Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Allan Pinkerton and His Detective Agency: We Never Sleep

Midnight Trains

"The gods are on the side of the stronger."

Tacitus

Throughout the presidential campaign of 1860, analysts worried what might happen if Abraham Lincoln was elected President that is, if the southern states' boast that they would secede from the Union would manifest. Lincoln, a known antagonist of slavery, had taken a strong stand on the issue, leaving the South, where slavery was a practiced tradition, insulted and resentful.

For decades, and slowly growing, the North and South had conflicted; above Mason-Dixon's Line the populace cringed at the idea of slavery, below it, a more old-kingdom mindset regarded slavery as an economic necessity to preserve a plantation way of life they saw as idyllic. To the industrial-minded, future-eyeing North, there was no excuse for any human to possess another; the South did not see such as a moral paradigm but as an issue that should be left to each individual state.

Congress battered the issue for years, but only as Americans began moving westward did it rile to breaking point. During the 1850s, Kansas and Missouri turned bloody as pioneers from both halves of the nation settled within their borders; when Southerners maintained the life they knew, northern consciences were piqued. Violence erupted. Subduing it seemed impossible. The nation waited for the outcome of the Presidential Elections of 1860 before making a decision either way. Lincoln's election was a hurrah for anti-slavers, but a poisonous dart to the other faction.

Southerners, affronted, proclaimed the election as a threat to their liberty; they cried independence; in Congress, Southern legislators took the vote as a nuzzle to their voice and walked out in a body.

Now, with Lincoln about to leave his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, for Washington, the South promised repercussions. Pinkerton, like the rest of the civilian country, felt the soil of the union begin to tremor underfoot. Days brought anxiety while the world seemed to pause before a bang. To what extent the South would carry through its threats no one knew for sure. But, Pinkerton did believe action would come but he did not know when or in what form.

Campaign poster: Abraham Lincolm & VP Hannibal Hamlin, 1860 (Mr./Mrs. Jack L. Smith Collection)
Campaign poster: Abraham Lincolm &
VP Hannibal Hamlin, 1860 (Mr./Mrs. Jack
L. Smith Collection)

In January, 1861, Samuel Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, sought immediate audience with Pinkerton. He told the detective that he feared subversives might attack his train line, the major rail route in the East. Pinkerton responded by placing agents in towns along the route, from New York to Washington; he even moved to Baltimore, the major city north of Washington, to be near at hand in the event of trouble; but his agents could not detect a plot of any kind.

A plot to harm the railroad, that is. Instead, agents began to pick up dribs and drabs from here and there that, when pieced together, hinted at a plot to assassinate the new Chief Executive on his way to his Inauguration. Initial details were sketchy, but resourceful Pinkerton agent Timothy Webster, working in Baltimore, had managed to charm his way into a group of hot-headed young secessionists calling themselves the Knights of the Golden Circle; from these men he learned that assassins had already been chosen to shoot the President-elect at Baltimore's Calvert Rail Station as he passed through town on February 23. Because the newspapers printed the complete schedule of Lincoln's trip east, the would-be killers were able to surmise his exact arrival and departure times through Baltimore.

It was imperative that Pinkerton reach Lincoln, already in transit, to alter the rest of his agenda. Luckily, Pinkerton knew one of the Illinois members of the Lincoln staff accompanying him, a press secretary named Norman Judd, and he believed that through Judd's intervention he might gain dialogue with Lincoln directly. Glancing at the newspaper on his desk, he saw that the incoming President was slated to arrive the next morning in Philadelphia for a parade. Pinkerton grabbed the first train out but not to see the parade.

His hunch was right. Contacting Judd in the City of Brotherly Love, Pinkerton relayed what he had heard. Judd, in turn, sought a brief conference with Lincoln, bringing Pinkerton with him to the hotel suite where the Chief Executive was lodging. When Pinkerton saw his old attorney friend from the railroad days, he noted that the 6'4" gaunt-framed "Abe" had changed very little, except for the stubble of a beard that he had begun growing in the style of the day. Until then, Lincoln had always been smooth faced.

Lincoln cheered so to see his old friend Allan Pinkerton that the detective cringed at the thought of giving him the bad news. But, after a moment's greetings, he passed on to why he was there. "...They want to stop you from taking office, sir."

"So what do we do?" Abe asked. "It's too late to cancel tomorrow's functions. I'm raising the flag over Independence Hall in the morning, then addressing the legislature in Harrisburg in the afternoon."

"Keep those appointments," Pinkerton replied. "But, we must make changes thereafter. You are scheduled to attend a dinner and ball tomorrow evening and stay the night at Governor Curtin's mansion in Harrisburg. Then, according to the current schedule it's on to Baltimore the following morning, correct?"

"Correct," Lincoln answered.

"Instead of attending the ball, we get you out of Harrisburg expediently on a chartered train to Baltimore. The tracks are to be kept clear so that we can move full-throttle the whole way. At Baltimore, we move you through the station it will be after midnight and hours ahead of your anticipated arrival where an express will be waiting I've already made arrangements for that which will break all speed records to get you to Washington City before sunrise."

"What do I tell Governor Curtin for my sudden departure?"

"That's already taken care of," Pinkerton winked. "So that no one knows you left Harrisburg early, he will tell his guests that you had taken suddenly ill and retired to your chambers. While he's informing his guests of that particular piece of news, we slip you out the carriage entrance.

"Abe, as far as anyone knows the papers, the Baltimore representatives, etcetera you are remaining on schedule. We can't tell too many people, especially the Baltimore authorities. My agent there, Tim Webster, tells me that even the chief of police is part of the conspiracy; that is why he has scheduled minimal police protection so that you can be gotten to by the assassins."

Lincoln paled. "I hadn't realized the depth of" He paused. His expression said the rest.

The following evening, Lincoln eluded the ball, as worked out, through a side door. Waiting in the port-cochere was a blackened carriage containing a fully armed Allan Pinkerton and another agent. Throwing a scarf over Lincoln, they hustled him onto the seat between them, at the same moment signaling the driver (also an agent) to whip the team into action. The carriage clattered over the empty, cobblestone streets until they came to a specially prepared locomotive with one passenger car awaiting them at a small countryside depot on the outskirts of town. From the door of the depot, another agent saluted Pinkerton a "Good Luck!" watched the unlit express chug off, then hastily climbed the nearest telegraph pole to sever the line. This was done to prevent anyone from wiring ahead to Baltimore just in case they had been tailed and their plan discovered.

Aboard the train were Kate Warne and a small army of Pinkertons, loaded for bear. Kate and several of the crew circled the President-elect in his car; Pinkerton, cradling a shotgun, stood on the rear platform from where his eyes peeled the nocturnal gloom of the landscape. He also watched for the signal lights he had requested to be given along the way.

"A Pinkerton operative stood watch at every switch, bridge and crossing," explains the book Allan Pinkerton America's First Private Eye, by Sigmund A. Lavine. "They had orders to signal with their bull's-eye two flashes, a short pause, then two more flashes (indicating that) all was well as Lincoln's train passed...Those signals continued to gleam throughout the night (until) the train rolled safely into the station in Baltimore at half-past three in the morning."

At the station, more Pinkerton detectives converged upon the party already guarding Lincoln. They joined the others, forming a barrier around their charge that was being led by the elbow to the connecting track. There was a moment's concern when the relay train was late, but soon it arrived, was checked out through, up and under, and Lincoln was placed within it. Following the same protective measurements for the last 50 miles, the train belted southwards to Washington City.

About 6:10 a.m., the express reached the well-posted Union Station. Among the ranks of detectives awaiting its precious cargo were General Winfield Scott and Secretary of State Seward to whom Lincoln was heard to respond in their grasp, "I was never so glad to see anyone in my life!"

Over the coming weeks, Lincoln was sworn in as President of the United States, but the states proved not to be fully united. On April 13, 1861, the provisional Confederate States of America fired upon the Union's Fort Sumter in Carolina Harbor.

War began.

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