A Brush With Death in Baltimore? The Other Lincoln Assassination Attempt

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Even if John Wilkes Booth hadn’t gotten to Abraham Lincoln on that fateful night at Ford’s Theater, it seems likely that someone would have, eventually. After all, Lincoln narrowly avoided death on an uncomfortable number of occasions—including one incident in 1861.

In February of that year, the president-elect was traveling by train from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C. Word was circulating that Lincoln’s detractors planned to stop him from taking office, and that their attempt would likely happen during Lincoln’s stop in Baltimore.

The rumor was upsetting to many people, but it was particularly alarming to Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad president Samuel Felton. Felton didn’t want any harm to come to the president-elect, of course, and he also didn't want any harm to come to the reputation of his fine railroad. To protect both, Felton hired independent detective Allan Pinkerton to investigate.

Pinkerton visited Baltimore to delve deeper into the plot, and what he discovered amidst the crowds shocked him: “Every night as I mingled among them, I could hear the most outrageous sentiments enunciated. No man’s life was safe in the hands of those men.”

Though many plots were discussed, including one to give Lincoln dumplings stuffed with spiders, only one seemed to be forming into an actionable plan: Corsican immigrant Captain Cypriano Ferrandini had assembled 20 "Southern Patriots" to assault Lincoln when he exited his train. Some of the men, as designated by secret ballot, were tasked with attacking him while others created a diversion.

Pinkerton’s recommendation was to send Lincoln through Baltimore as planned, but several hours ahead of schedule, and with no entourage. Instead of the usual conspicuous crew, Lincoln would be accompanied by just Pinkerton and friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon. He would also be in disguise, wearing a soft wool hat and an old overcoat with a shawl for good measure. The costume wasn’t just for theatrics. Lincoln’s train wasn’t just “passing through” Baltimore—his sleeper car actually needed to be unhooked and driven via horse to a different depot in town in order for him to switch trains to D.C. Not only did this exposure make Lincoln more physically vulnerable, it also meant that more people could potentially find out that he had arrived well ahead of schedule, creating more opportunities for the word to leak out.

Even with a small snag in the schedule, the plan ultimately succeeded. By the time Ferrandini and his murderous crew were gathering for their attack, Lincoln had already arrived in Washington.

To confirm that everything had gone according to plan, Pinkerton wired a coded message to his boss back at the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad: “Plums delivered nuts safely.”