There are only two more performances left of The Pinkertonian Mystery at the New-York Historical Society! Families with kids eight and older have loved playing detective for an afternoon, helping the Pinkerton Detective Agency solve a dramatic mystery in this interactive theater experience. Buy tickets here for July 12 or July 26.
Allan Pinkerton was a real detective in American history. We’ve learned about the formation of his detective agency (Part I), his female gumshoe Kate Warne (Part II), and the agency’s success in foiling an assassination attempt on President-elect Abraham Lincoln (Part III).
In our final blog of this series, let’s find out more about Pinkerton, the Civil War spy.
President Abraham Lincoln was quite impressed with the capabilities of Allan Pinkerton. When Lincoln was still acting as an attorney for the Chicago-based railroad company, Rock Island and Illinois Central, he witnessed the rising reputation of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency as it battled railroad and express robberies and embezzlement. Lincoln, of course, also carried a personal debt to Pinkerton for his vigilance in preserving his safety as he traveled through Baltimore on his way to the presidential inauguration.
In 1861 as the nation was in the mood for battle, Lincoln asked Pinkerton to provide security in the capital. Lincoln’s advisors, however, had other people in mind for the job, so General George B. McClellan, who had been president of the Chicago railroad and knew of Pinkerton’s capabilities, instead tapped Pinkerton.
McClellan wanted Pinkerton to use his skills to provide political and military intelligence by infiltrating the groups of Southern sympathizers in and around Washington, D.C. Pinkerton relished this role, taking on the nom de guerre of Major E. J. Allen. Two of his detectives, Kate Warne and Timothy Webster, became key members of this team. Warne would pose as a displaced southern belle and use her charm to lure information out of Confederate spies and supporters. She and Pinkerton often traveled around as a married couple to better disguise themselves in certain circles.
Webster, a former New York City policeman, was assigned to travel to the Confederate states of Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Kentucky in order to gather information. He was so good at his undercover role that he was even offered the position of Colonel of the Second Arkansas Regiment! He gracefully declined and moved on to Richmond, Virginia, with so many letters of recommendation that Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin recruited him to be a secret courier between Washington, Baltimore, and Richmond.
All was going well for the double agent until he fell ill and Pinkerton sent two men, John Scully and Pryce Lewis, to Richmond to check on his health. At the same time, officials in Washington released three women accused of being spies and sent them back to Virginia where they recognized Scully and Pryce from their interrogations in Washington.
The two men were sentenced to death. Though it was known that they were visiting their friend, Webster was held in such high regard that he was not suspected of espionage. The Confederates were shocked and embarrassed when, in a jail cell confession to a priest, Scully revealed that Webster was a spy for the Union. Webster was arrested and the two men were released in exchange for providing this information.
Even with pleas and threats from Lincoln, McClellan, and Pinkerton, the Confederates would not back down and agree to a prisoner exchange, which had been the norm until then. Timothy Webster was the first Civil War spy to be executed.
Pinkerton said: “No braver nor truer man died during the War of the Rebellion than Timothy Webster.”