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!


Morbid History – The Moving Of San Francisco’s Cemeteries

Photo of workmen removing bodies in 1933.

Photo of workmen removing bodies in 1933.

San Francisco is a small city where land has always been valuable. To deal with a growing population, and a lack of space to build new housing, it was decided that all of the cemeteries located in San Francisco would be moved south to the town of Colma. Only three places of burial in San Francisco were left intact and are still available to visit; the burial ground at the Mission Delores, the military cemetery at The Presidio and the Neptune Society Columbarium.

Big Four cemetery map located in what is now the inner Richmond district.

Big Four cemetery map located in what is now the inner Richmond district.

There used to be many cemeteries in San Francisco, however the most famous of them were collectively known as the ‘Big Four’. These were the Masonic in the south, Calvary in the east, Odd Fellows’ in the west and Laurel Hill in the north. They were all grouped together on the edge of what is now the Inner Richmond district. In 1902 Inner Richmond property owners began to complain about the cemeteries driving down their property values so they started a campaign to move the cemeteries out of the area. Personally, I think they were greedy bastards because the cemeteries were there before they bought their properties. I mean, it’s like buying a house near an airport then wanting the airport closed because it’s making too much noise.

After years of litigation the bodies started to be removed in 1929 down to Colma. The gravestones were more often than not dealt with as scrap because in order for a family to have it moved with the body they would have to pay for it themselves. That’s awfully unfair considering that they aren’t the ones who wanted the bodies removed in the first place! Many of the gravestones were just dumped into the ocean while others were broken up and used for the construction of gutters in Buena Vista Park. It took until after WWII to supposedly move all of the bodies out of San Francisco’s cemeteries. But this wouldn’t be a Morbid History post without something gruesome to add would it?

Grave found at Legion Of Honor during renovations.

Grave found at Legion Of Honor during renovations.

Not all of the bodies were removed! That’s right, there are people right now living on the top of thousands of corpses. It’s like something directly out of Poltergeist! After the 1989 earthquake renovations were being done to the Legion Of Honor in Golden Gate Park when builders discovered hundreds of bodies in the foundations! Golden Gate Cemetery used to be located there and the I suppose that removing the bodies wasn’t done as thoroughly as thought! How morbidly cool is that! Also, when the old main city library building was being converted into the new Asian Art Museum workers found 19 bodies! I used to go to that library all the time when I was growing up so to think that I was treading above a bunch of old graves! Neat!

Besides all of the official cemeteries that were located in San Francisco people were also just buried in simple wooden coffins in the sand dunes that once covered the entire west end of the city. So, all of the houses in the Sunset and Richmond districts could be sitting on top of unmarked graves. That makes me shiver in delight! On an interesting note my grandmother, who was born and raised there, remembers the hearses that drove the bodies out of the city. So, the next time you are in San Francisco remember all of the people still buried there whom you may be walking over!

Morbid History: Wounded American Civil War Soldiers

I wonder how he survived this!

I wonder how he survived this!

The American Civil War is considered the first modern war ever to be fought. While still using 18th century battle techniques they had weapons that were technologically advanced. This caused a high number of deaths due to both armies being burdened with the fact that they had no knowledge of how to actually treat the wounded so that they could survive. Many who were wounded died from either a total lack of treatment, or treatment that did not take infection into account.

His bone looks like it was shattered by a Menie ball.

His bone looks like it was shattered by a Menie ball.

The rifle musket was used extensively for the first time during this war. The bullet that it used, the Minie ball, caused far more damage than it’s predecessor. Instead of being a round ball that was used by muskets, the Minie ball caused far more damage, and tore through people in a terribly efficient manner. They tore through bellies and shattered limbs. If you were hit by one chances were that you were going to die, and you knew it. Also, the rifle musket was four times more accurate than the normal musket and could be fired four times in one minute.

A pile of the amputated legs of soldiers thrown in a pile.

A pile of the amputated legs of soldiers.

Quite possibly the worst thing that could happen to a soldier, besides death, was the need for them to get their limbs amputated. Because of the Minie ball’s destructive path many had to have their limbs sawed off in unsanitary conditions. This was done usually while the patient was fully conscious because they did not have the kind of sedatives that we have today. Instruments were frequently not sanitized so often these men died from infections acquired from when they had this type of surgery.

Starving Union soldier, prisoner of war at Andersonville.

Starving Union soldier, prisoner of war at Andersonville.

Yet another dangerous event that could happen to a soldier was being placed in a prisoner of war camp. One of the most infamous of these during the civil war was Andersonville, which was a Confederate led camp for Union prisoners. It was located in Georgia and had 45,000 prisoners. Of those over 13,000 died of disease or starvation. After the surrender of the Confederacy the commander of the camp, Henry Wirz, was convicted of war crimes and hung.

Morbid History: The Brazen Bull

It's barbeque time!

It’s barbeque time!

I like learning about old school instruments of torture. Water-boarding is just so boring and passe! Who needs it when you have the brazen bull!

The brazen bull was a unique and quite devilish in what it accomplished; slowly roasting people alive. It was invented by a metal worker from Athens called Perillos, in order to introduce a new form of torture for Phalaris, a tyrant of Sicily, to inflict on criminals. The entire thing was made of bronze in the life-size shape, of you guessed it, a bull. It had a door on its side to allow the victim access, and it had a series of tube that lead to its mouth that would allow the screams of the guilty to sound like that of a bull. A fire would be lit underneath it and all that would be left was a pile of bones and ash.

Of course Perillos bragged about the sound the bull would emit, so curious as to whether it would indeed work Phalaris ordered him to become the first victim. Guess what happened next? Go on I’ll give you a few moments. It worked as described! The ancient Romans also thought it was kind of neat so they used it against Christians, Jews and anybody else who really pissed them off.

It is believed that the design of the brazen bull started out in Carthage. The people would sacrifice babies to their god named Moloch by placing them within a small cow headed bronze statue of the god and sliding them down into bronze furnace. The screams of the dying babies didn’t sound anything like a bull, but you can’t have everything!

Morbid History: The Massacre Of Beziers

The modern town of Beziers.

The modern town of Beziers.

I love history! Especially the parts that are all gruesome, sad and tragic. The story of the massacre of Beziers perfectly fits into that mold and is quite interesting. Many people think that crusaders only fought against the followers of Islam. Not so!

The Albigensians were a group of Cathars centered around mostly southern France during the 12th to 14th centuries. They were called this because the movement first gained hold in France in the town of Albi. The Cathars were a Christian sect that believed in dualism: they thought that this plane of existence was inherently evil, and that included the Catholic Church. Cathars wanted to achieve perfection and the Catholic Church was anything but that. I wonder how the Catholic Church reacted when the Cathars would point out that they were perfect, while the Church was corrupt? Let’s find out!

As you can imagine the Church was deeply concerned about the Cathars poaching believers from them. Their numbers were growing and they were beginning to exert influence upon the local nobility. Dangerous indeed, how dare they! During this time in history the Catholic Church was stamping out the last of what they considered to be heretical believers. In other words they were destroying any other form of Christianity that went against what they believed. How Christian of them! In order to stomp out the turncoat nobles who were supporting the Cathars the French king, Phillippe II Augustus,declared a crusade. No doubt he was urged to do so by the Catholic Church. This event is now known as the Albigensian Crusade. It was fought on and off for about twenty years and it’s aftereffects would be felt for centuries to come.

'Kill them all, and let God sort them out.'

‘Kill them all, and let God sort them out.’

Beziers, an ancient town in southern France, was the first major place to be attacked by these crusaders on July the 22nd in 1209. It was a stronghold of the Cathars so it would seem logical for the Church to choose it first. The crusaders gave the inhabitants of the town a choice, either surrender the Cathars to them and be allowed to leave, or not give them up and be slaughtered along with them. Well, rather courageously I would say, the town refused the request to surrender the Cathars. A commander of the crusade, Papal Legate Arnaud-Amaury, famously answered  ‘Kill them all, and let God sort them out.’ when asked as to how to tell the difference between a Cathar and a Catholic. Yes, that famous quote comes from this event! Neat, eh? Over 20,000 men, women and children were murdered that day and the town cathedral was burnt in order to collapse onto frightened townspeople huddled inside there for safety. Nobody was spared, not even Catholic priests. Afterwards the town was razed and its remains burned.

As I said before this crusade lasted for twenty years before the remaining Cathars either converted or were burned at the stake. Can you imagine what the religious climate would be like now if the Cathars were never massacred? Would their brand of Christianity be as popular today as the Catholic variety? This victory of the Catholic Church, in the battle of which Christian sect would dominate the West, was not won by logic or good deeds, instead it was won by the side that was willing to murder the innocent in order to get ahead.

What is interesting to note is that this crusade spawned not only the Dominican order of monks, who were charged with combating heresy, but the fist ever Inquisition. That’s right, before this crusade there was never a declared Inquisition. In my opinion this crusade in particular ushered in quite possible the ugliest and bloodiest time in the history of the Catholic Church.