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!