Review: How undercover work broke a plot to kill Lincoln

CorrespondentMarch 9, 2013 

Daniel Stashower.

COURTESY OF DONNA TURNER

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

    Minotaur Books; 368 pages

In the weeks leading to his first inauguration, Abraham Lincoln embarked on a two-week, 2,000-mile whistle-stop tour. Zigzagging many of the states that voted him into the White House, Lincoln gave more than 100 speeches in which he offered calming words to the North and extended “a hand of reconciliation to the South.”

At almost every destination, the president-elect descended from his train into the maw of humanity. Jostled and swarmed by those who loved him, admired him or wished him dead, Lincoln would say, “I suppose I am now public property.”

The exposure was made far riskier by the precarious state of the nation. By the winter of 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union. Artillery had not begun to roar, but it was becoming increasingly inevitable.

And the closer Lincoln got to the Mason-Dixon Line, the more plausible the threat of assassination.

In “The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War,” historian and Edgar Award-winning author Daniel Stashower examines the Baltimore Plot, a conspiracy to kill Lincoln during the final stop of his goodwill tour.

Baltimore was the capital of a state tilting dangerously toward rebellion. Geographically close, yet politically far from Washington, the city seethed with secessionist fervor. Lincoln’s personal secretary was sufficiently concerned to write, “Tomorrow we enter slave territory. There may be trouble in Baltimore. If so, we will not go to Washington, unless in long, narrow boxes.”

Although the outcome of the plot is never in doubt (Lincoln would live to be inaugurated again), Stashower has a fascinating tale to tell. It is about the early days of American espionage and a forward-looking lawman named Alan Pinkerton.

It is Pinkerton we can thank for the term “private eye” – the unblinking eye poised above the motto “We Never Sleep” was his agency’s brand.

By the 1860s, he had established a national agency of detectives, privately contracted, unrestricted by border or jurisdiction. He had also hired the first female private detective, the resourceful Kate Warne (who deserves her own biography).

Warne, like many of her Pinkerton colleagues, achieved spectacular results when assuming the identity of nonexistent persons. And it was primarily undercover work that “broke” the Baltimore Plot.

It is tempting to visualize sections of “The Hour of Peril” as a movie – the stakes, after all, were exceedingly high. In order to understand the developing conspiracy, Pinkerton’s operatives had to infiltrate a “secret society” of rabid Southern sympathizers. Their charismatic ringleader was Cypriano Ferrandini, a prominent Baltimore barber.

The Baltimore Plot has never been free of dispute or controversy. In most Lincoln biographies, it rates no more than a footnote. Lincoln himself aimed to put the matter far behind him.

He took considerable heat for passing through Baltimore in the dead of night, his well-known features obscured by a shawl.

Whether it’s Daniel Stashower’s persuasive writing or voluminous research (or a blend of both), I came away convinced that Lincoln was wise to steer clear of Baltimore. Ferrandini’s cutthroats notwithstanding, the city’s highly charged atmosphere would have left him vulnerable – dangerously so.

Afterward, the engineer of Lincoln’s “getaway train” would say, “I have often wondered what people thought of that short train whizzing through the night. A case of life and death, perhaps, and so it was.”

Sam Shapiro is adult program coordinator at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library.

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