The Unquiet Rest of Abraham Lincoln
March’s news featured the odd case of Tassos Papadopoulos, the ex-president of Cyprus who was kidnapped, apparently for ransom, but recovered before the plot could be completed. What turned the kidnapping into an international sensation is that Papadopoulos was an ex-everything—he had died in December of 2008, a year before his abduction.
As ever, what’s old is new again. The late Mr. Papadopoulos was not the first corpse of state to have been body-snatched for gain.
Abraham Lincoln is a perennial contender for the title of Best US President, with really only Washington and perhaps FDR in the same class. He is also arguably the least popular president ever—Nixon may have had Watergate, but Lincoln was the first president to inspire someone to assassinate him (successfully, anyway, as Andrew Jackson could tell), and roughly a third of the United States were so unhappy with his election that they left the Union. After his assassination, more than a few people were concerned that unrepentant Confederates would dig him up for propaganda reasons—a similar thing had happened to Oliver Cromwell, for example, after the restoration of the English monarchy.
The most serious challenge to Lincoln’s peace wasn’t motivated by misplaced patriotism, but greed. By the 1870s the Secret Service (not-then charged with protecting Presidents, a role they wouldn’t pick up until after William McKinley’s assassination in 1901) had done a particularly good job of cleaning up counterfeit currency in the US money supply, and counterfeiters were on the run. After the high-profile 1875 arrest and conviction of master plate-engraver Benjamin Boyd, several Illinois criminals who had distributed his ill-made gains faced ruin.
In 1876, one of these—Jim Kennally, often mis-spelled “Kinealy”—hatched a scheme to get Boyd back in business. He and some accomplices would steal Lincoln’s corpse from its tomb in Springfield, Illinois and offer it back to the federal government in return for Boyd’s release.
Lincoln’s tomb had only been completed two years previously (his body, as well as that of his three sons who’d died at early ages, were interred two years before that when the bottom part of the structure had been completed), so there was a great deal of information about the burial still available to Kennally. He knew that Lincoln rested in an easily accessible marble sarcophagus in a barely protected part of the mausoleum. Would-be thieves had only to get through one lock and break a series of bolts that fastened the lid of the sarcophagus to its bottom.
Kennally’s main problem was getting competent criminals on his side. His first attempt on Lincoln’s body was scheduled for the evening of July 3rd, 1867, and actually got quite far before falling apart. One of Kennally’s partners in his counterfeiting ring was Thomas Sharp, who set up a saloon in Springfield partly to act as a base for the grave robbery and partly to help launder the counterfeit money they had left.
Unfortunately for the plan, Sharp got drunk in his own saloon, visited a nearby brothel, and spilled the story to one of the ladies, Belle Bruce. She in turn told Springfield’s chief of police, Abner Wilkinson, who passed the rumor on to the custodian of the tomb, John Carroll Power.
The cat was well-and-truly out of the bag; Sharp and his other associates fled, and the first kidnapping attempt was over before it really could start.
Kennally had made a point of arranging an alibi for the night of July 3rd (he was in St. Louis, at a boarding stable he owned), as he was worried about being connected to the crime. So his second attempt involved a new gang of thieves: he made a point of selecting men unconnected to him so as to shake off any investigators of the initial, botched attempt. Unfortunately for him, he had to trust his new men, and one of them turned out to be untrustworthy.
The grave-robbing took place on November 7th, 1876. This was a Presidential election day, with the corrupt government of Lincoln’s elected successor, Ulysses S. Grant, leaving office and giving the Democratic party their first real chance at the presidency since the start of the Civil War. Kinealy assumed that the town of Springfield would be hung up on the results of the vote and few people would be in the cemetery. (He, incidentally, chose better than he knew—the 1876 election was similar to the 2000 election, hanging in the balance for weeks until resolved in a controversial way).
So, that evening the second gang made an attempt on Lincoln’s tomb. Terrence Mullen was in charge of cracking the door and sarcophagus, Jack Hughes was to do the heavy lifting, and Jim Morrissey drove the getaway wagon.
Mullen managed to get through the door (after first breaking his saw trying to do so), then dealt with the copper bolts that locked down the lid of the sarcophagus. Unfortunately the lid proved too heavy for Hughes to move himself, so Mullen and Hughes called in Morrissey to hold their light while the two of them shifted the lid together. Then Morrissey was sent back out to bring his wagon into position.
Unfortunately for them, “Morrissey” was actually Lewis Swegles, a criminal-turned-informant in the employ of the Secret Service. Jack Hughes had, for reasons entirely unrelated to the kidnapping, come to the attention of the Service (he was a minor member of the counterfeiting gang, and had been passing fake currency), and Swegles had been detailed to find out what he was up to. Posing as “Jack Morrissey” he had stumbled across the plot and, unaware of its goal, had coincidentally claimed to be a grave robber who sold to medical schools. His lucky shot intrigued Mullen, and the government informant was in to the conspiracy.
After he exited the door, Swegles signalled to several Secret Service agents who’d taken up position outside the tomb. The agents came into the tomb as quietly as they could, but found no-one inside—Mullen and Hughes had gone outside a minute or so after Swegles, though whether out of fear or a coincidental desire for fresh air is unclear. Lincoln’s coffin was partly exposed, but still in place and intact. Mullen and Hughes escaped back to Chicago, and weren’t captured until the next evening when the Chicago police picked them up.
Both were sentenced to one year in prison, which is worth noting. Some sources say that Illinois had no law against corpse-lifting, and that the two were actually sentenced for conspiracy to commit theft of an item valued in excess of $75 (to wit, Lincoln’s coffin, not Lincoln himself). This appears not to have been the case, but the law against grave robbery was so weak that the conspiracy charge was pushed by the prosecutor because it led to more jail time. Kennally’s alibi held up, and he was never charged, though the story of his involvement circulated freely.
Afterward, the trustees of the tomb were worried about more attempts on Lincoln’s remains, but were so strapped for cash they could do little about it. In the end, the coffin was secretly moved to a side room in the tomb and hidden behind some lumber, while the general public was given the impression that the now-empty sarcophagus was still occupied.
In 1900, plans were made to repair some damage to the tomb and Robert Todd Lincoln found the money to upgrade the coffin’s security while he was at it: it was enclosed in a steel cage and put three meters under ground, then two tons of concrete were poured over it and allowed to set. This arrangement was borrowed from the burial of the younger Lincoln’s business partner George Pullman, who had similar problems to the elder Lincoln—though in his case it was employees infuriated by his violent strikebreaking and not unreconstructed Confederates who were suspected of wanting to defile his grave.
This interment was to be so final that on September 26th, 1901 Lincoln’s coffin was temporarily opened for one last positive identification. The body was not available for public viewing, but 23 people are known to have seen him at the time, including a thirteen-year-old boy, Fleetwood Lindley, who would be interviewed five days before his death in January 1963 for Life magazine as part of a story on the disinterment.