Morbid History: The Plot to Kidnap Abraham Lincoln’s Corpse

Lincoln's corpse lying in state in Washington D. C..

Lincoln’s corpse lying in state.

I don’t have to give you a detailed history about Abraham Lincoln, because the vast majority of you know at least who he was. Basically he was the President of the United Sates during the Civil War, and right after it ended he was assassinated in Ford’s Theater in Washington D. C. while watching the play Our American Cousin. He was shot in the head and managed to cling to life for a few hours before expiring. What I find even more interesting than the story of his death is the fact that there was a plot to kidnap Lincoln’s body and hold it for ransom!

The year is 1876 and Lincoln was resting in an above ground white marble sarcophagus in a tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery located in Springfield Illinois. At the time of his death many wanted his remains buried in Washington DC but Mary Todd wanted none of that and decided that Lincoln should go back from whence he came. Oak Ridge Cemetery was located outside the city proper and was quite isolated. There weren’t any guards located there and not even a night watchman making the rounds. So, you could pretty much enter the cemetery at night and nobody would know, or care, that you were in there.

Lincoln's tomb, a fun day out for the whole family!

Lincoln’s tomb, a fun day out for the whole family!

If you were a counterfeiter whose friend was arrested and now in jail what would you do to get the attention of the authorities? That’s right, you would attempt to steal the corpse of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom until not only was your friend released but until you received $200,000! The guys who thought up this plot weren’t the smartest crayons in the box, that’s for certain! Big Jim Kennally, a Chicago crime boss and leader of a group of counterfeiters, convinced two members of his gang, Terence Mullen and Jack Hughes, to kidnap Lincoln’s corpse even though neither of them had any experience when it came to grave robbing. To rectify that situation they asked a reputed grave robber named Lewis Swegeles to help them out, but he in fact worked for the Secret Service and gave away the plot to Patrick Tyrrell who was the head of the Secret Service office in Chicago.

You would think that breaking into an unguarded tomb in an unguarded cemetery would be an easy task, especially for career criminals. After all there was only a single padlock keeping the door of the tomb closed. The idiots couldn’t even pick the lock so they had to actually file their way through it. Not only that they didn’t think of the logistics of opening up the sarcophagus and lifting the coffin out. It was made out of wood and lead and weighed over 500 lbs! While they were tying to ponder how to lift the damn thing out they heard gunfire coming from outside. It turns out that Tyrrell, and other Secret Service officers, were waiting outside for them and had accidentally discharged a firearm. Somehow the robbers ran out and got away, but were soon caught back in Chicago.

Lincoln's burial chamber.

Lincoln’s burial chamber.

After all of this the people who were in charge of the tomb started to worry that others would get the same idea, so they decided to secretly bury Lincoln’s coffin in the basement of the monument. Yes, Lincoln was in the basement of his own tomb in a shallow grave for just about 25 years without anybody, but the people who buried him, knowing! There he stayed until 1901 when his coffin was finally removed, lowered into a large vault and covered in tons of cement. I’m guessing that under the weight of that cement that his body is pretty much toast. His coffin is supposedly surrounded by a steel cage, but we are probably never going to be able to see his corpse ever again! How unfair!

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