Baltimore 1861: Lincoln, Pinkerton, and Burns?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 29, 2013

One of my favorite fictional detective works is the 1990s NBC series, Homicide. Though in fact it was originally based on a nonfiction work of the same name by David Simon, also about Baltimore homicide detectives (and also excellent).

More than 130 years before Pembleton, G, Crosetti, et al., Baltimore also played host to a couple of notable events in the history of their real-life predecessors. Events that are all the more interesting for their strange juxtaposition in that particular place and time…

In January and February of 1861, the founder of the legendary Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency was deep in the midst of what history records as The Baltimore Plot. In Allan Pinkerton’s mind, at least, this was a clear, present and very real danger to the life of president-elect Abraham Lincoln; per subsequent criticism it was an imaginary bogeyman threat born of empty rumor and Pinkerton’s overcautiousness (and/or self-promotional hyperbole). I recorded my own assessment in the book, but regardless of what The Baltimore Plot was not, it was a significant and memorable episode in the history of one of the most accomplished detectives in history, tied to the city of Baltimore in early 1861.

Which represents a fascinating coincidence given the other event in Baltimore, in early 1861, of enormous significance in the history of a celebrated American detective.

Like Allan Pinkerton, William Burns has been the subject of multiple controversies, including even (also like Pinkerton) when precisely he was born. In Burns’s case, the date seems to have been October 19, but the year is less certain. One biographer gives the year 1858, while the FBI suggests “around 1860.” I made some effort to track down a birth certificate, but whatever records the relevant governments have from that far back seem not to be online, and in the end I decided that based on the age given in his obituary Burns was probably born in 1861, as his more recent biographer and Wikipedia both claim.

If correct, meanwhile, a birth date of October 1861 implies one very interesting chronological coincidence: William Burns was probably conceived toward the end of January 1861, in Baltimore. At exactly the same time as that city was, for what I believe was one of the only times in his long career, preoccupying Burns’s only real subsequent rival for America’s great detective, Allan Pinkerton.

Burns himself had little further association with Baltimore, also; not long after his birth his parents resettled here in Ohio, and if Burns had any further connection with Charm City later in life it was most likely minor. The chance alignment of his and Pinkerton’s brief, but significant, ties to Baltimore is thus a striking one. Particularly given the similar outlines of their careers: like Pinkerton, Burns began his working life in a traditional trade, then detoured into detection on an amateur, near-accidental basis, then spent a period building experience and a reputation in both private and government employment—with pursuit of counterfeiters a recurring challenge—before founding his own detective agency and quickly expanding to a national operation.

Burns regularly feuded with Pinkerton’s sons, as well, though I don’t believe he ever crossed paths with Allan again even in a loose sense, with one partial exception. It may be worth noting that, while again the dates are contested, Burns most likely began his storied detective career right around 1884, the same year that Allan Pinkerton ended his with his death that July.

Ships in the night.

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