Iroquois County Genealogical Society

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Timothy Webster


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,
intend to erect a monument to Timothy Webster at his
gravesite on Memorial Day, 2000. Timothy Webster was
instrumental in the shaping of our nation and should be
remembered, recognized, and revered.

Webster
	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.



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Deborah LaFine.

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