The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The attempted assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Plotters allegedly planned to kill Abraham Lincoln in Baltimore as he traveled to his inauguration in February 1861. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The book information box in an earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Brad Meltzer’s co-author. He is Josh Mensch, not John. The review has been corrected.

So entrenched and revered is Abraham Lincoln in America’s national myth that it is almost impossible to imagine what the country would look like without his presidency. There’s the real possibility it wouldn’t exist at all — at least not as the still functioning, if admittedly strained and battered, United States. It is startling to read, then, how close the nation came to losing its most consequential and important president (with apologies to our current president, of course) before he was even sworn in.

In “The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill America’s 16th President — and Why It Failed,” Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch provide a remarkable and often riveting account of an alleged plot to kill Lincoln in Baltimore on the way to his inauguration in Washington in February 1861. Historians still disagree on the details of the plan, including how many conspirators were involved and how great a threat it presented to the president-elect. But as the authors recount in the book’s opening scene, the threat was taken seriously enough that Lincoln was disguised as the “invalid” brother of a young woman and sneaked into Washington early on an overnight train to thwart the anticipated attempt on his life.

The young woman accompanying Lincoln, it turns out, was Kate Warne, an undercover agent working for Allen Pinkerton, whose nascent detective agency had been charged with ferreting out the threat against Lincoln and delivering him safely to Washington. The description of the subterfuge required to smuggle him to the nation’s capital can seem almost unfathomable to Americans who uphold the peaceful exchange of power as one of the country’s greatest political achievements.

“When he first entered the passenger car and she guided him to his seat, he pulled the brim of his low felt hat down over his face so that no one could see it,” the authors write about Lincoln as he boarded the train in Philadelphia. “Now, he lies behind a curtain in one of the sleeper berths, hidden from view. Because of his unusual height, he cannot stretch out his legs, so he keeps them bent. . . . The engineer, conductor, staff, and other passengers have no idea he’s aboard. But there he is — hiding in their midst.”

How did it reach the point that Lincoln was so despised that his life was in jeopardy even before he took office? Why had such antipathy toward him built up in Baltimore? And who were the men who meant to kill him?

Drawing from contemporaneous accounts and biographies of the central characters, Meltzer and Mensch use Lincoln’s two-week journey by train from his home in Illinois to his under-cover-of-darkness arrival in Washington as a gripping narrative to revisit the discovery of the assassination plot and the frantic efforts to prevent its success.

In their briskly paced telling — each of the book’s 81 chapters is just a few pages long — the authors provide a robust historical framework and explain how a figure named Cypriano Ferrandini, a barber to Baltimore’s elite and a staunch supporter of the slaveholding South, would come to be seen as the lead organizer of this murderous plot. While Lincoln is waving to whistle-stop well-wishers in the North, Pinkerton and his detectives operate undercover in proslavery Baltimore and join secret Confederate societies to learn more about the threat.

Meltzer, a best-selling thriller author, and Mensch, a documentarian and producer, have been down the conspiracy path of American history before. Their 2019 bestseller, “The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington,” recounted the 1776 attempt by the Tory-supporting New York governor and New York City mayor to enlist Washington’s bodyguards in an effort to take him down. While their Washington book explored the divisions in colonial America between loyalists to the crown and revolutionaries, the focus of the Lincoln book is how deeply riven the nation was by the slavery question.

Despite the attempts of some revisionist historians to play down slavery as the root cause of the Civil War, what Southern states feared most about Lincoln’s election was that he would push for an end to the institution. Just three days after his victory, the South Carolina legislature convened to vote on a measure titled “Resolution to Call the Election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. President a Hostile Act.”

Meltzer and Mensch remind readers that in much of the South, Lincoln was so unpopular that ballots were not distributed for him. As a result, in the election of 1860 not a single vote was cast for Lincoln in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas. On Dec. 20, six weeks after Lincoln’s victory, South Carolina would secede from the United States, citing in part “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the Institution of Slavery.”

That is the cauldron in which Lincoln’s election took place. Following his victory, letters arrived every day threatening him with hanging, flogging, burning, decapitation. “Old Abe Lincoln: God damn your god damned old Hellfired god damned soul,” one pre-Twitter rant began — and went downhill from there.

The hate-filled enemies of Lincoln would exact their revenge when another Baltimorean, John Wilkes Booth, shot him on April 14, 1865; he died early the next day. But by then Lincoln had succeeded in bringing an end to slavery and saving the nation. It can still bring a shudder to think what might have resulted if the first assassination plot had taken him before his work began.

The Secret Plot to Kill America's 16th President — and Why It Failed

By Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

Flatiron. 432 pp. $29.99