The Plot To Steal Lincoln’s Corpse

In 1876 a group of counterfeiters tried to steal and ransom the corpse of Abraham Lincoln. This is the story of how they screwed it up.

It took a long, long time for Abraham Lincoln to rest in peace. Not counting the long, long train ride his coffin took from Washington, DC to Springfield, Illinois - 13 stops along the way on a 14-day journey that retraced his trip to to his first inauguration - Lincoln's body was moved an amazing 17 times, with his coffin being opened 6 of those times. Today he's pretty firmly ensconced in the Lincoln Tomb, but he's not in the sarcophagus on display. Rather he's buried behind it, and ten feet beneath it, inside a steel cage covered in concrete. Why such drastic measures? It all stems from a hugely bungled plot to steal his corpse.

A bit of backstory here: Lincoln formed the Secret Service during his presidency, but at the time they were simply a force used to battle counterfeiting. During the Civil War years there was as almost as much, if not more, counterfeit currency in circulation as legitimate money. The legislation that created the Secret Service was sitting on Lincoln's desk the night he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Anyway, the Secret Service began to see some mission creep in the following years as there was no centralized federal crime bureau, and so they began investigating murders and kidnappings. It wasn't until the assassination of McKinley that they began their now-famous detail of protecting the President, but it was the case of the Lincoln grave robbers that would help them expand their federal role.

Big Jim Kennally was a counterfeiter, but he had fallen on tough times. His number one guy, an engraver named Ben Boyd, was stuck in prison. Without Boyd's skill Kennally's operation was suffering. And so, through some stroke of misguided inspiration, Kennally decided that he would round up a gang to steal Lincoln's body and ransom it for both money and Boyd's release.

This was less of a logistical problem than you might expect. At the time Lincoln was in the Oak Ridge Cemetery, which had no night watchman. There was one lock on the tomb door, and Lincoln's wooden coffin was inside a sarcophagus sealed only with Plaster of Paris. This should have been an easy job, a complete cakewalk. The team totally fucked it up.

First of all the four man crew was made up of two Secret Service informants. The main guy was Jack Hughes, a horse-thieving con artist who was on the Secret Service payroll as a criminal informant, passing on to to the feds the doings of criminals hanging out in criminal type bars in Chicago. The second informant was Wiliam Nealy, the getaway driver. Kennally himself wasn't there that night, staying behind in Chicago, so the bad guys and good guys were pretty evenly matched.

Except that there were even more good guys hiding in the cemetery. Hughes had given the Secret Service the date of the grave robbery - November 7th, 1876, election night - and so five officers and a newspaper reporter were on the scene. 

The first problem was that the crooks broke their hacksaw trying to get into the tomb. Eventually they spent a half hour filing the lock away, and then proceeded to the next phase of the robbery. The Secret Service was waiting for a signal, but eventually the noise level was so much that they came in on their own as the grave robbers were struggling with the coffin. It turns out the coffin was so lead lined they could barely move the thing, and had just started to get it out of the sarcophagus when the Secret Service showed up.

This is not the end of the story. On the way to sneaking up on the crooks, an officer's gun accidentally discharged. The crooks ran out of the tomb and a brief gun battle ensued in the cemetery. It turns out that in the darkness of the cemetery some of the shots being exchanged were between the Secret Service and an agent from the Pinkertons. Nobody was hurt. The bad guys escaped into nearby cornfields and then returned to Chicago.

These weren't very smart bad guys, though, so they ended up back at the same bar where they had been recruited and were arrested there. They did some jail time; Kennally was never formally connected to the attempted robbery but also spent time in jail for forgery. The whole thing ended up being an embarrassment for everybody involved.

But it would be a bigger embarrassment should Lincoln's body actually be stolen, and so something had to be done. The strange decision was made to recruit men who were deemed trustworthy and ask them to secretly bury Lincoln's body in an unmarked grave. These men would keep the location totally to themselves until it was time to move him somewhere more secure. They opted to bury Lincoln in a shallow grave in the basement of the Lincoln Tomb. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, joined him there a few years later. Everybody visiting the tomb assumed he was still in sarcophagus.

And so Abe Lincoln was hidden away in a forgotten grave for over a decade before they were moved to a more secure catacombs in the building. But that still wasn't the end of the jostling of Lincoln's corpse! In 1901 the Tomb was refurbished, and so his body was moved one last and final time. The assembled workers opened his casket and discovered something intriguingly gruesome: the many embalming treatments Lincoln had undergone on his funeral train trip had left him very, very well preserved. He had turned copper, and appeared to be made of marble now, but his mole and his beard still existed and his features, although distorted by his wound, were intact. The American flag that rested on his chest had rotted away, and a thick yellow mold covered his clothes, but the body of Abraham Lincoln was largely uncorrupted.

The last person to have laid eyes on Lincoln's face that day was a 12 year old boy with the wonderful name of Fleetwood Lindley. When he died in 1963 out of our world went the last person to have seen Abraham Lincoln's face with their own eyes. 

Thanks to the guides and historians at Lincoln's Tomb and the Lincoln Museum and Library for helping fill in some of the colorful details in this story.