Nov 12, 2013
Thomas J. Craughwell Discusses the Odd Plot to Steal Lincoln's Body
It's one of the oddest incidents in U.S. presidential history yet the majority of Americans are unfamiliar with it: The misguided attempt to steal the body of slain president Abraham Lincoln.
After the assassination in April 1865 and the well-documented journey by train from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, the body of the 16th president was laid to rest in a white marble sarcophagus inside an above ground tomb on the grounds of Oak Ridge Cemetery. The only "security" for Lincoln's tomb was a single padlock on the door—no guards, no groundskeeper, no intricate defense system.
Then again, what more was needed—why would anyone want to steal the President's body?
"It had never happened before, and certainly not with a U.S. president, which accounts for the fact there was no security," says Thomas J. Craughwell, the Bethel author of Stealing Lincoln's Body who will be discussing the strange event on Sunday, Nov. 17 at the Litchfield Historical Society. "It's actually a funny story, an offbeat moment in American history that most people haven't heard of, and it gives us a little insight into the not-too-smart criminal underclass of the late 19th century. Also, it gives us a new perspective of the Secret Service, which in those days did not protect the President. The Secret Service, in fact, in those days tracked down counterfeiters." Ironically, the Secret Service was signed into existence by Lincoln on the day he was assassinated.
Cut to November 1876, more than eleven years after Lincoln's death. Chicago gangster "Big Jim" Kennally is upset because his best counterfeiter has been sentenced to a decade in the state penitentiary, and to try and put pressure on the governor, he concocts what is an outrageous plan: He will "kidnap" the body of the Great Emancipator and hold it "hostage," demanding $200,000 in cash and a full pardon for his imprisoned counterfeiter. He taps two of his gangs to pull off this unprecedented crime, but their staggering incompetence quickly becomes their undoing.
"I couldn't believe how dim the would-be grave robbers were," says Craughwell, who explains that the gang members had no idea how to rob a grave so they tried to recruit other "criminals" to help them. "They were infiltrated by informants of the Secret Service pretty much from Day One—actually, on Day One," Craughwell laughs. "They were the most hapless gang of conspirators that you'd ever encounter."
Despite their bumbling, the gang soon targeted the perfect day for their crime: Nov. 7, 1865—Election Day.
"Well, actually, this was the only smart thing the grave robbers did," says Craughwell, noting that the idea was that everyone would be so preoccupied with the hotly contested presidential race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden, that no one would be even thinking about Lincoln's unguarded grave.
When the day for the caper comes however, the thieves almost comically bungle the actual crime—once they get past the padlock (which they had to spend considerable effort filing through) and into the tomb, they are completely unable to move Lincoln's 500 pound cedar-and-lead coffin. They also can not open the lid, and quickly abandon the heist when one of the detectives who arrives to bust the crime accidentally fires a shot from his pistol. The conspirators are eventually caught a short time later by the Secret Service.
Following the event, a more substantial—and secure—tomb is eventually built to contain Lincoln's remains. It is completed in 1901, when Lincoln's body is permanently interred in a coffin that's placed in a steel cage and embedded in concrete, 10 feet underground. Obviously, no other attempts at body snatching have since occurred.
Even though the outrageous scheme involved one of the most beloved figures in U.S. history, the incredible event was almost forgotten immediately.
"The election mess dominated the news and in lots of places, the story of the attempted grave robbing wasn't even reported for weeks," says Craughwell. "And in other places, nobody would believe it. The New Orleans Picayune, for example, dedicated almost an entire column to a story about a mother who found a worm in her daughter's ear and then gave three lines to the attempted robbery of Abraham Lincoln's body, and reported it as 'probably never happened.' So it wasn't as big a deal as you thought it would be, probably because of what was going on elsewhere at the time."
As fantastic as the story seems, it appeared to be headed toward history's dustbin until Craughwell came along. "I've been a freelance writer for 21 years, and I had just finished writing three volumes of urban legends—you know, alligators in the sewers and those kinds of things—and I was pretty burned out on that," the author recalls. "I said, 'I have to get a more interesting project,' and my father said, 'Write a book about Lincoln—everyone loves Lincoln.'"
Craughwell's family is originally from Chicago, and during a childhood trip to visit Lincoln's new tomb, his father had told him the grave-robbing story. "A few days after I had that conversation with my father, that story [from our family trip] popped back into my head and I started doing research, and discovered that there was an awful lot of primary material from the people who were involved in this, and that no book had been written on it since 1890. So we were off to the races."
After a year-and-a-half of research and six months of writing, Stealing Lincoln's Body was published in 2007 by Harvard University Press.
Craughwell's book was turned into a History Channel production in 2012. "The executive producer there lives in Westport—another Connecticut connection—and he borrowed the book from the Westport Public Library and he liked it," says Craughwell. "So he called me up one morning and introduced himself and said, 'We think this'd be a great documentary for the History Channel, would you mind?' and I said, 'No, I would not mind at all!' They did a fantastic job—they were great to work with. They hired me as a consultant and they were in touch all the time—"Is this historically accurate?" "Is that historically accurate?"—they really wanted to get this thing right and they did a beautiful job."
Here's the History Channel production of "Stealing Lincoln's Body."
Craughwell's talk, which will also focus on the finer details of the potential thieves’ plan, the investigation that ensued and the event's context in American post-Civil War society and culture. He will also discuss the rise of both counterfeiting and bodysnatching in the 19th century.
The event is on Sunday, Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. at the Litchfield Historical Society. It is free and open to the public, though donations are accepted. Registration is required by Friday, Nov. 15. Please call 860.567.4501 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thomas J. Craughwell Discusses the Odd Plot to Steal Lincoln's Body