A young widow, America’s first female detective, teams with a legendary private eye to try and uncover a plot to assassinate the President of the United States. A cauldron of his enemies vows he will never make it to Washington alive.
Sounds like fiction, but “The Hour of Peril, The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln” by Daniel Stashower is anything but. He deliciously details the true story of the “Baltimore Plot” to kill President Lincoln in 1861. After he won the election in November, Lincoln made his way to Washington on an Inaugural Train. With stops in Indiana, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore, the tour took place February 11-23.
There is a moment of crisis early on in this page-turner. After discussing Lincoln and setting the stage of this most turbulent of times, the author turns away from Lincoln to Allen Pinkerton. Stashower traces his humble beginnings as a cooper to the most famous detective in the country. Not to worry, though. The author will have you in his grip in no time, and moves back and forth to Lincoln and Pinkerton.
Pinkerton came from Scotland and the school of hard knocks. He fell into the profession when some businessmen near Chicago hired him to try and hunt down counterfeiters. With scars on his arm from two bullets giving him street cred, he built the Pinkerton National Detective Agency into an empire. His services foreshadowed what we know today as Security Protection.
Pinkerton had the instincts for choosing the right kind of person that would make a good operative. In 1856, he hired Kate Warne, a 22-year old widow, making her the first female private eye. Stashower notes, “There is no precedent for Kate Warne.” Warne was not only brilliant in her duties, she headed up Pinkerton’s recruiting drive to hire other women.
This aspect is another early turn in the book that picks up the speed. Pinkerton emerges around this time as a “station master” on the Underground Railroad. About six months before he was hung in Charles Town, West Virginia, the fiery abolitionist John Brown knocked on his door with a group of hungry and tired runaway enslaved persons. Pinkerton and his wife not only provide shelter and food, he walks onto a stage at a meeting and boldly holds out his hat for money. $5,000 is collected and given to Brown.
At this point in the book, the reader is anxious for the pursuit. Stashower sets things up by explaining why Pinkerton and some of those around the President so much feared Baltimore. 150 years on, we may scratch our heads and ask – Baltimore, that hostile to the President-elect?
After all, Charm City is almost 150 miles north of Richmond, and the Ravens are in the AFC North. In those days, however, Maryland was a slave state and Baltimore’s population was over 200,000, fourth largest. Street gangs and unrest gave Baltimore the nickname, “Mobtown.” The state song, written in 1861, pulls no punches on its feelings toward the President and the Union.
It wasn’t just the numbers Pinkerton feared. Baltimore leaders peered into the future and saw an empire. Stashower quotes Horace Greeley:
In a confederacy composed exclusively of the fifteen slave states, Baltimore would hold the position that New York enjoys in the Union, being the great ship-building, shipping importing and commercial emporium…
Baltimore supplied both the muscle and money to do harm to the President. Many there did not support violence, but at this time, seven states had already seceded. Fear fueled a desire for action, the worry what Lincoln might do to the South and their way of life was in the air.
The only criticism I have of this book is the absence of a map showing the two different train stations in Baltimore.
Note: Stashower will speak at One More Page in Falls Church this Saturday.