Timothy Webster was recognized as Allan Pinkerton's most famous active agent in the Civil War and was partially responsible for thwarting an assassination attempt on president-elect Abraham Lincoln. It is impossible to know exactly how events would have transpired at that time without Lincoln at the helm, but it is certainly true that the history of the United States would have been dramatically different if Pinkerton and Webster had failed in their mission and Lincoln had been killed before entering the Presidency.
Born on March 12, 1822 in Newhaven, Sussex County, England, Webster immigrated to America in August 1830 with his parents and settled in Princeton, New Jersey. After finishing school, in 1853 he became a policeman in New York City and performed skillfully. Around 1854 was he was noticed by a friend of Allan Pinkerton's who recommended him for detective work. After accepting work with Pinkerton, Webster quickly became their best agent.
Timothy married Charlotte Sprowles on October 23, 1841 in Princeton, New Jersey and the couple had four children, two of whom died young. Their son, Timothy Jr., born in 1843, joined the Union Army from Onarga, Illinois on July 30, 1862 and was wounded in the Battle of Brices Crossroads near Ripley, Mississippi on June 11, 1864, and taken to a confederate prison in Mobile, Alabama where his leg was amputated. He subsequently died there on July 4, 1864. His body was transported north to Onarga, Illinois and buried in the Onarga Cemetery next to his grandfather, Timothy Webster Sr., who died in Onarga in 1860.
At the beginning of the Civil War General George McClellan asked Pinkerton to enter Federal service, which he readily agreed to. Timothy Webster joined him in this effort thereby changing from detective to Union Spy.
Because of the nature of his work, Pinkerton suggested that Webster move his family to a safer place and work out of the Chicago office. Pinkerton suggested Onarga, Illinois, located south of Chicago on the Illinois Central Railroad. Pinkerton was familiar with the area and had said that he would like to have a farm and house there somedayCan ambition that was carried out later. Charlotte and the children moved from New York to Onarga around 1858; Webster commuted easily and his family was safe.
Sent to pose as a Southern gentleman in the Baltimore area, Webster managed to become a member of the rebel group "Sons of Liberty" in order to report on their plans and activities. In February of 1861 president-elect Lincoln was to travel from Harrisburg through Baltimore and on to Washington for his inauguration. While Webster was investigating rumors that secessionists were planning to blow up the steamers that ferried trains across the Susquehanna River, he uncovered a plan to assassinate Lincoln as he changed trains in Baltimore. Because Timothy Webster was able to send a warning, Pinkerton was able to foil the attempt on Lincoln's life.
In 1862, Webster was continuing to gather information on the Confederacy in Richmond when he was stricken with inflammatory rheumatism, the result of several previous crossings of the Potomac River in frigid weather and was too ill to send reports back to Pinkerton. As a result, two menCLewis and ScullyCwere sent to locate him. The two men were recognized as being Union spies, captured by the Confederacy and eventually revealed secret information incriminating Webster.
Confederate officers had trusted Webster many times with valuable documents and information and the Confederacy was extremely embarrassed by Webster's betrayal. While Lewis and Scully were eventually released, Webster was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death by hanging.
When Pinkerton heard the news of the sentence, he and President Lincoln sent a message to the Confederacy threatening that if Webster was put to death, the Union would reciprocate by hanging a Confederate spy. Previously, Union policy had been to keep spies in jail and eventually exchange them for Union prisoners.
The Confederacy ignored the threat and on April 29, 1862, Timothy Webster climbed the gallows in Richmond, Virginia. The noose was put around his neck and a black hood was fitted over his face. The trap was sprung but the knot slipped and Webster fell to the ground. After being helped back up the steps and re-fitted with the noose he said, "I suffer a double death!" The noose held the second time, and Webster died within minutes and was hastily buried in Richmond.
In 1871, at the pleadings of his widow, Charlotte, and to fulfill a promise he made to himself upon hearing of Timothy's death, Pinkerton sent George Bangs and Thomas G. Robinson (Timothy=s son-in-law) to Richmond to locate his body and bring it North for proper burial in "Northern soil." With the help of Elizabeth (Crazy Bet) Van Lew, a Southern-born Union sympathizer that operated out of Richmond during the war, they located Timothy=s body, and transported him to his final resting place in Onarga, Illinois. He was buried next to his father, Timothy Webster Sr., and his son, Timothy Webster Jr.
Timothy's widow, Charlotte, went to live with her daughter and son-in-law, Sarah and Thomas Robinson in Onarga. In September of 1874, this family moved to California where Charlotte received a pension and lived with her daughter until she died on December 1, 1907. She is buried in the Old City Cemetery in Sacramento. Sarah Webster Robinson is buried in the Masonic Cemetery on Riverside Boulevard in Sacramento. Sarah's children never married, therefore there are no direct descendants of Timothy Webster.
Source: Courtesy of "Patricia Dissmeyer Goff"
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