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How Abraham Lincoln’s corpse was almost stolen


How Abraham Lincoln’s corpse was almost stolen


Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

After his death, he was buried in a tomb in Springfield, Illinois.

However, little did people know that there was a plot to steal his body from the tomb, which is detailed in a new book by Thomas J. Craughwell titled “Stealing Lincoln’s Body” published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

The plan to steal Lincoln’s body was hatched in a Chicago tavern in 1876, eleven years after his assassination.

The criminals involved in the scheme intended to take the coffin from the tomb, put it in a wagon, haul it 200 miles north to the Indiana Dunes, and hold it until the state of Illinois paid a ransom of $200,000 to get it back.

However, the plan was doomed from the start because the criminals were not very smart.


The ringleader of the group was James “Big Jim” Kennally, a convicted counterfeiter and co-owner of a Chicago tavern called The Hub.

The Secret Service, established precisely because counterfeiting was a huge problem at the time, knew that The Hub was a favorite watering hole for counterfeiters.

Lewis Swegles, a small-time crook who was working as a Secret Service informant, was asked if he wanted in on the heist of Lincoln’s body and reportedly replied, “I’m the boss body snatcher of Chicago.”

At the time, medical schools were eager to get their hands on cadavers, and they did not ask a lot of questions about where their suppliers got them.

So Swegles had himself a job, but he tipped off the feds, and the two groups – crooks and cops – boarded the same train bound for Springfield on November 6, 1876.

However, the ringleader didn’t make the trip.

At the cemetery, the Secret Service agents and a couple of Pinkerton detectives they’d brought along hid and waited for Swegles to give them the word that the crime was in progress.

Meanwhile, the grave robbers and Swegles walked to the tomb.

There was no night watchman, and the custodian of the tomb lived in Springfield, two to three miles away.

The only security, if you call it that, was a single padlock.

Lincoln’s body was above ground inside a sarcophagus sealed not with cement but plaster of Paris.

When the robbers broke into the tomb and opened the sarcophagus, Swegles signaled the agents to move in.

If the crooks were a hapless gang that couldn’t shoot straight, it was about to become clear they were up against the Keystone Kops.

A nervous Pinkerton detective cocked his pistol before he started running across the lawn to capture the crooks or as they were running.

It went off, and in a quiet cemetery in the middle of the night, it sounded like a cannon shot.

The robbers dropped their crowbars and saws and ran away.

Not knowing the crooks were long gone, the lawmen searched the darkened cemetery.

Before long, they were shooting at each other, but nobody was hit.

The attempt to steal Lincoln’s body has been covered before.

The first time was in 1890 when the custodian of the tomb wrote his own book, and most recently, in 1990, with Bonnie Stahlman Speer’s book, “The Great Abraham Lincoln Hijack.”

But Craughwell’s book shows there still is a hunger for anything to do with Lincoln.

And just two years before the 200th anniversary of his birth, interest seems to be intensifying.

Craughwell acknowledges that if it weren’t for Lincoln, a book about a bungled grave robbery wouldn’t be quite so interesting – for the simple reason that Lincoln has a hold on people like nobody else in American history.

“People admire Washington, but they love Lincoln,” he said.

Bob Bender, senior editor at Simon & Schuster, which has published several books about Lincoln, agrees.

“He has been a best-selling subject since probably the month after he died….

(and) it’s picking up.

You are going to see all of the Lincoln books come back on the market in the next two years.”

In fact, there’s an old adage in publishing that the way to ensure a book is a bestseller is to write about Lincoln, dogs, or doctors – which prompted one author to title a book about publishing in the 1930s, “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.”

“The only requirement,” Bender said, “is you have to have something fresh to say.”

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