Hello everyone, welcome to the Living Fur Real and other stuff, I’m WickedCats and I’m happy you could join me. Today, we have a slightly unbelievable and yet very true story. I first heard about this maybe 10 years ago when I saw a documentary about it on A&E, way back when they used to show documentaries, remember that? So what’s this hard to believe story? Just a small plot to steal the body of a dead president, that’s all. Okay. let’s get to it.
In the 1870s, Illinois was home to one of the nation’s largest counterfeiting operations. One of these groups was lead by a man named James “Big Jim” Kinealy. One of the men who worked for Kinealy was named Benjamin Boyd who was one of the most talented engravers at the time, and his specialty was making dies for counterfeit money. He was so good at what he did that one gang he worked with successfully circulated over 300,000 five dollar bills made from one of his plates without anyone realizing they were counterfeit, and even the United States Treasury was so impressed that they recalled their own genuine bills from circulation and used his. Unfortunately for Big Jim though, Mr. Boyd was arrested in 1875, and worse, he was eventually sentenced to 10 years in the Illinois State Penitentiary! This was terrible and a major inconvenience for Jim and his operation, Although, I have a feeling Ben was probably more upset about his own incarceration than Jim,, I digress. Seeing that his best man was seeing some jail time, Jim decided he needed to come up with a plan to help bust out his biggest money-maker. See what I did there? Hmm?
Jim was not about to wait 10 years for Boyd to get out of prison, and honestly, I’d love to know how he decided that stealing the body of Lincoln would be the best way to get this guy out of jail but I guess we’ll never know. Today we may think stealing a body from a grave is incredibly disrespectful and macabre, and they thought the same at the time, but in those days body snatching was quite the profitable industry. Resurrectionists, as they were more politely called because calling them body snatchers is way too uncouth a term, would dig up recently deceased bodies and sell them to local medical schools. The practice was so out of hand that family members often took to standing guard over their loved ones’ graves until such time as the body was no longer viable for profitable sale.
One evening at a local bar in Springfield, one of Jim’s conspirators had a little too much to drink and he wound up talking to some of the other patrons about the plan. Because of this, Jim had to uproot his uh, business and move the planning to Chicago. Once there he got together with a friend who ran another saloon, by the name of Terence Mullen and an acquaintance of his, Jack Hughes, to be part of the crew to steal the body.
The actual plan consisted of stealing the body and transporting it, by way of a horse-drawn wagon, across state lines into Indiana and burying him, temporarily, in the sand dunes until the government paid them the ransom of $200,000 worth of gold, that’s about $4.6 million today, and released Boyd with a full pardon. Did you know there were sand dunes in Indiana? I didn’t, but there are. They formed after the ice-age on a long stretch on the shore of Lake Michigan in Porter County in northern Indiana. Now, Jim thought, as plans go, this was flawless and he was even fortunate enough to find himself a man by the name of Lewis Swegles, who said he was the best grave robber around. And, as luckwould have it, Swegles had a friend who could help transport the body from point A to point B, this was Bill Nealy. I’m sure Jim thought he was the luckiest guy on earth, unfortunately, he was far from it, because Mr. Swegles and Nealy were actually working undercover as secret service informants. Uh huh!
On the night of November 6, 1876 the four men boarded a train to Springfield carrying a carpetbag full of body snatching tools. Also, boarding the same train, were several other men including Chicago Secret Service chief, Patrick Tyrrell, former US Secret Service chief, Elmer Washburn, and two Pinkerton detectives, John McGinn and George Hay, along with an independent detective John McDonald and John English who was working with the Illinois Humane Society. Just an aside here, in case you’re wondering, the Secret Service did not begin the duties of protecting the president until nearing the end of the 1890’s. Before then their job mainly consisted of investigating counterfeiting gangs, hence why they were involved in this comical caper.
The following night Tyrrell, Washburn, McDonald, and English hid inside the Lincoln Tomb and waited in complete darkness in their stocking feet. John McGinn and George Hay waited outside under cover of darkness. Jim’s gang arrived at the cemetery two hours later. They discovered that Lincoln’s sarcophagus was behind a barred door chained shut by a single padlock.
They began to file through the lock and were able to get into the tomb and to the resting place. Sadly, though they were met with another hurdle, the lid of the sarcophagus, proved too heavy to be lifted, so they instead began cutting away at the panel on the end section and hopefully they would be able to slide the coffin out that way. A coffin by the way that was made from mahogany and lead lined, which itself had to weigh several hundred pounds on its own. So, they toiled away and at last, they were able to get hold of the coffin and began to drag it out of the sarcophagus. Remember though, the secret service was hiding inside the tomb, and at this point, one of the Pinkerton agents, whose gun was already cocked, was getting nervous and his gun was accidentally discharged! As you can imagine, all hell broke loose. Mullen and Hughes hauled ass out of the tomb! At this, Tyrell came out from his hiding spot and yelled out for the robbers to surrender. No answer! Duh. He ran back into the chamber where they had all been hiding and yelled to the others to bring lanterns and they all ran out of the tomb. They ran up a small hill about 70 feet away from the terrace of the mausoleum and all started to open fire towards the outline of two men running away. As both groups of men began shooting at each other they realized after a short time, they were shooting at each other, Tyrells group was shooting at McGinn and Hay! Mullen and Hughes in the meantime made their way back to Chicago, straight to their saloon, where they were promptly arrested about ten days later, good grief. Interestingly enough, even though they were arrested, stealing bodies from a cemetery was not a federal crime, nor was it a state crime either. The two men were only convicted of “attempting” to steal the coffin, which cost $75 at the time and spent only a year in prison.
Meanwhile, back in Springfield a man by the name of John Carroll Power and a few of his friends, took it upon themselves to try and do what the Government could not, and keep the body of Lincoln safe by moving the casket to the basement of the tomb. Yes, the tomb had a basement, and that’s where the body of Abraham Lincoln spent the next two years, in a shallow grave. After two years though, Mr. Power and a group of other trusted confidants decided to move the body, again seeing as the basement floor was constantly wet and dirty and was not a dignified location for the body of the president. The body was lifted on to some dryer scrap pieces of wood and wanting to ensure that Lincoln was still in his coffin opened the casket. They confirmed that Lincoln was indeed there and left the coffin on the wood pile where the men took turns guarding the body of the president, they would call themselves the “Lincoln Guard of Honor and earned such respect from Robert Todd Lincoln, the last remaining son of Abraham Lincoln, that when his mother Mary Todd Lincoln died in 1882, he asked the men to place his mother’s casket next to his father.
You would think that this would be it right? That the tomb would be repaired, and Lincoln and his wife and his younger sons would be buried in the tomb again and left in peace. But no. Lincoln’s body was actually moved several more times, due to constant reconstruction and the fear of his body was not actually inside his coffin. In fact, his body was moved about 18 times and his coffin opened 5 between 1865 and 1901. The final resting place of Abraham Lincoln was in a newly reconstructed tomb within Oak Ridge Cemetery. Robert Todd Lincoln had grown tired of the constant moving of his father’s coffin and ordered that it be placed into a steel cage and lowered down into a 10 foot chamber which was then covered with 4,000 pounds of concrete.
And there you have it, folks.
Links you can further explore:
Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination – https://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln.html