A fascinating account of how and why someone tried to steal Abraham Lincoln's body
By Thomas J. Craughwell
Belknap/Harvard University Press, 250 pages, $24.95
Four men with shady backgrounds, under cover of darkness on Nov. 7, 1876, tried to remove the body of Abraham Lincoln from its marble sarcophagus in Springfield's Oak Ridge Cemetery. The next day the Chicago Tribune ran a long article about the aborted scheme. The following day it carried a longer account about the "Desecrators of Lincoln's Remains." On the 18th its whole front page was devoted to in-depth coverage of the plot, the break-in, the escape of two would-be body snatchers and their capture at a saloon called The Hub, frequented by lowlifes in Chicago.
What made such instant journalism possible? Chicago Police Chief Elmer Washburn had a confidential secretary, Percy English, who also wrote for the Tribune. When Washburn was alerted that skulduggery would happen on the night of the 7th, he allowed the young reporter to accompany authorities determined to foil the plot. English became a witness and got one of the scoops of the century.
The police were tipped off by a paid informant who had infiltrated the gang and knew exactly what they were up to, so authorities waited silently for several hours until the thugs arrived. When the moment of crisis occurred, however, the police behaved like the gang that couldn't shoot straight. They failed to surround Lincoln's complex monument, and just when they meant to seize the grave robbers, an overeager detective cocked his pistol and the hammer accidentally slipped and struck the cap. Amid total silence in the mausoleum, the single gunshot resounded with a deafening roar.
Before the police could make their way from a part of the memorial where they had been concealed to the actual tomb, the plotters ran away. (Their accomplice's wagon, which was supposed to carry the coffin to be buried in the Indiana dunes 220 miles away, had not yet arrived.) Disheveled and exhausted, they made their way to nearby farmhouses, concocting implausible explanations for their nocturnal wanderings and bizarre condition, thereby leaving a body of witnesses who could readily identify them after their arrest 10 days later.
So what was the plot all about? Disinterring bodies for reburial in a place deemed more appropriate had a long history; but digging up a martyred head of state with the intent of seeking a sizable ransom was unprecedented -- so much so that initially many people assumed that the good guys (police and Pinkertons) were actually bad guys engaged in a nefarious scheme gone wildly wrong.
Thomas Craughwell, an independent writer who has specialized in Catholic history and American popular culture, devotes the long prologue of his book "Stealing Lincoln's Body" to a succinct account of the circumstances of Lincoln's assassination and then the lugubrious, black-crepe-draped journey from Washington, D.C., to Springfield via Chicago (1,654 miles) in a nine-car special train making stops in 10 cities for processions, public viewing of the coffin and local funeral ceremonies. On May 4 a final procession took the martyr from the Illinois Statehouse to Oak Ridge. As Craughwell writes, "After three weeks of lying at the center of uproar, emotional outbursts, and frenzied planning, the body of Abraham Lincoln was finally at rest."
Well, not exactly.
Chapter 1 launches into a long history of counterfeiting in the U.S., and the reader begins to wonder where this will lead, even though the information is intriguing. Eventually we learn that counterfeiting various American currencies at mid-19th Century was rife, especially in the Midwest, and we learn about certain engravers who were most successful in creating many thousands of bills, along with the "shovers" who passed them off in various ways, wholesale and retail.
One of the most skillful engravers, Benjamin Boyd, was caught and incarcerated. Without him, "Big Jim" Kennally and his troupe of Irish shovers despaired that they stood to lose a great deal of business. So they launched a mad scheme to remove Lincoln's body and stow it in another state until their terms were met: $200,000 plus Boyd's release.
Unlucky for them, they recruited an accomplice with the sinister-sounding name of Swegles, who saw more benefits in revealing the scheme to John Carroll Power, dedicated custodian of the tomb (appointed by the Lincoln Monument Association in 1874), biographer of Lincoln and, eventually, author of the first book-length account of the foiled heist, in 1890. Power, in turn, alerted an array of officials, local as well as members of the newly organized U.S. Secret Service, which had been created early in summer 1865 following the assassination.
Lincoln's monument and burial place during the final quarter of the 19th Century did not quite match the more-handsome site that exists today. Following the 1876 plot, Power and a covert group of self-appointed guardians from Springfield became so nervous about the possibility of yet another attempt that they removed the coffin from its sarcophagus and reburied it unmarked in the basement muck at ground level where potential grave robbers could not find it. No one in Springfield could keep a secret, however, and rumors circulated for years that the sarcophagus above ground was empty. On April 14, 1887, the 22nd anniversary of Lincoln's assassination, members of the Lincoln Monument Association opened the lead-sealed coffin to make sure the body was still inside, then gave it a proper reburial in its original spot.
Meanwhile, Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's only surviving son, moved from his boredom as ambassador to England to the presidency of George Pullman's Palace Car Co. Because the despotic Pullman was hated by so many people, he feared his remains might be dug up by those who had despised him in life, so he arranged to be buried in a steel-caged coffin beneath tons of cement. Robert Lincoln decided that was just the right solution for his father's remains, so the monument was redesigned, a museum of memorabilia was removed to improve the ever-growing flow of visitors, and Lincoln and his wife were reunited in death, encased in lead, a cage of steel and tons of portland cement.
That reburial took place Sept. 26, 1901, but the saga doesn't end there because in 1930 it became apparent that the tomb needed significant repairs. As Craughwell explains, "This time the coffins stayed put; but before the contractors went to work, everything else fragile or valuable was cleared out of the tomb." Hence the sarcophagus that had once held Lincoln's coffin was not locked away in a storage shed but left exposed outdoors. Alas, vandals once again entered Oak Ridge Cemetery after dark, smashed the sarcophagus to bits and carried off pieces, presumably as souvenirs.
There is no end of fascinating context and detail in this engrossing, often zany, yet poignant tale:
- Oak Ridge was created in 1855 as part of the rural cemetery movement that began in 1831 near Boston.
- Secretary of War Edwin Stanton supervised Lincoln's appearance for his open-coffin display in Washington: the black Brooks Brothers suit Lincoln had worn at his second inauguration, a black bow tie and white kid gloves.
- On the evening of April 17, the East room of the White House was reserved for a special viewing of the body by 400 of Lincoln's friends and colleagues from Illinois. The next day his coffin was moved to the Capitol Rotunda. On April 20 it began what cannot quite be called its final journey. Once in Springfield, the sequence of bizarre adventures and blunders began.
Michael Kammen's most recent book is "Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture."