Discussing The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War
7 p.m. Feb. 6
Highland Park Public Library, 494 Laurel Ave.
(847) 432-0216; hplibrary.org
Just in time to make the most of our national Abraham Lincoln moment, two-time Edgar Award-winning author Daniel Stashower has written The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War.
The nonfiction book explores the controversial Baltimore Plot, in which assassins planned to kill the president-elect when he passed through Baltimore from Springfield on his way to Washington for his inauguration. The real-life scenario involves Lincoln, the famed private detective Alan Pinkerton and Kate Warne, his top female agent. We caught up with Stashower before his Feb. 6 discussion of Hour of Peril in the Highland Park Public Library.
Q: What got you interested in this story?
A: I overheard some mystery-writer friends of mine talking about Kate Warne, a female agent Pinkerton had working for him. I got fascinated by that and one thing led to another. I’ve also been interested in the Civil War since I worked on a series of books about it for Time Life Books years ago.
I’ve been interested in Pinkerton since I was a big Sherlock Holmes fan as a kid — the Pinkertons appeared a couple of times in those stories. I was amazed to discover that they actually existed. My interest in Lincoln also goes way back. I remember doing a book report about his assassination when I was in the sixth grade. (Laughs)
Q: What appealed to you about Kate Warne?
A: Just the idea of her — in the 1850s and 1860s, when Susan B. Anthony was just barely getting out of the starting gate — she was working for Pinkerton as a full agent, at the head of an entire female detective bureau. The more I read about her the more she fascinated me — and she played a significant role in the Baltimore Plot. At one point she posed as Lincoln’s sister as part of Pinkerton’s plan to protect him. And Lincoln is supposed to have said, “I had not known it was one of the perquisites of the presidency to acquire in full bloom so accomplished and charming a female relation.”
Q: And it can’t have hurt that the real story has elements of a thriller built into it.
A: The race-against-time element in this story really jumped out at me. Pinkerton discovered the plot almost by accident when he was in Baltimore where he had been hired to protect a regional railroad. He was seriously concerned, but he knew he would have to find hard evidence quickly to make Lincoln change his plans to travel through Baltimore. And meanwhile, his train was on its way.
Q: How would you describe Pinkerton’s character?
A: He was a man of many contrasts. He was a really tough nut, scrappy and quick to anger. He was a lawman and a private detective, but he was also involved in the underground railroad, helping fugitive slaves make their way north to freedom. So, by day, he’s a lawman, and by night, he’s breaking the law in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Q: Why is the Baltimore Plot considered controversial by some historians? Is it because there wasn’t much hard evidence? Or because an effort was made at the time to suppress the facts?
A: At the critical moment there were three people involved: Pinkerton, Lincoln and a friend of Lincoln’s named Ward Lamon. And Pinkerton and Lamon hated each other. And as a result the details of the story got clouded at the time. Their squabbling took on real heat when Lamon wrote a memoir in which he not only trashed Pinkerton but he contradicted everything Pinkerton had to say about what happened in Baltimore. That’s where much of the debate begins about this episode — and the lasting controversy.
Q: How much did you have to speculate about what happened while writing the book?
A: I tried to adhere as closely as possible to what is known about the plot. Part of the fun of writing the book was going through what has been written about the plot and trying to untangle what was true and what wasn’t. That took some doing.