Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"The Hour of Peril" by Daniel Stashower (2013)

The plot to assassinate President-elect Lincoln has always been a source of fascination for me. When I was living in Baltimore, some 30 odd years ago studying for a Coast Guard License, I used to stand opposite the Calvert Street Station and contemplate what would have been if the plot to kill Lincoln had been successful. And, standing on the very spot in the station where Lincoln had once trod held another appeal all of its own. So, naturally, I was eager to pick this book off the shelf at the library where it was presumably waiting just for me. And, what a treat it was to read!

Author Daniel Stashower has taken the oft told story of the attempted assassination of Lincoln en route to Washington and turned it into an all-encompassing saga of such diverse topics as; Scottish immigration, the westward expansion of the United States as a nation, the Abolitionist Movement, Allan Pinkerton’s rise from humble beginnings to his world-wide fame as a premier Private Investigator, his part in the Underground Railroad, his friendship with John Brown, and of course the founding of the Secret Service.

Along the way he introduces the reader to Eugene Vidocq, the former criminal turned law enforcement agent who founded the French Surete, and pioneered the plaster casting of footprints and established one of the earliest criminal data bases of the era. He was the actual inspiration for Victor Hugo’s character Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables.” Even the Lincoln-Douglas Debates are not ignored here, nor their implications concerning the inevitable coming of a Civil War. Oh, and did I mention that this is a book about Abraham Lincoln’s First Inauguration?

In a sweeping style, and drawing upon all sources, the author has penned what could very well become the basis for a movie about Allan Pinkerton. If Steven Spielberg were to undertake this as a companion piece to his current blockbuster “Lincoln”, he could not miss. 

As a member of the Scottish Chartist group; who were early champions of the working class and later tied to Marx and Engels; Pinkerton was also a natural  champion of Abolition. His work with John Brown put him in direct violation of both state and federal laws, but still he persevered . His attitude was expressed in the oft quoted “The ends justify the means, if the ends are for the accomplishment of Justice.”

When the author does get around to the journey by rail from Illinois to Chicago, by circuitous fashion, passing through all the stops on the way to New York, and from there on to Washington, D.C.; including a very dangerous change of stations at Baltimore where the President-elects life was in imminent danger; the narrative actually gets even better, if that is imaginable. 

The smoke filled cars come to life as the train hurtles toward the destiny which will ultimately; some 4 years later; culminate in the President’s death by an assassin’s bullet. That in itself is almost ironic; that he should live through the earlier attempt upon his life, only to die in the same way after holding the country together during a vicious Civil War; seems almost as if history had done with him; and having done so, cast him aside.

This book also explores the role that the railroads were beginning to play in the way Americans lived, worked and even engaged in politics. Filled with rogues, knaves and the world's first female detective, there is something for everyone in this book. It is still early in the year; and the book is just recently out; but I would suggest that if you only read one or two books this year, skipping this one would be a real loss.

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