If you are like me, you either never heard of the Baltimore Plot or forgot about it, letting it slip between the lessons of your American History class years ago. But Daniel Stashower has decided to reeducate us, and lifted this controversial moment in history from the ashes of the Civil War that followed in his latest book, The Hour of Peril. He masterfully dusts off the pages and lays bare the story.
It could be said that this book is the tale of the legendary Allan Pinkerton, his life as well as his association with Abraham Lincoln and to the Baltimore Plot, a plot to kill Lincoln before his inauguration could make him the 16th President. Stashower, who has merited numerous awards and has impressive credentials as a biographer and narrative historian, brings this riveting and mysterious story to life by sifting through what I can only imagine was a mountain of research (including correspondence of some of the main characters involved in Lincoln’s safe delivery) and streamlining the story.
Taking notes from Pinkerton, both figuratively and literally, Stashower plays the good investigator and never forgets to shed light on the possibility of inaccuracies and biases that frequented accounts of this emotional charged period of American history.
It is 1861. The Northern states and the Southern states are at each other’s throats over the issue of slavery. Following decades of give and takes (of which the Dred Scott Decision in1857 was no small factor) the Republican Party and Abolitionists manage to elect their champion in the staunch and cool-headed Abraham Lincoln. Southern states are outraged and begin seceding. It is in this climate that The Hour of Peril explores the circumstances and evidences that convinced Lincoln to face reprisal and humiliations in order to secure his safe arrival in Washington.
But first Stashower establishes his hero. Allan Pinkerton was Scottish born. As a Chartist supporter of the laboring class, he was forced into flight, sneaking off to America. As a cooper, he settled into a small business making barrels in Dundee, a small town fifty miles from Chicago. It was there that Pinkerton inadvertently fell into the trade that would make him famous. He was a stubborn, restless, daring, and astute man (some would claim incorruptible as well).
With these characteristics (as well as his massive hands), he set to the task of detective work, in which his handpicked team succeeded in solving many high profile cases. His growing renown, especially with the railroad companies, made him a familiar of Lincoln and brought him into Baltimore on business in the weeks before Lincoln’s inauguration.
Stashower gives an overview of how Pinkerton and his team landed the job that put them in Baltimore while interspersing it with the details of Lincoln’s rise to be President-elect and the history of the growing agitation between slave and free states. When the stage is set, the author drives semi-chronological moment-to-moment account of the Pinkerton detectives’ investigations that uncovered a plot to assassinate Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore on his way to the Capitol.
These rumors weren’t unfounded as government operatives were sniffing along the same trail and finding similar reports, but on a much larger scale than Pinkerton had found. It becomes a race against the clock as the detectives try to find convincing evidence and get it into the hands of men they can trust. Pinkerton takes it upon himself to personally see Abraham Lincoln through safely. Obviously he succeeded, but the quick wit and clever plan conceived by America’s most famous private detective is no less intriguing and intricate for its known outcome.
The writing compels the listener on with short stories of interest that build to the big picture. We learn about, from a certain regard, many historical figures including Abraham Lincoln and his self-appointed bodyguard Ward Lamon, the detectives and Union spies Timothy Webster and Kate Warne, the radical Abolitionist John Brown, the Marshall and later Mayor of Baltimore George Kane, and General Winfield Scott. Stashower has succeeded once again with a work that is at once historically interesting and in a narrative sense gripping.
The Hour of Peril, the story of one most of America’s most renowned Presidents, is narrated in a stately manor by Edoardo Ballerini. You may recognize him as the autistic teenager in that 1995 episode of Law and Order, but Ballerini has since logged extensive experience acting, writing, directing, producing, and narrating. He is a winner of Audiofile Magazine’s “Earphohes” Award and narrator of Nobel Prize Winner Kenzaburo Oe’s Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. Ballerini brings his success and experience to the table, offering soothing confidence in tone and proper inflection and cadence as The Hour of Peril lays out the life of Allan Pinkerton, builds through the excitement of Abraham Lincoln’s flight for the Capitol through a city that longs for his demise, and concludes in how the Baltimore Plot would be laid out for posterity. Stashower and Ballerini are a dynamic team that compliments\ each other in making thirteen and a half hours of historical narrative a worthwhile venture.