Nov 12, 2013
Thomas J. Craughwell Discusses the Odd Plot to Steal Lincoln's Body
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When the day for the caper comes however, the thieves almost comically bungle the actual crime—once they get past the padlock (which they had to spend considerable effort filing through) and into the tomb, they are completely unable to move Lincoln's 500 pound cedar-and-lead coffin. They also can not open the lid, and quickly abandon the heist when one of the detectives who arrives to bust the crime accidentally fires a shot from his pistol. The conspirators are eventually caught a short time later by the Secret Service.
Following the event, a more substantial—and secure—tomb is eventually built to contain Lincoln's remains. It is completed in 1901, when Lincoln's body is permanently interred in a coffin that's placed in a steel cage and embedded in concrete, 10 feet underground. Obviously, no other attempts at body snatching have since occurred.
Even though the outrageous scheme involved one of the most beloved figures in U.S. history, the incredible event was almost forgotten immediately.
"The election mess dominated the news and in lots of places, the story of the attempted grave robbing wasn't even reported for weeks," says Craughwell. "And in other places, nobody would believe it. The New Orleans Picayune, for example, dedicated almost an entire column to a story about a mother who found a worm in her daughter's ear and then gave three lines to the attempted robbery of Abraham Lincoln's body, and reported it as 'probably never happened.' So it wasn't as big a deal as you thought it would be, probably because of what was going on elsewhere at the time."
As fantastic as the story seems, it appeared to be headed toward history's dustbin until Craughwell came along. "I've been a freelance writer for 21 years, and I had just finished writing three volumes of urban legends—you know, alligators in the sewers and those kinds of things—and I was pretty burned out on that," the author recalls. "I said, 'I have to get a more interesting project,' and my father said, 'Write a book about Lincoln—everyone loves Lincoln.'"
Craughwell's family is originally from Chicago, and during a childhood trip to visit Lincoln's new tomb, his father had told him the grave-robbing story. "A few days after I had that conversation with my father, that story [from our family trip] popped back into my head and I started doing research, and discovered that there was an awful lot of primary material from the people who were involved in this, and that no book had been written on it since 1890. So we were off to the races."
After a year-and-a-half of research and six months of writing, Stealing Lincoln's Body was published in 2007 by Harvard University Press.
Craughwell's book was turned into a History Channel production in 2012. "The executive producer there lives in Westport—another Connecticut connection—and he borrowed the book from the Westport Public Library and he liked it," says Craughwell. "So he called me up one morning and introduced himself and said, 'We think this'd be a great documentary for the History Channel, would you mind?' and I said, 'No, I would not mind at all!' They did a fantastic job—they were great to work with. They hired me as a consultant and they were in touch all the time—"Is this historically accurate?" "Is that historically accurate?"—they really wanted to get this thing right and they did a beautiful job."
Here's the History Channel production of "Stealing Lincoln's Body."
Craughwell's talk, which will also focus on the finer details of the potential thieves’ plan, the investigation that ensued and the event's context in American post-Civil War society and culture. He will also discuss the rise of both counterfeiting and bodysnatching in the 19th century.
The event is on Sunday, Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. at the Litchfield Historical Society. It is free and open to the public, though donations are accepted. Registration is required by Friday, Nov. 15. Please call 860.567.4501 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.