The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

The President and the detective…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Abraham Lincoln has won the Presidential election and now, in early 1861, is about to undertake the journey from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington for his inauguration. But these are troubled times, and the journey is complicated because of all of the different railroad companies that own parts of the route. One of the company owners hears of a plot to destroy his railroad to prevent Lincoln making it to Washington, and so he calls in the already famous private detective, Allan Pinkerton. But when Pinkerton starts to investigate, he becomes convinced that there is a deeper plot in the planning – to assassinate Lincoln before he is inaugurated. This book tells the story of Lincoln’s journey, the plot against him, and Pinkerton’s attempt to ensure his safe arrival in Washington.

It’s written very much in the style of a true crime book, although it has aspects that fall as much into the category of history. Stashower focuses on three main aspects: a biographical look at Pinkerton and the development of his detective agency; the rising tensions in the still-new nation that would soon break out into full scale civil war; and Lincoln’s journey, and the plot against him.

Route of Lincoln’s whistle-stop inaugural trip 1861

The first section is mostly about Pinkerton, a man who started out as a political activist in his native Glasgow in Scotland until, perhaps to escape the authorities there, he emigrated to America with his young wife. I grew up knowing tales of the great American detective Pinkerton and his agents, but hadn’t realised he was born and lived only three or so miles away from where I spent my childhood years, so that was an added point of interest for me; plus the authenticity shown in the little time that the book spends on Scotland and the political situation there (about which I know a fair amount) convinced me of the author’s historical reliability. Once the story moves to America, Stashower shows us how this journeyman cooper gradually became a detective for hire, and then grew a business of many agents able to work undercover in all levels of society. Stashower discusses Pinkerton’s methods,  his policy that “the ends justify the means”, and the clients who called on him to prevent crimes if he could, or else bring the criminals to justice after the event.

The logo that gave rise to the expression, “private eye”

Pinkerton was also ahead of his time in recognising the value of women detectives, though it was actually a woman, Kate Warne, who convinced him of this when she persuaded him to hire her. She went on to become one of his most trusted agents, and played a major role in the events covered by the book, all of which Stashower recounts most interestingly. If any biographers are out there looking for a subject, I’d love to read a full bio of her life!

The focus then switches between Lincoln and Pinkerton, the one preparing for his journey, the other setting up his agents to infiltrate the pro-Secessionists in Baltimore, where the threat to Lincoln seemed to be greatest. The political background is woven into these two stories, with Stashower assuming some prior knowledge of the events leading up to the civil war on the part of his readers, but ensuring that he gives enough so that people, like me, whose understanding of that period is superficial and even sketchy don’t get left behind.

Stashower tells us of the various people surrounding Lincoln, and their differing opinions on how he should meet the threat. Given that he had won the election on a minority of the vote, it was felt to be important that he should let people see and hear him, trying to win them over before he took office. This meant that the train journey became serpentine, looping and doubling back so that he could visit as many places as possible. To make matters worse from a security point of view, his advisors and he thought it was necessary to put out an itinerary in advance, so that the people, and unfortunately therefore the plotters, would know when and where they could get close to him. To get to Washington, he would have to go through Baltimore – a state then known as Mobtown and one that was considered likely to go over to the Confederacy side in the event of war. Despite the fact that we all know that Lincoln survived for a few more years, Stashower manages to build a real atmosphere of tension – we may know the outcome, but I certainly didn’t know how or even if he would make it through Baltimore safely.

Pinkerton (left) with Lincoln and Major General John A. McClernand at Antietam in1862

Meantime, Pinkerton and his agents take us undercover deep into the conspiracy to stop Lincoln, showing how for many of those involved it was really a talking game, but for a few fanatics, it was a real plot. Pinkerton’s task was a double one – to trap the plotters while also managing Lincoln’s safe transit through this dangerous city. I’ll say no more, so that I won’t spoil the tension for anyone who, like me, doesn’t know this story. But towards the end I found it as tense as a thriller and raced through the last chapters with a need to know how it all worked out.

Daniel Stashower

Finally, Stashower gives a short summary of what happened afterwards to the various people involved – the people who travelled with Lincoln, Pinkerton and his agents, and some of the plotters. He also shows how conflicting versions of the story make getting at the facts difficult – Pinkerton and some of Lincoln’s people didn’t see eye to eye either at the time or afterwards, and each side perhaps embellished the facts to suit their own purposes. Nothing really changes, eh? Except maybe it’s a bit easier to travel from Illinois to Washington now.

A thoroughly enjoyable book – well written, interesting and informative, giving a lot of insight into this troubled period just before the Civil War. Highly recommended!

Thanks, Margot – you know my tastes well. 😀

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Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford

fortune's foolPlaying the villain…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

As a Brit, the total extent of my knowledge of the Lincoln assassination was that some guy called John Wilkes Booth shot him in a theatre. This biography sets out to examine the whole life of Booth with a view to seeing what brought him to that point.

Booth was one of a family of ten, son of the famous actor Junius Booth, and destined for the stage from an early age. His father was a drunk who had spells of drink-related violence. Often away from home because of his career, much of the children’s upbringing fell to their mother, who seems to have been a loving but rather ineffectual soul. When John was thirteen, it came to light that his parents’ marriage was bigamous, his father having been married before to a wife still living. The book tells us about young John’s education and early attempt at running the family farm after his father’s death, before finally accepting that he couldn’t make a financial go of it and going into the family tradition of acting. While it’s interesting to speculate how much these early experiences may have affected John, speculation it must remain. The accounts of his character at this time, and later, come mainly from people speaking or writing after Lincoln’s assassination, so it’s hard to know how much their views are coloured by hindsight. While some people seem to have seen him as a nice, polite young boy and a good friend, there are conflicting stories of him being a bully and torturing cats. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From Wikipedia.
Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From Wikipedia.

The section on his early acting career is better documented as far as the facts go – where he performed, what roles he played, etc – but the confusion surrounding his character remains. Being handsome and athletic, he became a heartthrob, with legions of admiring female fans, but he clearly felt overshadowed by his father’s reputation, and perhaps his elder brothers’, choosing at first to drop Booth from his name and to be billed as John Wilkes. Alford looks at contemporaneous reviews and later reports to try to determine how good he was as an actor, concluding that though he showed a great deal of promise, his career wasn’t long enough for this to fully develop. At this young age, his general fitness enabled him to be a very physical performer, specialising in realistic swordfights, in which he sometimes took it so far that he injured his opponents. His signature role was Shakespeare’s Richard III, and his opponents in the fight scene would sometimes have to remind him to ‘die’ before he wore them down completely.

John with his actin brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr., in Julius Caesar
John with his acting brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr., in Julius Caesar

The real interest, of course, is in trying to get at the roots of why Booth developed such a hatred of Lincoln. Although not really a Southerner, Booth came to love the South, especially Virginia, and was violently anti-abolitionist. He was present at the execution of John Brown, having begged to be allowed to join the Virginia militia who were sent to Charlestown to ensure peace during Brown’s incarceration. But when war broke out, his mother made him promise not to join the Confederate army, and Alford suggests that this may have been part of the reason for his later actions – guilt at having played no active part in the fighting. His family lived in the North, and his brother Edwin was pro-Union and a Lincoln supporter. At first, John also was pro-Union, but held Lincoln and the abolitionists guilty for causing the secession of the Southern states. As the war dragged on, reports suggest that Booth became more extreme in the expression of his views, putting himself at risk of unpopularity, if not worse, in the Northern states where during this period he was spending most of his time. At this stage, some people were beginning to describe him as ‘crazy’ (though again, how much of that is hindsight isn’t totally clear).

lincoln-assassinated-newspaper

Alford goes into great detail over the plot, which was originally to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him for the freedom of Confederate soldiers held prisoner in the North. Delay after delay, however, meant that the war ended before the plan was carried out. While it’s clear from the plotting that Booth wasn’t quite the ‘lone gunman’ I’d wrongly supposed, he certainly seems to have been the main mover and in the end it appears he alone decided to change the plan to assassination. The description of the assassination and Booth’s flight and eventual capture is detailed and well-told and, whatever people felt about his actions, it appears that in the end Booth died bravely, winning the admiration, sometimes grudging, of those who witnessed his death. Alford interestingly looks at the heroic roles Booth had been steeped in from an early age and speculates on the influence they had on Booth’s actions – in particular the role of Brutus and his assassination of Julius Caesar. It seems clear that Booth expected to be the darling of the South for his actions, and he died disappointed that the general feeling in the South was that he had made the post-war situation even tougher for them.

lincoln memorial

Alford concludes by debunking some of the mythology that grew up of Booth having escaped and made a new life for himself elsewhere. He follows the body, so to speak, from the barn to its final resting place, showing how Booth’s corpse was identified by family members and people who knew him well.

Terry Alford
Terry Alford

There are two fundamental things that are required to make a great biography – a well-researched, well-written narrative and an interesting subject. This one certainly meets the first criterion; Alford has researched his subject thoroughly and has a flowing, accessible writing style. Unfortunately though, apart from shooting Lincoln, Booth’s story is only moderately interesting and, despite Alford’s best endeavours, many things about his character and actions remain clouded, relying on hindsight rather than contemporaneous reports. For what it’s worth (not much), my own conclusion is that Booth was an attention-seeking nutcase, determined to go down in history at whatever cost to himself or those around him. And since we’re still interested in him 150 years on, perhaps he achieved part of his aim – though in the end playing the villain rather than the hero.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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