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

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