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

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