismissed Pinkerton’s reports as “a secret communication between hireling spies and paid informers [where] ferocious sentiments are attributed to the poor knight of the soap-pot.” Lamon declared: “No disinterested person would believe the story upon such evidence.” He concluded: “It is probably a mere fiction. If it 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 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.”

Of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Lamon said: “When Mr. Lincoln was actually slain, four years later, and the cupidity of the detectives was excited by enormous rewards, Ferrandina was totally unmolested. But even if Ferrandina really said all that is here imputed to him, he did no more than many others around him were doing at the same time. He drank and talked, and made swelling speeches; but he never took, nor seriously thought of taking, the first step toward the frightful tragedy he is said to have contemplated.”

This, in Lamon’s informed opinion, was the sum total of Allan Pinkerton’s “Baltimore Plot” against Abraham Lincoln.


An additional message had come through regarding unrest in Baltimore during that tumultuous week in 1861. And this came from a source Lincoln trusted: from William Seward, the president-elect’s future secretary of state. Thousands of men, stated Seward’s message, hand-delivered by his son, were massing in Baltimore to prevent Lincoln’s passage to the national capital.

“Here was a plot big enough to swallow up the little one,” said Lamon, “which we are to regard as the peculiar property of [the] detective. Hilliard, Ferrandina, and Luckett disappear among the ‘fifteen thousand’ and their maudlin and impotent twaddle about the ‘absolute tyrant’ looks very insignificant beside the bloody massacre, conflagration, and explosion now foreshadowed.”

Seward’s information came by way of a New York detective named Stone. Carl Sandburg documents Lincoln’s conversation with Seward’s son: “‘Did you hear any names mentioned?’ Lincoln pressed. ‘Did you, for instance, ever hear anything said about such a name as Pinkerton?’ No, Seward had heard no such name.”

After hearing Seward’s argument, Lincoln acquiesced to the plan of the late night ride from Harrisburg to Baltimore. Disguised—famously—in a cap and shawl, the president-elect traveled as “an invalid” with Pinkerton, Pinkerton’s “female spy” and Lamon as attendants.

The party passed through Baltimore safely and arrived at the depot in Washington at 6:00 a.m. on February 23. Lamon reported: “The detective went to the telegraph-office, and loaded the wires with despatches [sic], containing the pleasing intelligence that ‘Plums’ had brought ‘Nuts’ through in safety. In the spy’s cipher the President elect was reduced to the undignified title of ‘Nuts.’”

“Mr. Lincoln soon learned to regret the midnight ride,” Lamon concluded. “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.”


Fact or fiction, the Baltimore Plot served Pinkerton well. In May 1861 he signed on for secret service work with the Union army, where his operatives supplied General George McClellan with inflated claims of Confederate troop estimates. In November 1862 Lincoln removed McClellan from command.

Pinkerton’s year and a half with the army’s Secret Service burnished his reputation. A photo of Pinkerton with Lincoln in the Union camp at Antietam, the president tall and distinguished in his top hat, eventually appeared on the walls of Pinkerton agency offices throughout the country.

In 1915 former Pinkerton operative Charles Siringo asked in a self-published expose: “How can a judge doubt the purity of this monster agency when shown an enlarged photograph of Allan Pinkerton and our beloved President, Abe Lincoln, standing side by side near the bloody field of battle? These photographs are hung in conspicuous places in all the agency offices as emblems of purity.”


Coming August 15 – Part 2 of Pinkerton’s Baltimore Plot Against Lincoln: Dorothy Lamon Edits Her Father's Account