A Bone-Headed Crime

If you’re running a counterfeiting ring, you probably need a lot of, let’s say, employees. One of the key ones is an engraver — someone who is going to make the plates from which your copies are produced. The better the engraver, the better the plates, and therefore, the better the copies. If your engraver is arrested, therefore, you may go to extreme lengths to obtain his freedom. And given that you’re already a criminal (and hardly a petty one at that), you probably aren’t going to limit the escape plans to legal options. You may even resort to kidnapping and demanding the release as some sort of ransom payment.

But you probably won’t kidnap the President. That’d be too risky.

Unless he’s dead.

No, this isn’t a story about assassination. It’s a story about grave robbing and corpse snatching.

Abraham Lincoln’s body was originally entombed in a marble sarcophagus in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, a couple of miles outside of the town’s center. The relatively remote location itself meant that Lincoln’s tomb was often left unattended, even by passersby (as there were none for hours at a time, especially at night). And, during these idle periods, the tomb was simply inadequately secured. The only thing preventing a grave robber from entering the tomb was a simple padlock, one which many experienced criminals could easily pick. Lincoln’s body was a realistic target for someone bold enough to carry out the crime.

In 1876, two years after the tomb was completed and Lincoln’s body placed there, an engraver named Benjamin Boyd was sentenced to ten years in state prison for his work as part of a counterfeiting ring. The ringleader, known as Big Jim Kennally, wanted Boyd freed. So Kennally launched a plot: he’d have two of his other guys break into Lincoln’s tomb, steal the body, and hold it for ransom — $200,000 (roughly $4.5 million in today’s dollars) and Boyd’s freedom. Those men, named Terence Mullen and Jack Hughes, didn’t have experience pilfering the final resting places of the dead, so they recruited a grave robber named Lewis Swegles to help them. On the evening of November 7, 1876, the trio made their attempt to wrest Lincoln’s body from the tomb.

It was a disaster. For them, that is.

To start, even though all three men were criminals, none were skilled at lockpicking. So they had to file through it, which took time and effort and exacerbated their second problem: Swegles wasn’t actually an experienced grave robber. He was, on the other hand, a paid informant of the Secret Service. (At the time, the Secret Service didn’t protect the President, nor, for that matter, their gravesites. The Service was involved with this case because they were charged with anti-counterfeiting measures.). Swegles tipped the Service off about the plot and, while the three men struggled to move Lincoln’s quarter-ton coffin, the agency approached their position. Mullen and Hughes fled, having failed in their mission, and were captured shortly thereafter. Both men were eventually sentenced to one-year prison terms (which is surprisingly short).

In order to prevent another theft, the custodian of the tomb, John Carroll Power, organized a makeshift team called the “Lincoln Guard of Honor.” Secretively, the Guard of Honor moved Lincoln’s remains into a shallow, unmarked grave at the Cemetery, telling almost no one, and moved it around a few times when the first tries didn’t pan out. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Lincoln, was one of the few who were in on the secret. When a secure, permanent tomb was completed in 1901, Robert ensured that his father’s remains were relocated, once again, this time to their true permanent resting place.

Bonus Fact: Altogether, Lincoln’s corpse has been exhumed 17 times. Here’s a list.

From the ArchivesJohn Wilkes Booth’s Heroic Brother: A story that’s not really about Abraham Lincoln. But kind of is.

Related: “Lincoln’s Grave Robbers” by Steve Sheinkin, 4.4 stars on about 50 reviews. Meant for ages 10 to 14 but probably a good read for adults, too.