Stealing Lincolns Body

Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth President of the United States. He was born in Kentucky in 1809; his father, Thomas, was a carpenter and farmer who moved his family to a backwoods Indiana log cabin. This happened when Lincoln was seven years old; when Abraham was nine years of age, his mother Nancy died. It was said that she died from drinking soiled milk from a cow that had eaten a poisonous plant.

A year after the death of his wife Nancy, Lincoln’s father, Thomas, had remarried to a woman named Sarah; like Abraham and his father, Sarah was also from Kentucky. She was a mother of three children at the time, and she was always a great stepmother to Lincoln. For one year only, Abraham Lincoln had attended a one-room cabin school. It turned out to be the only formal education that he would ever receive. During his childhood, Abraham developed a love from reading, and he had often read at night by the fire.

Abe’s love for reading sometimes pushed him to walk miles just to borrow a book. For his age, Lincoln was considered a tall boy who stood out in class. More than often he had helped his father on the farm which is where he developed his skill of log splitting. His family had moved to Illinois when he was 20 years old. By the time Abe had reached 21 years of age he’d already worked as a rail splitter, a postmaster, storekeeper, and a surveyor. As an adult Abe was considered very tall compared to other men his age, and had often stood out in crowded areas.

Some say that Abe Lincoln had been great at telling stories, which would later add to one of his many charismatic skills as President. Abe had lost his first election when he had run for legislature. After losing his first election, Abe became a lawyer and had moved to the capitol of Illinois. While in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln had married a women by the name of Mary Todd, which is who would bear Abe his five sons. Only one of Abe’s children had lived long enough to reach adulthood. In 1858 Abe had again entered into politics and campaigned against slavery all throughout the United States. Known to us as the famous Lincoln Douglas debates, Abe had opposed slavery.

In 1861 at the age of 52 he won the election for presidency. During his Presidency in 1863, he attempted to free all the slaves in his famous Emancipation Proclamation. Also in 1863 Abraham Lincoln had delivered the Gettysburg Address which he promised amnesty and moderation to the defeated South. On April 14, 1865 Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth a well-known actor and supporter of the confederacy. Following his assassination Lincoln was buried, and is remembered as one of the finer presidents in United States history.

Yet one of the strangest, most intriguing, and yet almost unknown episodes in American history unfolded in 1876, eleven years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. A band of Chicago counterfeiters hatched a plot to steal the President’s body from its tomb outside Springfield, Illinois, and hold it for a ransom of $200,000. A paid informant told the newly formed Secret Service. When both the police and the criminals showed up at the cemetery on the appointed night, the scheme was foiled.

This attempted theft of Lincoln’s body helped spur his son Robert’s decision to have the coffin buried in a concrete-encased vault during a renovation of the tomb in 1901. Before the burial, the question came up as to whether or not someone should open the coffin and view the remains. Rumors that the grave robbing was actually successful had circulated for years, and this would be the last chance to put them to rest.

On the night of the presidential election in 1876, a gang of counterfeiters out of Chicago attempted to steal the entombed embalmed body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. The custodian of the tomb was so shaken by the incident that he willingly dedicated the rest of his life to protecting the president’s corpse.

On the night of the presidential election in 1876, a gang of counterfeiters out of Chicago attempted to steal the entombed embalmed body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. The custodian of the tomb was so shaken by the incident that he willingly dedicated the rest of his life to protecting the president’s corpse.

In a lively and dramatic narrative, Thomas J. Craughwell returns to this bizarre, and largely forgotten, event with the first book to place the grave robbery in historical context. He takes us through the planning and execution of the crime and the outcome of the investigation. He describes the reactions of Mary Todd Lincoln and Robert Todd Lincoln to the theft—and the peculiar silence of a nation. He follows the unlikely tale of what happened to Lincoln’s remains after the attempted robbery, and details the plan devised by the Lincoln Guard of Honor to prevent a similar abominable recurrence.

Along the way, Craughwell offers entertaining sidelights on the rise of counterfeiting in America and the establishment of the Secret Service to combat it; the prevalence of grave robberies; the art of nineteenth-century embalming; and the emergence among Irish immigrants of an ambitious middle class—and a criminal underclass.

This rousing story of hapless con men, intrepid federal agents, and ordinary Springfield citizens who honored their native son by keeping a valuable, burdensome secret for decades offers a riveting glimpse into late-nineteenth-century America, and underscores that truth really is sometimes stranger than fiction.

The plot to steal Lincoln’s body

The plot to steal Lincoln’s body began with an Illinois criminal named “Big” Jim Kennally, who in February 1876 was wracking his brains for ways to spring a contact of his from jail. Benjamin Boyd, his imprisoned partner in crime who have been convicted and sentenced for counterfeiting money. Benjamin Boyd was an engraver, a good one, but he saw no reason to limit his talents to only good works. It was much more lucrative to engrave detailed, high-quality plates corresponding to federal and local banknotes, and to rely on a network of “shovers” to insert these counterfeits, at high profit, into the local economy. He was part of a pressing problem.

In 1865, of all the paper money circulating in the Union States, approximately half was counterfeit—and a lack of public trust in the money could lead to catastrophe for the government using it to fund the Civil War. The impending crisis led to the birth of the Secret Service, a group of government lawman given the responsibility of protecting the currency (they were not given presidential protection duties until after the 1901 assassination of President McKinley). Boyd’s arrest was a major Secret Service triumph, but it left his network of distributors and shovers (including Big Jim Kennally) high and dry. Naturally, he decided to get creative

After Boyd’s arrest, Irish crime boss James “Big Jim” Kennally (or Kinealy) came up with a plan to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln from its tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield and hold it in exchange for Boyd’s release and a full pardon, as well as a cash ransom. After an earlier plan by associates of Kennally in Logan County, a known hotbed for counterfeiting, failed in the summer of 1876, Kennally recruited Terence Mullen and Jack Hughes to carry out the plan, to steal Lincoln’s body and bury it in the Indiana Dunes along Lake Michigan in exchange for a full pardon for Ben Boyd and $200,000 ($4,255,319 in 2012 dollars) in cash. At the Hub, a saloon on the South Side of Chicago, Mullen and Hughes recruited a third man, Lewis Swegles, who was in fact one of Tyrrell’s informants.

Kennally’s first and his only idea was to kidnap Lincoln’s body and hold it for ransom, demanding the release of his friend, Boyd and also some cold hard cash. His first set of conspirators was a small gang who coincidentally hailed from Lincoln, Illinois. In March 1876, they traveled to the city where Lincoln was buried, with luggage full of grave-robbing tools. After one of the co-conspirators described their plan to a local prostitute; however after this confession they wisely decided to call it off.

Thomas Sharp, a newspaper editor, was the head of this gang, based thirty miles north of Springfield. In preparation for the crime, they stayed in Springfield for some time, opening a bar and dance hall in a rented building—and joining more innocent tourists in inspecting Lincoln’s tomb at Oak Ridge. They were cheered by the fat that Lincoln’s corpse was above ground and even more delighted by the fact that the door to the tomb had but one padlock. They planned to break into the tomb on the eve of Independence Day, in July, and bury the body in a gravel bar two miles north of Springfield. All was going well for anti-heroes until June, when Thomas Sharp had gotten a bit too friendly with a local prostitute named Belle Bruce. He told her that he was about to strike it rich, shared the details of his sure scheme and promised to shower her with gifts once he had received his payoff. Belle listened, and smiled and the next morning went to visit a close friend of hers, the Springfield chief of Police. As the tomb custodian was trying to get the monument association to take the threat seriously, Sharp-realizing that the game was up- led his band sheepishly out of town; all they walked away with was the rent that they hadn’t paid yet.

Disappointed with his first selection of henchman, Kennally went to Chicago to find a second group of men. Terence Millen and Jack Hughes, from near the West Side of Chicago, were excited to be cut in on the theft; yet after Kennally left, they decided that they’d need some extra help themselves. Unfortunately for them, they were didn’t choose the best men to do the job of helping them steal Abraham Lincoln’s body because the pair ended selecting a Secret Service confidential informant. Kennally and Mullen knew each other well; in fact, they were partners in running The Hub, a shady saloon and billiard hall famed as a hangout spot for counterfeiters. Hughes was also a longtime friend. But the man that Mullen had selected, Lewis Swegles, was not so well-known to them. Mullen and Hughes were reassured by his track record as an often suspected yet never convicted horse thief; so they knew that he was a good thief. Unfortunately, they didn’t know that Swegles had recently accepted employment as a Secret Service informant, with a daily salary of five dollars. The instant Kennally and Mullen had finished telling Swegles about their plot to steal Lincoln’s body, he raced to lawyer Charles Deane and Secret Service agent Patrick Tyrrell to inform them of the horrible scheme. From then on, Swegles kept Deane and Tyrell of the gang’s plans almost as soon as they were made

Kennally gave the men very specific instructions to Hughes and Mullen: he would rely solely on them to do the dirty work, preferring to stay far away in case anything went wrong. Dazzled by the prospect of a $200,000 ransom payoff; they readily agreed. Kennally instructed them to conceal Lincoln’s kidnapped corpse still in its coffin, in a shallow grave in the sand dunes. It was indeed a strange plan, requiring some ten days of travel with the coffin to the sand dunes of Indiana. They could be stopped at any time by a roadblock, or found out by the men tending their horses at inns along the way. Kennally’s first plan was to bury the coffin in a gravel bar in a river near Springfield was a much better one because it required less travel. However Kennally must have decided the first plan was too risky and decided to choose a new hiding spot.

Kennally and his henchmen decided to choose Election night in the fall of 1876 because they knew that most of the town’s people would be distracted. So on November 7, 1876 Rutherford Hayes went on to the Presidency over Samuel Tilden, in a highly contested result that spelled the end of Reconstruction. Mullen liked the symbolism, calling it an “elegant time to do it.” There were also practical advantages: they could expect a great deal of traffic out of Springfield that evening, and one more wagon would hardly be noticed. The gang caught the overnight train from Chicago to Springfield on November 6; Swegles, a Secret Service agent that Tyrell had unknowingly hired, was on that same train with two hired Pinkerton detectives.

On learning of the plot, Swegles brought word to Tyrrell, who immediately wired the new Chief of the Secret Service, James Brooks, requesting instructions; though it was not a counterfeiting case, Mullen and Hughes were known counterfeiters, and Tyrrell, horrified by the implications of the plot, called it a “damnable act” and a matter of “national importance”. On October 27, 1876, Tyrrell met with Lincoln’s only surviving child, Robert Todd Lincoln, and attorney Leonard Swett, who had contributed to Lincoln’s presidential campaign in 1860. In that meeting, Tyrrell explained all the details he had of the plot and requested that he allow the crime to go forward in order to catch the criminals in the act; after an initial hesitation, Robert Lincoln agreed. On November 2, Brooks approved Tyrrell’s request to act on the information. Tyrrell then recruited a group of Secret Service agents and Pinkerton detectives to assist him in stopping the plot and apprehending the grave robbers. Mullen and Hughes decided on November 7, the day of the presidential election, to make their move.

The long awaited night had arrived, and so did the conspirators. Three of them went down to the tomb while a fourth waited nearby with a wagon. They found it very easy to break into Lincoln’s sarcophagus, but they had a problem: the coffin was too heavy to move with just three people because it was encased in lead. Lincoln had traveled the country in a lovingly crafted walnut coffin, lined in white satin, with a silver name plate on top of the coffin. When Lincoln was laid to rest, however, his coffin went into a lead and cedar box, sealed with lead, which in turn went the marble tomb. This box was hard to break into and even harder to carry. Swegles was sent to summon the fourth conspirator for help, which conveniently allowed the informant to slip away from his companions.

Tyrrell and his agents followed the grave robbers on the overnight train from Chicago to Springfield on the evening of November 6 and met with John Carroll Power, the custodian of Lincoln’s tomb. On the evening of November 7, while Mullen and Hughes made their move on the tomb, Tyrrell, Power and his agents were waiting in the vestibule for Swegles to signal them; fearful of the echoes on the marble floor as they paced, they had removed their boots. Finally, Swegles gave the pre-arranged code word, “wash”, and the agents moved in, but one of the Pinkertons accidentally discharged his pistol, causing the robbers to make a hasty retreat. Tyrrell briefly became embroiled in a gun battle with some of the Pinkerton detectives in the confusion that followed. Tyrrell and his agents arrested Mullen and Hughes in Chicago several days later.

Thanks to the information the informant Swegles provided to Tyrell and the Pinkerton Detectives, the law was waiting near the tomb on the evening of the planned grave robbery. At a pre-arranged signal from the spy, they emerged from their hiding placed and quietly made their way to Lincoln’s resting place. Suddenly, a sharp noise filled the air, alerting the robbers; the robbers then fled without the body that they had come for. Tyrell and the Pinkerton detectives raced across the grass from the Memorial Hall; that’s where they had been hiding. They raced to the tomb where the grave robbers could be caught in the act. Unfortunately, one of the Pinkertons named George Hay had cocked his pistol as he left the Hall, resulting in its accidental discharge when he slipped near the tomb. This gave Mullen and Hughes just enough warning that they were able to escape, leaving their tools, the tomb had been sawed opened and the coffin of Abraham Lincoln had slid more than a foot from its proper resting place.

Hughes and Mullen were not apprehended that night; but Tyrell and the Pinkerton Detectives didn’t have to worry about losing them. Hughes and Mullen quickly made their way back to The Hub, their Chicago bar, where they were arrested several days later Tyrell and the Pinkerton Detectives. Even worse, Mullen sent several letters from jail, requesting an alibi from friends of his, instructing them what to say and even offering payment; and these letters came into the hands of the government and were introduced at trial. They were sentenced each to a year of hard labor. Kennally was apprehended in 1880 with assistance from Mullen who informed the law where Kennally had been hiding out. Swegles’s cooperation with the law didn’t last long and he was convicted of burglary near the same time.

At the end of the night, Lincoln’s body was safe and its would-be kidnappers were mere days from being captured; but his tomb had been desecrated and the criminals had come horrifyingly close to their goal. The tomb’s caretaker, together with a group of prominent local men calling themselves “Lincoln’s Honor Guard,” decided to protect the body by hiding it until a more secure burial could be arranged. The body of Abraham Lincoln was ultimately moved and secured in better spot in the basement beneath his memorial obelisk. Terrified that the next ghoulish group of conspirators would succeed, Lincoln’s Honor Guard secretly moved his coffin from its place of honor to the dank basement, burying it after several months in a shallow grave there. When Mary Todd Lincoln died almost six years later, she was buried with splendor and circumstance in the main tomb, and then quietly moved to lie next to her husband. The pair would not be permanently buried until 1901, when at the instructions of their son Robert, their coffins were placed in a steel cage and lowered into an underground vault, which was then filled with concrete to the depth of ten feet. It would take a hardy set of grave robbers to break through these defenses and no one seems to have tried.

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