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A Hero In The Shadows

A mysterious man from Homer, who lived his life in the shadows, quietly changed the course of American History and then disappeared from its pages.

Location #1: Birthplace of Eli DeVoe at 5485 NY Rt 41, Homer NY 13077

(42° 40.285′ N, 76° 13.069′ W)

1861 was off to an auspicious start. Abraham Lincoln had just been elected President and planned to celebrate his impending forthcoming inauguration with an 11-day public railroad tour in February from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C. Lincoln’s second to last stop, Baltimore, was the only slave-holding city on the route, and in it brewed a nefarious plot.

Cypriano Ferrandi, a virulent secessionist, had masterminded a murderous scheme against Lincoln with the help of a secret organization, The Knights of the Golden Circle. Despite the whispered rumblings, Lincoln insisted he’d make his way to Washington without a military escort. With just two weeks remaining before his departure, it fell to a handful of detectives to thwart the assassination attempt and protect the president.

At the time, General Winfield Scott of New York was head of security for the capital city. Hearing rumors of a threat, Scott reached out to New York Police Superintendent John A. Kennedy and asked him to send his two best detectives to Baltimore.

Enter Eli DeVoe. DeVoe was born in a simple log cabin in the woods in 1809, just like Abraham Lincoln. The child of devout Congregationalists John and Helena Godwin DeVoe, teenage Eli spent Sundays listening to Reverend John Keep preaching about emancipation, and the sermons took root.

Location #2: Homer Historical Society at 25 South Main Street, Homer, NY 13077

(42.63623648983646, -76.17821664232738)

At 52 years old, DeVoe had made his way through the ranks of the New York City police to detective. Along with his partner, Tom Sampson, the two checked into a Baltimore hotel under aliases. Assuming the name surname Davis, DeVoe identified as a businessman from Mobile, Alabama and a Southern sympathizer. Soon, he and Sampson had infiltrated the Knights of the Golden Circle, going so far as to pledge to murder Lincoln themselves if the opportunity should arise!

The ruse initially worked, and they reported to Superintendent Kennedy that there was a plot to assassinate Lincoln at the Baltimore train station. However, before they could proceed further, their aliases were jeopardized. DeVoe’s wife had mailed a letter to his hotel, postmarked New York, making the separatist group leery. Although he quickly conjured a reason for relation in New York, suspicion amongst the Knights of the Golden Circle grew to a fever pitch. Fearing for their safety, DeVoe and Sampson abruptly left Baltimore and headed to Washington to assist Allan Pinkerton, who was acting as head of Lincoln’s security.

The duo checked into the Willard Hotel and, what is assumed to be out of habit, registered under the same aliases. Later that day, Sampson returned to the lobby to discover members of the Knights of the Golden Circle were scanning the hotel registry, hunting for the traitors who had foiled their plans. Timothy Webster, an undercover Pinkerton Agent, spotted Sampson and warned him to flee immediately, as 20 desperate men were there under orders to kill the detectives on sight. Webster insisted they catch a train outside of Washington, as all nearby stations were under heavy separatist guard.

DeVoe and Sampson stealthily made their way to a depot 15 miles outside of town and boarded a train heading back to Baltimore. Imagine their terror when they looked up to see three members of the Knights of the Golden Circle in the front car! Spotted, the detectives had to make a terrible choice. They walked calmly toward the back of the now racing train and, with a tip of their hats, flung themselves onto the tracks. Both men, covered in blood, scrapes and bruises, DeVoe with a severely injured ankle, managed to catch a streetcar and a carriage to the relative safety north of the Mason/Dixon Line.

At 6 a.m. on February 23, under cover of secrecy, a train pulled into the Baltimore & Ohio depot in Washington. A heavily disguised Lincoln was safely on board, in part because of the bravery of Eli DeVoe of Homer, NY. The intelligence gathered by DeVoe and Sampson had helped persuade Lincoln to divert his traveling plans, foiling Cypriano Ferrandini’s plot to bomb the station and kill Lincoln in the chaos.

The life of an undercover detective well-lived doesn’t leave much of a paper trail. No official images or photographs of Eli DeVoe are known to exist. Nor are there many records of his heroics or exploits. At the onset of the Civil War, DeVoe entered the nation’s first secret services, organized by Allan Pinkerton. In 1865, DeVoe was named as one of the detectives involved in the arrest of Mary Surratt and Lewis Thornton Powell, accomplices in the assignation of President Lincoln.

Like the excellent detective he was, Eli DeVoe seems to have vanished into the ether during the latter years of his life, and no further records of his exploits exist.

1. Baltimore Plot – Ford’s Theatre (U.S. National Park Service). Accessed 3 April 2023.
2. Exhibits Online – Straddling Secession – Burning the Bridges. Accessed 3 April, 2023.
3. Meltzer, Brad, and Josh Mensch. “The First Secret Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln.” Time, 30 Apr. 2020, Accessed 3 April, 2023.
4. Baltimore Plot by Wikipedia Baltimore Plot – Wikipedia Accessed 3 April 2023.
5. The Unsuccessful Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Stashower. The Unsuccessful Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln | History| Smithsonian Magazine. Homer’s Connection to Abraham Lincoln – Life in the Finger Lakes Published by Smithsonian Magazine, Feb 2013.
6. Sweeney, Martin A. Lincoln’s Gift From Homer, New York: A Painter, an Editor and a Detective. McFarland, 2011.
7. Arthur, Tom. It Happened Here–A Blog About NewYork State Historical Markers. Accessed 3 April 2023.