Stealing Lincoln’s Body
Another in our series of posts about how strange doings seemed to follow the Lincoln family. We discussed Abraham Lincoln’s son, but even after his death curious twists of fate followed the slain president.
The Secret Service was created under the Department of the Treasury in 1865 and mainly dealt with counterfeiters. However, in 1876, they briefly touched on their future role of presidential security, albeit in a strange way. One of the counterfeiters the secret service was after was a gang from Chicago led by Big Jim Kennally. Early in 1876, the gang’s best counterfeiter, Benjamin Boyd, got pinched and sent to prison for ten years. Kennally needed his best man back and came upon a hare brained scheme to get him back. Kennally convinced Terence Mullen, a saloonkeeper, and Jack Hughes, a sometime manufacturer of counterfeit nickels, to kidnap Lincoln’s body from its tomb in Springfield, Illinois. The would be thieves would stuff Lincoln’s body into a long sack, put in the back of a horse-drawn wagon, and take it to northern Indiana. There it would temporarily be hidden amidst the sand dunes. For ransom, they would demand $200,000 in cash and a full pardon for Boyd. What could go wrong? In this case, everything.
The first mistake they made was bringing in an experienced grave robber named, Lewis Swegles. Seems reasonable except that Swegles was a Secret Service plant. Every move the gang made was reported by Swegles to Patrick D. Tyrrell, chief of the Chicago district office of the Secret Service. Because of this, the Secret Service had a ring side seat to the farce that was about to play out.
On the night of November 7, 1876, Kennally, Mullen, Hughes and Swegles went to Oak Lawn Cemetery to steal the body. The first obstacle was the padlock on the mausoleum. No one could pick locks. They were forced to take the time to saw through the lock with a file. Once inside the mausoleum, they could not lift Lincoln’s 500-pound cedar-and-lead coffin. They were trying to figure out what to do, when an agent’s gun went off outside. He was probably too busy laughing to notice. At the pistol shot, Mullen and Hughes bolted while Kennally was picked up on the spot. The other two were captured later in Chicago.
This escapade got the cemetery caretaker, John Carroll Power, thinking. If this band of amateurs could come so close to stealing the president’s body, what would happen if they were attacked by competent grave robbers? At that time, llinois only punished convicted grave robbers with a year in the county jail so not even the threat of jail time would deter someone determined. In desperation, Power decided to move the body. So Power and five friends sworn to secrecy removed the president’s body and reburied it in a shallow, unmarked grave in the tomb’s basement. It was only replaced in the main crypt when at the request of his son, Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s body was placed inside a steel cage, lowered into a 10-foot-deep vault, and buried under tons of wet concrete.
The martyred president still rests there in his tomb of concrete.
Sources available on request