On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln rode in an open car to travel to the United States Capitol to be sworn in as 16and President. There, in his inaugural address, he movingly called for unity in the deeply divided nation, including appealing to the “best angels of our nature”.
It is possible that Lincoln never made it to Washington, DC. Openly despised by Southerners for his outspoken opposition to slavery, he had received daily death threats since his election.
One of those threats might well have been carried out, were it not for the efforts of America’s first private eye. Hired by the famous Pinkerton detective agency, Kate Warne not only uncovered the details of an assassination attempt on Lincoln, but she also managed to devise a scheme to thwart the conspirators, who planned to ambush the President-elect on his train trip to Washington.
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Allan Pinkerton retained for presidential security
Before the Secret Service was created, presidents relied on the military to protect them. However, Lincoln hated ostentation and, despite the volume of threats to his life, dismissed any thought of a military escort on the long and highly publicized train tour from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to the capital. national.
One of Lincoln’s supporters, railroad executive Samuel Morse Felton, had been alarmed both by rumors of conspiracies involving Lincoln’s assassination and by the president-elect’s apparent recklessness. Seeking help, he turned to Detective Allan Pinkerton. Not only had the Scottish-born detective established his business providing security services to the rail industry, he had strong abolitionist credentials. Pinkerton had met Lincoln when they both worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, with Lincoln providing legal advice and Pinkerton providing security.
Pinkerton, for his part, has enlisted one of his most unlikely but loyal agents to provide security for the President.
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Warne to Pinkerton: Women could ‘check out their secrets’
Only a few years earlier, in 1856, the 23-year-old widow Warne, far from her birthplace in Erin, New York, had boldly walked into Pinkerton’s office in Chicago in search of a job. And not just as an office assistant. She insisted that she wanted to become an operator.
Pinkerton then recounted his first encounter with Warne. “Female detectives were unknown,” he said. Yet, out of curiosity, he “asked her what she thought she could do.”
Warne reminded Pinkerton that there were places “that were impossible for male detectives to get to”, but that as a woman she “could go and find secrets”. Struck by the young woman’s moxie, Pinkerton hires her, despite the objections of her brother and business partner.
In a few months, the young detective has proven her worth. While traveling to Montgomery, Alabama and in the company of the wife of the prime suspect in the $50,000 Adams Express Co. robbery, Kate Warne obtained a confession and recovered most of the loot.
“She succeeded far beyond my greatest expectations,” Pinkerton later said in a memoir.
Warne poses as a Southern Belle
Warne’s stay in Alabama would prove particularly useful in ensuring the president’s safety. She knew how well the beauties of the South spoke and acted, so when Pinkerton sent her to Baltimore – the only slave town Lincoln planned to visit on his trip to Washington – she donned the black and white cockade of the ribbons worn by the secessionist sympathizers. and posed as a society lady from Alabama. Loyal to the city’s elite, she helped glean details of at least one major plot to kill the president.
How could Warne and Pinkerton better protect Lincoln? The conspirators planned to take advantage of the president’s high-profile schedule and the need for anyone heading to Washington to change trains in Baltimore. The would-be assassins plotted to take advantage of an organized fight at the crowded station. Clearly, Pinkerton’s team should get Lincoln through Baltimore earlier than expected and under cover of darkness. And they should somehow disguise the too conspicuous president-elect.
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Warne claimed Lincoln was his sick brother
Warne, undercover as “Mrs. Barley,” reserved a sleeper compartment for herself in Philadelphia, telling a porter that her disabled brother would join her – and giving him a generous tip to keep seats vacant and let the siblings alone on their long journey to the nation’s capital.
Pinkerton soon arrived at the station, escorting an almost unrecognizable Lincoln. No more stovepipe cap; in its place was a new round beaver hat. Nothing could disguise Lincoln’s size, but as Warne solicitously helped his “brother” into a seat, the President leaned over and disguised his figure and prominent jawline by donning a shawl.
Lincoln, Warne would later recall, was surprised by the identity of his tutor, but remained gallant.
“I believe that it has not been one of the prerequisites of the presidency so far to acquire in full bloom such a charming and accomplished female relationship,” he told her.
Warne, meanwhile, was disappointed.
“Mr. Lincoln is very straight forward,” she wrote.
“Plums delivered nuts safely”
Throughout the long night that followed, Lincoln managed to sleep, but Warne sat up, alert for any threat. Instead of driving through Baltimore in broad daylight in an open car, the president’s wagon was pulled by a team of horses from station to station and hooked up to the train bound for Washington in the middle of the night.
At dawn the next morning, Pinkerton sent a coded telegram to the railroad executives who had hired him, stating “Plums (Pinkerton) delivered Nuts (codename Lincoln) safely”.
Pinkerton will live to lament the fact that he was not responsible for Lincoln’s safety during a visit by the President to Ford‘s Theater in Washington four years later, shortly after the surrender of the South ended the Civil War, a conflict that had begun shortly after Lincoln’s inauguration. . Pinkerton also survived Warne, her star agent, who died of pneumonia in 1868. Pinkerton buried her in her private family plot.