On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was tragically shot at Ford’s theatre. As the nation bitterly mourned at the loss of their beloved head of state, many recalled that it was not the first time that an attempt had been made on his life.
Allen Pinkerton of Pinkerton National Detective Agency was retained to ensure that the president arrived safely in Washington. On February 11, 1861, he was alerted by railroad officials of the suspicious destruction of railroad property near Baltimore along the route on which Lincoln would later travel. At the time, Maryland was a sympathetic to the Southern cause. Just two months prior, a Baltimore mob had attacked a Union army regiment passing through. Sensing potentially fatal trouble, Pinkerton advised Lincoln to go under cover for his own safety. In the middle of the night, the president-elect arrived secretly in Baltimore in disguise.
According to Pinkerton, the alleged plot was to have several assassins, armed with knives, interspersed throughout the crowd that would gather to greet Lincoln at the President Street station. When Lincoln emerged from the car, which he had to do to change trains, one of the assassins would be able to get close enough to kill him.
Although later it was controversial as to whether there had been an actual assassination plot or not, many believed Lincoln was cowardly for sneaking into Washington in disguise, but the disguise may have well saved his life. Lincoln’s friend and personal body guard Ward Hill Lamon said of the event: ”It is perfectly manifest that there was no conspiracy—no conspiracy of a hundred, of fifty, of twenty, of three; no definite purpose in the heart of even one man to murder Mr. Lincoln in Baltimore.”
Lamon may well have been trying to cover the fact that he was utterly unaware of the danger his friend and charge was in.
Much to his chagrin, Lincoln’s escape became a source of jokes for the national press. Newspapers ceaselessly mocked the new president for his over zealous attempt at safety. By the time Lincoln moved in the White House, many thought him unfit for the office at so grave a time. The Baltimore Sun reported, “Had we any respect for Mr. Lincoln, official or personal, as a man, or as President-elect of the United States… the final escapade by which he reached the capital would have utterly demolished it…. He might have entered Willard’s Hotel with a “head spring” and a “summersault,” and the clown’s merry greeting to Gen. Scott, “Here we are!” and we should care nothing about it, personally. We do not believe the Presidency can ever be more degraded by any of his successors than it has by him, even before his inauguration.”
Yet four years later, on this day in 1865, no one was laughing when the president was fatally shot in the back of the head at Ford’s theater. Over the years, 17 out of the 45 presidents have had an attempt on their life. Unlike in 1861, however, all plots or even threats are taken seriously by the secret service (which was instituted by law to protect the president after President Mckinley’s assassination in 1901).
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