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History's Obscure Hero
His Body Lies Unappreciated in Onarga, Illinois Cemetery
by Patricia Dissmeyer Goff, November, 1999
"Unwept, unhonored and unsung. ---- Allan Pinkerton, 1868
A group of Onarga, Illinois citizens, led by David Danforth,
Timothy Webster has been recognized as Allan Pinkerton's most famous active agent in the Civil War. He is 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 even entering the Presidency. Timothy Webster was baptized on March 12, 1822(1) in New Haven, Sussex County, England. He immigrated to America in September or August, 1830(2) with his parents and settled in Princeton, New Jersey. After he finished school, in 1853(3) he became a policeman in New York City. He became very good at it and around 1854 was noticed by a friend of Allan Pinkerton's who recommended him for detective work. Webster went to work for Pinkerton and quickly became their best agent. Timothy had married Charlotte Sprowles on October 23, 1841(4) in Princeton, New Jersey. They had four children, two of whom died young. Their son, Timothy Jr., born in 1843(5), joined the Union Army from Onarga, Illinois on July 30, 1862(6) enlisting in Company D, 113th Infantry. Timothy Jr. married Ursula Treadway in March of 1864 in Olney, Illinois. He was wounded in a battle at Ripley, Mississippi on June 11, 1864 and his leg was amputated. He was taken to a confederate prison in Mobile, Alabama and died there on July 4, 1864.(7) At the beginning of the Civil War General George McClellan asked Pinkerton to enter Federal service, which he readily agreed to. Timothy Webster went with him 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 which was located right on the Illinois Central Railroad so Webster could commute easily and his family would be safe. Pinkerton was familiar with the area and had said that he would like to have a farm and house there someday an ambition that was carried out later. Webster was sent to pose as a Southern gentleman and managed to become a member of the rebel group "Knights 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.(8) In 1862, Webster was continuing to gather information on the Confederacy in Richmond when he was stricken with inflammatory rheumatism which was a result of several previous crossings of the Potomac River in frigid weather. Because he was too ill to send reports back to Pinkerton, two men were sent to locate him. They were captured by the Confederacy and forced to reveal secret information incriminating Timothy Webster. Confederate officers had trusted Webster many times with valuable documents and information and the Confederacy was extremely embarrassed by Webster's betrayal. 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 and hood he said, "I suffer a double death!" Timothy was buried hastily in Richmond. In 1871, at the pleadings of Timothy's 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." They were fortunate in locating Timothy's body and that of his son(9), and both were moved to their final resting place in Onarga, Illinois, next to Timothy Webster's father, who had died in Onarga in1860.(10) Timothy's widow, Charlotte, went to live with her daughter and son-in-law, Sarah and Thomas Robinson in Onarga. In August or September of 1874, this family moved to California where Charlotte received a pension(11) 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 descendants of Timothy Webster. There are, however, many descendants of Timothy's siblings, and this author has been in touch with some of them. Those descendants have been extremely helpful in providing information on Timothy and his family.
Endnotes: (1) Church Records at the Sussex Parish, Lewes, Sussex, England. Birth date not noted. Handwritten "Grandpa and Grandma's Record" by Esther Webster Wilgus, sister of Timothy Webster, noting parents, children, and birthdates. (2) Handwritten "Grandpa and Grandma's Record" by Esther Webster Wilgus states that the first eight children of Timothy Webster, Sr. and Frances Jennet Webster were born in Newhaven, Sussex, England, and that the ninth child, Fannie, was born at Princeton, NJ. on Sept. 6, 1830. (3) New York City Directory, 1853-1854. William A. and Robert A. Pinkerton in a pamphlet, "Timothy Webster, Spy of the Rebellion," 1906. (4) Charlotte Webster Pension application, Onarga, Illinois, 1869. (5) Trinity Parish Records, Princeton NJ., Baptized May 1843. (6) History of Iroquois County, 1880 and Past and Present of Iroquois Co. IL. 1907; Adjutant General's Report: Co. D. 113th Ill. Inf.; Copy of Ursula Treadway Webster Pension Application, 1865. (7) Ursula Treadway Webster Pension Application, 1865. (8) "The Spy of the Rebellion," Allan Pinkerton, 1883. (9) It is not yet known if Timothy Webster Jr.'s body was moved in 1871, or shipped home to Onarga immediately after his death in Mobile, Alabama. Those records are being sought. (10) Onarga, IL. Mortality Records: "Timothy Webster, Sen. died 27 March, 1860. Widowed, age 69, born England, died of general debility. In Onarga, Illinois only 2 weeks." (11) Charlotte Webster Pension application, Onarga, Illinois, 1869, rev. 1874.