Stealing Lincoln’s Body

The obelisk at the tomb - 2005

In a few days, I will take 21 students down to Springfield for the Illinois History Expo, or as it is better known, the State History Fair. My students will be competing against themselves to bring home a Superior, or blue, ribbon. As part of the annual trek, the students will visit many sites including Lincoln’s Home, the Lincoln Presidential Museum, New Salem State Park, and Lincoln’s Tomb. Visiting the tomb is always a somber affair for me. After a day of competition, we walk to the tomb. It is a ten minute walk from our hotel.

The tomb itself has a storied history. After Lincoln’s Assassination on April 15, 1865, a fight began as to where Lincoln would be buried. The town leaders of Springfield wanted Lincoln to be buried within the then city limits of the town. The leaders foresaw the burial of Lincoln would be a boon to the local economy. Mary, and the family, wanted the body to be interned at Oak Ridge Cemetery, just north of Springfield. The family won.

The actual tomb has undergone many transformations over the years. In in its first 36 years, the actual body of Lincoln was at risk from grave robbers. Initially, the body, and two of his sons, were placed in a public receiving vault. In December of 1865, the bodies were moved to a vault near the bottom of a hill to the north of the current tomb. Construction for the tomb began in 1871 and was finished in 1874.

Lincoln’s rest has never been peaceful. It is estimated the body has moved 17 times. It is an ironic twist of fate that the President who made “greenbacks” the currency of the United States, that counterfeiters would attempt to steal Lincoln in 1876. Benjamin F. Boyd was a skillful counterfeiter. His specialty was engraving plates. The Secret Service, which at that time dealt originally with counterfeiting, had pursued Boyd for several years. Captain Patrick D. Tyrrell chased Boyd for over 8 months and throughout five states. In the small Mississippi River town of Fulton, Illinois, Tyrrell caught Boyd. Boyd got ten years for his crimes. However, the story of stealing Lincoln’s body only begins there.

The tomb from the north circa late 1800s. You can make out the old vault in the bottom right quarter of the photograph

Boyd was a key figure to a syndicate of counterfeiting based in central Illinois. James “Big Jim” Kinealy, who ran the counterfeit ring, was at a loss after Boyd’s arrest. Kinealy needed to get Boyd out of jail or his crime empire would be in ruins.  Kinealy devised a plan to steal Lincoln out of the tomb. The original plot was soon discovered in the summer of 1876. The gang relocated to Chicago.

At a drinking establishment known as The Hub, the plot reemerged. Terrence Mullen, a bartender and part owner of the Hub with Kinealy, was part of the plot along with Jack Hughes and Jim Morrissey. Little did Kinealy know, Morrissey was actually Louis Swegles, an under cover Secret Service agent working for Tyrrell. When Mullen asked Morrissey his occupation, Morrissey replied, “I’m the boss body snatcher of Chicago!” On November 6, 1876, the crew traveled by train to Springfield. They would scout out the tomb. The next day would be election day and the day of the deed. The plan called for stealing the body and burying it in the Indiana Dunes. To return the body, Mullen would ask for Boyd’s release and $200,000. Kinealy began to put together a crew to steal the body. Swegles reported the plan to Tyrrell and a plan was put into place to stop the crime.

But grave robbing was not much of a crime in Illinois at the time. There were no laws on many of the books throughout the state. On November 7, 1876, Mullen, et al., attempted the deed. It was botched by both the robbers and those attempting to stop the robbery. Tyrrell and a group of agents hid in the front hall of the tomb. Swegles (Morrissey) had been assigned the task of driving the getaway wagon. Swegles was to strike a match when the crime had begun. Tyrrell and his men would wait for the signal.

In the tomb, Mullen filed through the lock and opened the door to the burial chamber. There lay the sarcophagus of President Lincoln. Topped with a

Terrence Mullen - Illinois State Historical Library

heavy marble lid, the robbers found it difficult to remove the lid to get to the coffin. Swegles, held the lantern while the robbers worked. When it came time to remove the coffin, Mullins dispatched Swegles and Swegles signaled Tyrrell at this time. Taking off their shoes for silence, the Secret Service men crept around the tomb and ordered the gang to surrender. When they looked in, they saw the coffin partway out of the sarcophagus and no robbers. The robbers had gone out for some fresh air. The grave robbers got away for the night. They returned to Chicago. Swegles, the gang thought, had been caught.

Upon returning to Chicago, Swegles was already waiting for them. The next night, November 8, Tyrrell and his men raided The Hub and arrested Mullen and Hughes. Because grave robbing was not a crime, the two were charged with attempted larceny of the body from the Lincoln Monument Association association and conspiracy. The criminals only received a year sentence for conspiring to steal the coffin valued at $75.

The body of Lincoln would be stored in the basement for two years. As mourners came by, little did they know that the sarcophagus was empty. The custodian of the tomb, John Carrol Power, stored it there the morning after the attempted robbery. The 500 pound coffin was in the basement with stacked lumber on top of it. Eventually Lincoln’s body would be buried in the basement of the tomb, not upstairs in the sarcophagus. Power, and Robert Todd Lincoln, believed this would deter any future attempts at stealing Lincoln. In 1887, a vault in the tomb was created for Abe and Mary Todd. The inside of the coffin was inspected to make sure that Lincoln was still in his coffin.

The final resting place for Lincoln was placed 10 feet below the sarcophagus on September 26, 1901. The coffin was encased in concrete. This would be the final time the coffin of Abraham Lincoln was inspected. Upon opening, witnesses claimed that Lincoln was in there. Because of the length of the funeral train ride, Lincoln had been embalmed with more material than the average body. His face bronzed from the bruising of the bullet, made the President appear like the statue that adorns the front of the tomb. On his chest, bits of red material lay from the flag that was draped there.

As the day of the state history fair winds down, I will once again pay my respects to the man who lead the fight to save the Union. As I take my hat off when I enter the tomb, I will remember the hallowed tales of how Abraham Lincoln finally came to rest in peace.

The front of the tomb in 2005

For further reading:

Stealing Lincoln’s Body by Thomas Craughwell


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