Stealing Abraham Lincoln

It was one of the most audacious crimes in American history. A rowdy band of counterfeiters would steal the body of Abraham Lincoln right from his tomb and ransom it for cash and the release of their ringleader.

 

A bust of Abraham Lincoln sat behind the bar at a saloon on Chicago’s west side called the Hub. By 1876, Lincoln had been dead for 11 years, but the sixteenth president kept watch of the customers.

One August afternoon, James Kennally walked into the Hub. The tall, light-eyed man, better known as “Big Jim,” co-owned the saloon with bartender Terrance Mullen. The mustachioed Mullen managed the tavern, while Kennally oversaw the more profitable side of the business—counterfeiting.

Kennally exchanged a look with Mullen and disappeared into one of the back rooms. Mullen followed him. Minutes later, two more men, Jack Hughes and Herbert Nelson, joined the meeting.

From his shelf behind the bar, Lincoln’s bust could not eavesdrop on the men. If he could have followed the four men into the back room, Lincoln would have been shocked at what he heard.

“We’ll break into Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois, nab his body, and hold it for ransom,” Kennally said. “If the feds want old Abe back, they’ll have to set Boyd free first.”

There must have been a stunned silence as the other men stared at Kennally in shock.

“We’re counterfeiters, not body snatchers,” one of them finally said.

“It will be easy,” Kennally assured them.

Oak Ridge Cemetery was two miles from Springfield. No watchman guarded the monument that held Lincoln’s coffin, and only one padlock secured the door. Kennally wanted the men to transport Lincoln’s casket to the sand dunes on the Indiana side of Lake Michigan, where they would bury it in the sand while Kennally sent the governor the ransom note.

Mullen, Hughes and Nelson exchanged skeptical looks. The Indiana sand dunes were 220 miles from Springfield. The journey would take days.

Then Kennally sweetened the pot. “We’ll tell the feds we also want $200,000. In cash.”

That did the trick. The men agreed to kidnap Lincoln’s corpse.

The Golden Age of Counterfeiting

The Civil War had begun in 1861 and launched the golden age of counterfeiting. Prior to the war, the federal government only coined gold and silver money, not paper bills. Banks printed their own form of currency, called banknotes. Each bank designed its own note, which made creating forgeries of them a real challenge for counterfeiters.

When the war began, the federal government needed more cash but did not have enough supplies of gold and silver to make enough coins. So, in 1862, the US Congress authorized the government to print $150 million dollars’ worth of paper money that would be recognized as legal everywhere.

Counterfeiters were thrilled!

Engravers needed to make only a few different styles of metal plates for the different denominations. Printers could make thousands of copies of bills, and “shovers” – people who took the money and went shopping – could use them in stores across the country, getting real money as change.

However, counterfeiting depended on the skill of the engraver. If the bills did not look genuine, the counterfeiters, called coney men, would, get busted.

The best engraver in the Midwest was a man named Benjamin Boyd, and he worked for Big Jim Kennally.

When the Civil War ended in April 1865, the federal government began to crack down on counterfeiters. The US Treasury Department created a new agency, the Secret Service, whose sole function was to nab counterfeiters.

One of Chicago’s most hardworking Secret Service agents was Patrick Tyrrell. On October 21, 1875, Tyrrell raided Benjamin Boyd’s house and confiscated fake money and counterfeiting tools. Boyd was sentenced to 10 years in the federal penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois.

With Boyd behind bars, Kennally’s criminal network began to feel the pinch. Their supply of quality counterfeit money ran low. Kennally decided that his only recourse was to get Boyd out of prison. This was the reason for the August meeting at the Hub.

The President’s Tomb

The evening of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln had reason to enjoy a night on the town. For four long years, Lincoln had struggled to keep the United States from falling apart as the Civil War raged between the North and South.

Now, the bloody conflict was over. Lincoln and his wife, Mary, planned to celebrate that evening by attending a show at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. A comedy was playing, and Lincoln needed a good laugh.

That evening, the Lincolns and two friends entered a private box above the right side of the stage. Noting the president’s arrival, the band played “Hail to the Chief.”

Lincoln bowed and took his seat.

Police officer John Parker stood guard outside the door to the presidential box, but at intermission, he abandoned his post and went to the nearby Star Saloon for a drink. Actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth had been at the same bar earlier, nursing his hatred for Lincoln. Booth was bitter because the South had lost the Civil War.

Booth entered Ford’s Theater around 10 p.m. The presidential box remained unguarded. Booth opened the door and slipped inside unseen. The actor pointed his pistol at the back of Lincoln’s head and waited for a punchline.

When the audience exploded into laughter, Booth pulled the trigger.

Lincoln slumped forward in his chair. Mary screamed and reached for him. Booth yelled, “Thus always to tyrants,” and leapt over the box. The spur on his boot caught in a flag and Booth crashed on the stage, breaking his left shin. The audience thought the action was part of the play and just sat there as Booth escaped through a back door.

Then Mary Lincoln yelled, “They have shot the president!” An unconscious Lincoln was carried across the street to a boardinghouse. The assassin’s bullet had ripped a path through the left side of Lincoln’s brain. Recovery was impossible.

Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1965.

Mary Lincoln had decided to bury her husband in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois. Shaded by trees and bordering a small creek, Oak Ridge offered the peace Lincoln had craved at the end of his life. The president’s body was housed in a temporary vault cut into a hillside while his permanent tomb was constructed by the National Lincoln Monument Association.

In 1871, the Lincoln Monument was finally ready. An 85-foot-tall obelisk capped the structure. A spiral iron staircase inside the obelisk led visitors to a terrace that offered a clear view of the grounds.

Below the terrace was Memorial Hall, which contained a small museum of Lincoln memorabilia.

The tomb chamber, called the catacomb, was accessible through a door on the other side of the building.

This room contained five crypts, for Lincoln’s sons and his wife. Lincoln’s body was rested in a cocoon of coffins—an airtight lead coffin inside a red cedar casket inside a white marble sarcophagus. The magnificent sarcophagus dominated the room. A double door guarded the catacomb, along with a wooden outer door and a padlocked iron grate.

The monument was open for tours led by John Carroll Power, the custodian of the building. Power led people through Memorial Hall, but they could view Lincoln’s sarcophagus only through the iron grilled door.

Only Power had a key to the catacomb. The president’s tomb was sacred and not to be disturbed.

That was about to change.

The Informant

During the summer of 1876, the Chicago police nabbed Jack Hughes’s teenage accomplice with a pocket full of fake cash. To cut a deal, the boy offered to squeal on Jack Hughes. The Chicago police notified Patrick Tyrrell that they had information on a counterfeiter.

Patrick Tyrrell had heard of Jack Hughes. A year earlier, the man had been arrested for trying to pass fake five dollar bills, but he had jumped bail and never been caught.

When Tyrrell interrogated the teenager, he learned that Hughes hung out at the Hub. Here was his chance. Tyrrell decided to bust Hughes and the ring of counterfeiters.

To do this, Tyrrell needed a good roper.

A roper was a paid informant, usually an ex-con. A roper gained the trust of criminals and, for a fee, fed the cops inside information about how the criminal enterprise worked. The life of a roper was dangerous. Nobody likes a snitch.

The roper Tyrrell chose was Lewis Swegles, a horse thief who had served prison time in Wisconsin. While behind bars, Swegles had met many coney men. Now, he was living in Chicago and trying to stay out of trouble. For five dollars a day, Swegles agreed to be Tyrrell’s roper.

Conscripting the Kidnappers

The timing was perfect. Kennally had ordered Mullen and Hughes to find a fourth man for the kidnapping job. One day, Lewis Swegles entered the Hub and began bragging about his days as a horse thief.

Mullen and Hughes paid attention. Gradually, Swegles earned their friendship, and in October, they pulled Swegles aside.

“Do you want to make some quick money?” they asked.

“It depends on the job,” Swegles said. He figured it would involve counterfeiting.

A rich businessman had just died in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Mullen and Hughes explained. They wanted to snatch the man’s body and hold it for ransom. “Do you want in?” they asked.

Swegles must have been shocked, but he played it cool.

“Before I decide,” he said, “let me look up the penalty for grave robbing in Wisconsin.”

Swegles decided the coneys were testing him, and a couple days later he turned down the job. Mullen and Hughes were not upset. Swegles was right—they had been testing him.

There was no dead rich man in Kenosha.

The coney men wanted to see if Swegles could keep secrets. They listened for any rumors of the kidnapping plot, but Swegles kept his mouth shut. Mullen and Hughes decided he was their man.

One night, they took Swegles into one of the Hub’s back rooms.

“Forget the Wisconsin job,” Mullen said. “We’re going to do a body-snatching, but we’re after something much bigger.

Swegles listened in stunned silence as the men laid out the plan. Take the train to Springfield. Break into the Lincoln Monument and steal Lincoln’s corpse. Drive to the Indiana sand dunes and bury the corpse in the sand. Contact the governor of Illinois and demand the release of Benjamin Boyd and $200,000.

The men waited for Swegles’ answer. The roper’s brain raced for the right response to convince the men he was one of them. “I’m the body snatcher of Chicago!” he crowed.

Shortly after this, Herbert Nelson got cold feet and backed out of the job. However, Swegles had a solution. Since Lincoln was lying in a marble sarcophagus, they needed a cracksman, a specialist at breaking through tough surfaces. Swegles told the coneys he had a friend named Billy Brown who could do the job.

In reality, there was no Billy Brown. Swegles’ friend was actually Bill Neely, an honest bricklayer, willing to play the role of cracksman. Mullen and Hughes invited Brown to join the team.

The kidnapping crew was in place.

Touring Lincoln’s Monument

As the crooks debated when to make their move, the nation found itself embroiled in an intense battle for the presidency. The Republican governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes, was pitted against Samuel Tilden, the Democrat governor of New York. The race was neck and neck.

Election Day was November 7. The people of Springfield would go to the polls and wait anxiously for election results. No one would be visiting Oak Ridge Cemetery. On November 6, Mullen decided that the evening of Election Day would be the time to kidnap Lincoln.

When Swegles gave him the word, Tyrrell flew into action. He informed John Carroll Power, the custodian of the Lincoln Monument, of the plot. He also recruited four men to help him—the former Chicago chief of police, Elmer Washburn; John McDonald, a Secret Service agent stationed near Springfield; and two private detectives from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, John McGinn and George Hay.

By 8 p.m. that night, Tyrrell, McGinn and Hay were hiding in the shadows of Chicago’s central train station. The train would depart for Springfield at 9 p.m.

Minutes ticked by, but the coney men were nowhere in sight. Worry ran like a spider up Tyrrell’s spine. Had his roper double-crossed him?

At 9 p.m. the whistle blew, the wheels began to churn, and the train chugged slowly down the tracks. Suddenly, four men dashed out of the station and leaped on the first car. Tyrrell beckoned to his team and they jumped into the last car just as the train left the station.

The game was on.

At 6 a.m. on November 7, the train reached Springfield. Unknown to Mullen and Hughes, Billy Brown, a.k.a. Bill Neely, had gotten off the train in the middle of the night. Swegles told the coney men that Brown was asleep in another car. The train was not scheduled to depart for some time, and Swegles said he would return to the station and wake Brown up later. The coney men checked into the St. Charles House hotel, unaware that the detectives were staying at a hotel only two blocks away.

While Mullen and Hughes ordered breakfast, Swegles said he would go wake Brown so he could find a wagon and horse team to hire as their getaway vehicle. As soon as Swegles was out of sight of the St. Charles House, he doubled back to the detectives’ hotel and met with Tyrrell to finalize their plan to trap the thieves.

Both cops and crooks toured Lincoln’s tomb that day. In the morning, John Carroll Power showed Tyrrell the catacomb where Lincoln’s sarcophagus sat in front of a brick wall.

Tyrrell wanted to know what was behind the wall. Power took Tyrrell inside Memorial Hall and through a door into a labyrinth. The space was a maze of thick walls and piles of lumber lay everywhere. The damp air smelled like rotting wood. Water seeped through the stone ceiling and pooled on the floor.

Tyrrell stood by the brick wall and Power returned to the catacomb and rapped on the wall from the other side. Tyrrell heard him perfectly. As long as the detectives were completely silent, they could hide in the labyrinth and listen to the coney men until the time was right to spring their trap.

That afternoon, Hughes and Swegles also toured Lincoln’s Monument. Power did not show them the labyrinth.

Setting the Trap

The skies were gray and rain threatened all day. Elmer Washburn and Secret Service agent John McDonald arrived on the five o’clock train with a journalist named Percy English in tow. English would record the night’s events for the Chicago Tribune.

When darkness fell, the detectives hired a carriage to drive them to the cemetery. John Carroll Power was waiting for them. Once inside Memorial Hall, Power locked the door behind them and everyone extinguished their lanterns.

“The darkness could almost be felt,” Power later wrote.

The men held hands as Power blindly led the way into the labyrinth. When he had reached a spot where no light would be visible from outside, he lit a lantern. Then, Tyrrell placed a series of lanterns along the narrow corridor leading to the brick wall. He ordered Percy English to stay there.

“When you hear the criminals in the catacomb,” Tyrrell said, “follow the lights back to Memorial Hall and give us the word.”

English had come to Springfield to report a story, but now he was part of the story.

The rest of the team moved into position, their heels echoing on the marble floor of the hall. This operation required complete silence. Tyrrell ordered the team to remove their boots. Then, he took his spot by the outside door and settled in to wait.

The Kidnappers Arrive

Two hours later, Mullen, Hughes, and Swegles climbed the cemetery fence. Swegles had said Billy Brown would be waiting with a wagon and horse team near the woods outside the cemetery at 9:30. Across the dark and silent graveyard they ran toward the monument.

Mullen lit a lantern and shined it at the building. Could someone be inside? He ordered the others to take a look around. As Hughes and Swegles scouted the area, Swegles grabbed the handle of the locked door to Memorial Hall and rattled it. He flashed the light in the window but saw nothing.

“I didn’t, of course, want to see anything,” he said later.

Inside the hall, Tyrrell got Swegles’ message. The coney men had arrived. He gestured for Power to unlock the door. Soon the detectives would need to exit this door quickly.

The Coffin is Too Heavy

The thick padlock securing the iron grate door proved tough. The saw blade broke, but Mullen managed to snap the lock with a metal file and pliers. He pushed open the door. The lantern beam spotlighted the center of the chamber, and for a moment the thieves were mesmerized.

The marble sarcophagus gleamed in the yellow light. The word LINCOLN was carved on one end, sculpted oak leaves winding around the letters.

Above the name was a line from Lincoln’s second inaugural address. “With Malice toward None, With Charity for All.”

Mullen snapped out of his trance. He picked up an axe and heaved it over his shoulder.

“Hold on!” Swegles said. Swegles jammed a crowbar under the lid. It had been sealed with only plaster, not cement. The men cracked the plaster seal, removed the sarcophagus lid, and leaned it against the wall. Inside this was a second marble lid, which they attacked with the axe and chisels.

Inside the labyrinth, Percy English heard the banging. On stockinged feet, he followed the trail of lanterns to Memorial Hall and told the others: The thieves were in the catacomb attacking Lincoln’s coffin.

Tyrrell did not move. The other agents exchanged nervous glances. What was he waiting for?

Back inside the catacomb, the coney men had removed a panel at the head of the sarcophagus. Inside sat the red cedar coffin. They pulled on it as hard as they could, but the coffin was lined with two layers of lead and weighed almost 500 pounds. It slid only about a foot out of the sarcophagus and then refused to budge.

Mullen ordered Swegles to fetch Billy Brown. They needed more muscle.

Swegles left the catacomb and ran down the hill. When he reached the thicket of trees, he turned right and around the monument to Memorial Hall.

Swegles knocked lightly on the door and whispered the password. “Wash.”

Tyrrell opened the door and Swegles told him the sarcophagus was open, but they could not get the coffin out. Tyrrell ordered Swegles to stay put. He motioned to Power to bring the lanterns, and then raced outside, not even pausing to put his boots back on. The team followed.

The men ran around the side of the building. Suddenly, an explosion rang out behind Tyrrell. He whipped around. Detective George Hay looked with horror at the smoking pistol in his hand. He had cocked his gun too early.

The hammer slipped and struck the cap, causing an explosion as loud as a cannon.

The Fiasco

Tyrrell knew they had to move faster now. On lightening feet, he charged into the tomb chamber first, revolver cocked and ready. The room was as dark as pitch. “Whoever is inside better surrender!” he shouted. There was no reply.

Tyrrell yelled another warning. Silence answered him. He struck a match. The crypt was empty.

A broken saw blade lay on the floor, alongside the padlock, an axe, and two slabs of marble. One end of Lincoln’s coffin rested on the floor.

Tyrrell ordered his team to search the cemetery grounds while he raced back to Memorial Hall to put on his boots. He ran up the spiral staircase to the terrace. By this time the moon had risen. Tyrrell spied two figures behind some columns and shot at them. The men fired back.

Tyrrell yelled down to Washburn, “Chief, we have them up here.”

A few seconds later, someone called out, “Tyrrell…is that you shooting at us?”

The figures hiding behind the columns were Detectives Hay and McGinn. The coney men had disappeared. Tyrrell’s trap had turned into a fiasco.

Busted

Lincoln’s corpse had not been stolen, but the counterfeiters were still on the loose, and Tyrrell was determined to nab them.

On November 10, Swegles peeked through the back door of the Hub. Big Jim Kennally was working the bar. Swegles beckoned to him, trying to act nervous like a man on the run.

Kennally still believed Swegles was one of the gang. Swegles let out a sigh of relief. His cover had not been blown. Mullen and Hughes came out of hiding. Tyrrell was ready for them.

On November 17, at 10:30 P.M., Detective McGinn and Chicago police officer Dennis Simmons entered the Hub. Patrick Tyrrell and the former Chicago chief of police, Elmer Washburn, observed the scene through a window. Hughes was asleep in a chair and Mullen was serving drinks.

Mullen smiled pleasantly as McGinn leaned against the bar and ordered two beers. As Mullen stooped to fill the order, mugs in one hand and keg spout in the other, McGinn drew his revolver and held it against Mullin’s head. “Mullen, you are my man,” he said.

Simmons walked over to the sleeping Hughes. “Come along with me, my boy,” he said loudly. Hughes opened his eyes to find the barrel of a gun staring back at him.

“Who are you?” Hughes asked.

The door burst open and Patrick Tyrrell entered the room.

Rest in Peace, Abe

The trial for the attempted kidnapping of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse began on May 28, 1877. Mullen and Hughes claimed they had been framed, victims of a conspiracy hatched by Tyrrell and Washburn and led by Swegles, the real crook.

The jury did not buy it. Both men were convicted of conspiracy to steal Lincoln’s body and attempted larceny for trying to steal the coffin. They were sentenced to one year in the federal penitentiary at Joliet.

Ironically, this is where Benjamin Boyd, the master engraver, was still serving time.

Worried about a copycat kidnapper, John Carroll Power and members of the Lincoln Monument Association moved the president’s coffin to the basement of Memorial Hall on November 15, 1876.

In 1878, John Carroll Power recruited five strong, patriotic men to move Lincoln to the labyrinth, where they buried him in a shallow grave. The men formed a secret society called the Lincoln Guard of Honor. Their mission was to protect Abraham Lincoln’s body.

A brick vault was eventually built in the original catacomb, and on April 14, 1887, Abraham Lincoln was exhumed again and reburied in this vault with Mary beside him.

During the next decade, Lincoln was relocated again. This time he was housed in a temporary vault for 18 months while a new foundation was dug.

On September 26, 1901, workers dug a 10-foot-deep hole with a steel cage inside in the floor of the catacomb. Men lowered the casket into this steel cage and poured wet concrete into the vault, slowly filling in the space around the coffin. Within hours, all that remained was a solid, unbreakable block in the catacomb floor.

Finally, 36 years after his death, the body of Abraham Lincoln could rest in peace.