In the shadows of history, there exists a tale as strange and gripping as any spy novel. This saga features an unlikely cast of characters — grave robbers, secret agents, and even a revered American president. The protagonist of our story is none other than Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, whose enduring legacy even after death became the catalyst for a plot shrouded in secrecy and intrigue. It all began with a nefarious plan: to steal the corpse of Abraham Lincoln.
Years after his assassination, Lincoln’s tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, became the subject of an audacious plot. In 1876, a band of Chicago-based criminals hatched a plan to snatch the body of the revered president. Their motivation was not political nor was it propelled by a morbid fascination with the late president. Their objective was purely financial, seeking to use the stolen body as a bargaining chip.
However, unbeknownst to them, fate was already setting a course that would lead to their ultimate downfall. The crime, planned in meticulous detail, would encounter an unexpected twist, changing not just the outcome of their plan but also the security protocols surrounding the late president’s resting place forever. This unforeseen development involved double-crossing, secret government agents, and the resolve to protect the legacy of one of America’s most celebrated leaders.
The Plot to Steal Abraham Lincoln’s Corpse
The mastermind behind this plot was a man named Big Jim Kennally, a notorious counterfeiter with a desperate need to liberate one of his skilled engravers from prison. The plan was to snatch Lincoln’s body and demand the release of his engraver, Benjamin Boyd, as well as a hefty sum of $200,000. To accomplish this audacious act, Kennally recruited a team including two men, Terrence Mullen and Jack Hughes, both known for their criminal backgrounds.
For weeks, the duo studied the layout of the cemetery, the tomb, and the schedule of the caretaker. They planned to strike on Election Day, November 7, 1876, when the nation would be preoccupied with the results of the Hayes-Tilden presidential race. They arranged for a wagon and a one-eyed accomplice to wait near the tomb while they entered, overpowered the guard, and then removed the late president’s coffin.
Their meticulous planning extended even to the escape route. They planned to travel to Michigan City, Indiana, and from there, take a boat across Lake Michigan to hide out in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula until their demands were met. However, their plot was far from foolproof, and one loose end would ultimately unravel their scheme.
Abraham Lincoln’s Grave Robbers Get Busted
This loose end was a man named Lewis Swegles, a regular patron at Mullen’s saloon and apparently eager participant in their plot. What Mullen and Hughes didn’t know was that Swegles was a paid informant for the Secret Service, a fact that would swiftly bring their plans to a halt. Swegles had reported the plot to his supervisor, Patrick D. Tyrrell, who in turn informed the local and state authorities, setting the stage for a dramatic confrontation.
On the designated night, as Mullen and Hughes approached Lincoln’s tomb, they found the padlock surprisingly easy to pick. However, as they began to move the 500-pound coffin, they were startled by an unexpected noise — the discharge of a pistol. This was the cue for the assembled law enforcement, who sprang from their hiding places to apprehend the would-be grave robbers. But in the ensuing chaos, Mullen and Hughes managed to escape in the dark.
Their freedom, however, was short-lived. Less than a week later, both were arrested in Chicago. Ironically, their trial was overshadowed by another grave robbery, the theft of the body of a wealthy businessman, leading to minimal press coverage and a lack of public outcry. Both men were sentenced to one year in prison, a surprisingly light sentence given the gravity of their crime.
Heightened Security for Abraham Lincoln’s Grave
The attempted grave robbery led to an overhaul in the security protocols for Abraham Lincoln’s tomb. It became apparent that the country needed a more permanent and reliable solution to protect the memory and legacy of the esteemed president. It was under these circumstances that the “Lincoln Guard of Honor” was established.
The Lincoln Guard of Honor, an association made up of local Springfield citizens, was formed in 1887, eleven years after the attempted grave robbery. Their primary role was to protect the tomb from future theft attempts and ensure the safety of the late president’s resting place. It was a position of high honor, with membership capped at a symbolic number of sixteen to represent Lincoln’s position as the 16th president.
Security measures were significantly enhanced, including frequent patrols and a new, more secure tomb design. In an extraordinary measure, Lincoln’s coffin was placed in a steel cage and embedded in a large block of concrete, ten feet under the floor of the tomb. This action, they hoped, would deter even the most audacious of grave robbers.
Thus, the failed plot to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body ended up shaping the destiny of his tomb. The Lincoln Guard of Honor remained in operation until 1943, dutifully overseeing the protection of Lincoln’s final resting place. Their contribution ensured that the tomb of one of the most significant figures in American history remained undisturbed, honoring the memory of a man who left an indelible mark on the nation.