Nov 12, 2013
Thomas J. Craughwell Discusses the Odd Plot to Steal Lincoln's Body
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It's one of the oddest incidents in U.S. presidential history yet the majority of Americans are unfamiliar with it: The misguided attempt to steal the body of slain president Abraham Lincoln.
After the assassination in April 1865 and the well-documented journey by train from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, the body of the 16th president was laid to rest in a white marble sarcophagus inside an above ground tomb on the grounds of Oak Ridge Cemetery. The only "security" for Lincoln's tomb was a single padlock on the door—no guards, no groundskeeper, no intricate defense system.
Then again, what more was needed—why would anyone want to steal the President's body?
"It had never happened before, and certainly not with a U.S. president, which accounts for the fact there was no security," says Thomas J. Craughwell, the Bethel author of Stealing Lincoln's Body who will be discussing the strange event on Sunday, Nov. 17 at the Litchfield Historical Society. "It's actually a funny story, an offbeat moment in American history that most people haven't heard of, and it gives us a little insight into the not-too-smart criminal underclass of the late 19th century. Also, it gives us a new perspective of the Secret Service, which in those days did not protect the President. The Secret Service, in fact, in those days tracked down counterfeiters." Ironically, the Secret Service was signed into existence by Lincoln on the day he was assassinated.
Cut to November 1876, more than eleven years after Lincoln's death. Chicago gangster "Big Jim" Kennally is upset because his best counterfeiter has been sentenced to a decade in the state penitentiary, and to try and put pressure on the governor, he concocts what is an outrageous plan: He will "kidnap" the body of the Great Emancipator and hold it "hostage," demanding $200,000 in cash and a full pardon for his imprisoned counterfeiter. He taps two of his gangs to pull off this unprecedented crime, but their staggering incompetence quickly becomes their undoing.
"I couldn't believe how dim the would-be grave robbers were," says Craughwell, who explains that the gang members had no idea how to rob a grave so they tried to recruit other "criminals" to help them. "They were infiltrated by informants of the Secret Service pretty much from Day One—actually, on Day One," Craughwell laughs. "They were the most hapless gang of conspirators that you'd ever encounter."
Despite their bumbling, the gang soon targeted the perfect day for their crime: Nov. 7, 1865—Election Day.
"Well, actually, this was the only smart thing the grave robbers did," says Craughwell, noting that the idea was that everyone would be so preoccupied with the hotly contested presidential race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden, that no one would be even thinking about Lincoln's unguarded grave.