So entrenched and revered is Abraham Lincoln in America’s national myth that it is almost impossible to imagine what the country would look like without his presidency. There’s the real possibility it wouldn’t exist at all — at least not as the still functioning, if admittedly strained and battered, United States. It is startling to read, then, how close the nation came to losing its most consequential and important president (with apologies to our current president, of course) before he was even sworn in.
In “The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill America’s 16th President — and Why It Failed,” Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch provide a remarkable and often riveting account of an alleged plot to kill Lincoln in Baltimore on the way to his inauguration in Washington in February 1861. Historians still disagree on the details of the plan, including how many conspirators were involved and how great a threat it presented to the president-elect. But as the authors recount in the book’s opening scene, the threat was taken seriously enough that Lincoln was disguised as the “invalid” brother of a young woman and sneaked into Washington early on an overnight train to thwart the anticipated attempt on his life.
The young woman accompanying Lincoln, it turns out, was Kate Warne, an undercover agent working for Allen Pinkerton, whose nascent detective agency had been charged with ferreting out the threat against Lincoln and delivering him safely to Washington. The description of the subterfuge required to smuggle him to the nation’s capital can seem almost unfathomable to Americans who uphold the peaceful exchange of power as one of the country’s greatest political achievements.
“When he first entered the passenger car and she guided him to his seat, he pulled the brim of his low felt hat down over his face so that no one could see it,” the authors write about Lincoln as he boarded the train in Philadelphia. “Now, he lies behind a curtain in one of the sleeper berths, hidden from view. Because of his unusual height, he cannot stretch out his legs, so he keeps them bent. . . . The engineer, conductor, staff, and other passengers have no idea he’s aboard. But there he is — hiding in their midst.”
How did it reach the point that Lincoln was so despised that his life was in jeopardy even before he took office? Why had such antipathy toward him built up in Baltimore? And who were the men who meant to kill him?