In 1876, one of the most bizarre crimes ever to take place in the history of the United States occurred. It was an attempt to abduct the body of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the US.
Lincoln was not newly dead, having been killed more than a decade ago. Why were people trying to steal his body now, or in deed at all? And why did he find his way into an unmarked grave for 25 years?
In the year 1876, the body of Abraham Lincoln could be found laid in a white marble coffin in a tomb at Springfield, Illnois’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. As Oak Ridge was known to be a rural cemetery, there was no watchman or groundskeeper to guard the tomb of the president.
The single padlock on the door of the tomb was the only thing that guarded the body of Abraham Lincoln. However, the question is, who would even want to steal the body of the president from the tomb? Well, it was a gang of Chicago Irish counterfeiters that was led by the crime boss, Jim Kennally.
The real motive behind the bizarre act of stealing the body of the US president was the imprisonment of Benjamin Boyd. In early 1876, Benjamin Boyd, one of Jim’s best engravers of counterfeit plates, was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment in the state penitentiary in Joliet, Illnois.
In order to pressurize the government to release Benjamin, Jim devised the plan of stealing the body of Abraham Lincoln: it was leverage, simple as that. For his plan, he had hired two people from his gang. One was a saloonkeeper named Terence Mullen, and the other was a manufacturer of counterfeit nickels, Jack Hughes. The plan was to kidnap the body of the president and demand the government for release of Benjamin along with $200,000.
A foolproof plan was made to kidnap the body of Abraham Lincoln. The plan was to stuff the body of the US president in a long sack and put it on a horse-drawn wagon and smuggle it away.
The body would be taken to northern Indiana, where the gang of grave robbers would hide it temporarily in the midst of the sand dunes. When the nation had become suitably worried about the missing body of Lincoln, they would make the announcement about their ransom money and the release of Benjamin Boyd.
In order to conduct the grave robbery, the date that was selected was the 7th of November, 1876. It was election day. So, Kim figured out that the cemetery of Oak Ridge where Lincoln’s body was laid would be completely deserted.
All the citizens of Springfield would be eagerly waiting for the counting of the votes and declaration of the results. So, no one would be likely to notice the robbery any time soon.
But while they had made a well-designed plan, they made a major mistake in hiring Lewis Swegles for the robbery. Both Hughes and Mullen did not have any experience in robbing a grave. Therefore, they welcomed Swegles into the team.
They had been told that Swegles had a somewhat sordid past as a grave robber which would help them accomplish their task. However, in reality, Swegles was a roper, a paid informant of the Secret Service.
Owing to the minimal security of the grave, there was a high chance that the robbers would have succeeded in what they wanted to do. However, the involvement of Swegles was one of the worst choices they made.
Swegles played up to his double role. He convinced the robbers that he would help them steal the body of Abraham Lincoln. On the other hand, he reported all the details of the plot to Patrick D. Tyrrell, his boss.
Tyrrell was also the chief of the Secret Service’s Chicago district office. As planned, the gang of robbers, along with Swegles, went to the Oak Ridge Cemetery that night. Tyrrell and his agents were also hiding near the tomb of Lincoln.
But in the end, the plan backfired almost as quickly as it started. Even though Hughes and Mullen were career criminals, neither of them was able to pick the lock. So, they used a file in order to cut through the padlock, very very slowly.
Once they were inside the chamber, they tried to lift the heavy coffin of Lincoln. However, it was a 500-pound (225 kg) cedar-and-lead coffin that was quite difficult to move. They were able to move it only 15 inches (40 cm).
At this point, they ordered Swegles to bring the wagon and horses near the tomb. But instead of doing that, Swegles alerted the nearby detectives who was hiding in the cemetery. The agents rushed to the tomb with their revolvers. However, the grave robbers escaped through the east gate of the Oak Ridge Cemetery.
Nevertheless, 10 days later the grave robbers were arrested in Chicago. Robert Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln, recruited the best lawyers in Chicago in order to prosecute the gang of Jim Kennally.
For about eight months, the case of the grave robbery awaited trial. Finally, the court trial started. The robbers were found guilty in the trials and sentenced to one year of imprisonment in the Joliet State Prison. On the 22nd of June, 1877, a train took the graver robbers to the prison in order to start their terms.
The Unmarked Grave of Abraham Lincoln
After this event, John Caroll Power, the custodian of the tomb, panicked. He thought that if the amateur robbers could try to steal the body of Lincoln, then professional grave robbers could actually succeed in doing so.
So, it was decided to hide the body of the president in such a place where no one would be able to find it. Power, along with five other people, buried the coffin in an unmarked grave. None of the people who buried the body knew Lincoln.
The body remained in an unmarked grave for 25 years. In 1901, under the instruction of the only surviving child of Lincoln, the body was dug out and placed in a steel cage and lowered inside a 10-foot-deep vault. It was then buried forever under tons of concrete.
Top Image: Lincoln’s tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery, where the robbers would try to steal his corpse. Source: Internet Archive Book Images / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri
Craughwell, J. 2007. A Plot to Steal Lincoln’s Body. Available at: https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2007/06/24/a-plot-to-steal-lincolns-body
Norton, R, 2022. The 1876 Attempt to Steal Mr. Lincoln’s Body! Available at: https://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln47.html
Commonplace Fun Facts, 2014. Keeping the Dead In Place. Available at: https://commonplacefacts.com/2014/11/10/keeping-the-dead-in-place/