The plot hatched in the fertile mind of Chicago businessman James “Big Jim” Kennally in 1876 as a way to preserve his profit margin. His business was counterfeiting. His most talented associate, an engraver named Ben Boyd, had been sent to prison for creating a splendid likeness of a $50 bill. Boyd needed to be sprung, Kennally determined. But how?
Historians don’t have an exact record of what Kennally said to his gang in 1876 when he first mentioned his plan, but his remarks might have run along these lines:
Here’s what we do, gentlemen. We steal the embalmed corpse of Abraham Lincoln, the most precious unguarded item in these United States. Hold it for ransom until Boyd’s set free and the government has forked over the nice round sum of $200,000. This is gonna be the easiest robbery in the history of the world ....
Grave robbing was a lucrative profession in 19th- century America. Medical schools wanted cadavers for dissection in their anatomy classes, and paid cash for reasonably fresh merchandise. These thefts were not greeted happily. Mobs of citizens, outraged by body snatchings, attacked medical schools and doctor’s offices in New York City in 1788, Baltimore in 1807, New Haven in 1824, and Cleveland in 1852.
Most of the time, the robbers didn’t get caught. They’d open a grave in the middle of the night, slip the body into a canvas bag, and flawlessly re-sod the turf. In coming weeks, writes historian Hugh Douglas, visitors to the site would have no idea that their dearly departed was “gracing some anatomy slab” where eager young men sliced, diced, prodded, and poked.
Body snatching declined in the second half of the 1800s, notes journalist/historian Emily Bazelon, when state legislatures passed laws that allowed medical schools to take possession of unclaimed bodies. Still, shortages sometimes occurred, so a moderate trade continued in North America and Europe. An outbreak of medical body stealing in Montreal in 1875 got international attention in newspapers. Did this event inspire Big Jim in 1876? Maybe so. Kennally was a creative soul; maybe he made the leap from body theft in Canada to body theft in Springfield, Ill., site of Lincoln’s tomb. Also, he might have been influenced by an earlier 1867 plot in Springfield to steal Lincoln’s body and ransom it.
Big Jim’s plan to steal Old Abe came to fruition on the night of Tuesday, Nov. 7, 1876. Kennally (also spelled Kinelly and Kinealy) was not actually present in Springfield that night. He was in Chicago, 200 miles to the northeast. But he had ordered his men to do most of the planning and to carry out the dirty deed. The gang consisted of John (Jack) Hughes, Terrence Mullen, and Lewis C. Swegles.
Hughes was a con man with a long rap sheet for passing counterfeit money to shopkeepers. Mullen was a dark-haired little guy with a large walrus mustache. Swegles was a wise-cracking chap who’d been busted a few times for horse thievery. In the autumn of 1876 he was an employee of the United States government.
Swegles was an informant. A snitch, a stoolie, canary, roper, and fink, paid $5 a day by the U.S. Secret Service to keep tabs on the counterfeiters and assorted other ne’er-do-wells who drank and played pool at a Chicago saloon called the Hub.
When Swegles showed up at the Hub in the summer of 1876, he convinced his new pals of his criminal credentials by mentioning his friendship with such local legends as Frenchy the Burglar. Also, he declared that he was the “boss body-snatcher of Chicago,” much devoted to the advancement of medical science. Hughes and Mullen were “convinced,” writes journalist/historian Lloyd Lewis, that this fellow was equally “shrewd and practiced.” They recruited Swegles to help with the Lincoln job.
As soon as Swegles got wind of the plot, he scurried to the Secret Service office in downtown Chicago and coughed up the story. The Feds sent him back to the Hub for more information. Soon enough, he learned the exact date of the heist: Nov. 7, Election Day. Hughes and Mullen picked the date because they figured Springfield (the state capital) would be full of people, bustle, and booze, and no one would pay special heed to a group of strangers passing through.
On the night in question, as Hughes, Mullen, and Swegles hiked along a dark road in Springfield toward Oak Ridge Cemetery, several Secret Service agents, along with a couple of private detectives, waited at a site a few dozen yards from the president’s tomb. They intended to swoop down on the bad guys at exactly the right moment and catch ’em red-handed. However, the evening didn’t go as planned.
The Lincoln Tomb in 1876 held Abe and his sons Willie and Eddie. Mary Lincoln would join them in a few years. The president’s lead-lined wooden coffin was located in the tomb’s burial chamber, above ground, encased in a marble sarcophagus. The thieves knew the layout. They had scouted the site thoroughly—visitors were allowed inside the chamber to pay respects.
Abe had been embalmed in April 1865. The robbers knew that some vestige of the 16th president resided in that marble container. They were confident that exactly one locked door stood between them and payday.
Hughes and Mullen, and the informant Swegles, entered the cemetery and approached the tomb. Their plan, after scooping up the coffin, was to carry it to a wagon parked nearby, driven by a fourth man, William Nealy. Then they’d high-tail it out of town. Nealy, as it happens, was another informant.
Lewis Swegles, a good actor, presumably kept a poker face as he and his partners walked up a little hill to the tomb. Mullen produced a hacksaw and began ripping away at the lock mechanism on the door, but pretty quickly the blade broke. This was unexpected. Mullen had not thought to bring a second blade. However, a nice sturdy file had been packed. Mullen set to work again, alternating with Hughes for the next half-hour. Swegles apparently supervised, or kept watch.
Eureka! The lock came apart. The men opened the door and entered the tomb.
Shutting the door behind them, they lit a lantern and used various tools to pry off the lid of the marble vault. There it was: the sealed coffin of Abraham Lincoln.
Did they try lifting off the casket lid to get a glimpse of the great man, and to make sure he was in there? Maybe, but the cover was screwed on, and they didn’t have time to mess around anymore. The coffin was giving them big trouble. In fact, the lead-lined box was so heavy that the three of them couldn’t lift it out of the vault. They got a little bit of it out, 15 inches by later measurement, before taking a break. Mullen, who’d put in a strenuous hour of labor, told Swegles to fetch Nealy for extra muscle.
Outside the tomb, Swegles signaled to the authorities. The contingent of five officers was accompanied by a newspaper reporter and a tomb custodian. And now began the Keystone Kops portion of the evening’s entertainment.
As the pistol-carrying officers and their friends quietly approached the tomb’s door, one of their number, George Hay, suddenly and somehow allowed his gun to fire. Everybody probably jumped two feet. Commanding officer Patrick D. Tyrrell recovered himself, perhaps paused briefly as he thought about what to do next, then dashed to the vital door, yanked it open, struck a match, and peered inside. Empty. Not a living soul in there. He shouted orders to search the area. He saw a shadowy figure behind a tree, lurking in a criminal-like manner. Tyrrell fired at the figure. The figure fired back. Another shot from Tyrrell. Two return shots. Tyrrell called for help: “The devil’s up here!” he bellowed to his men. A pertinent question now came forth from the shadowy figure behind the tree: “Tyrrell, is that you?” The shadowy figure was none other than John McGinn—unscathed, by the grace of God—of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Miscreants Mullen and Hughes beat a hasty retreat after the first pistol report and fled north into the empty cornfields.
Lincoln was safe.
The Feds quickly regained their momentum, arresting Hughes and Mullen in Chicago within a couple of weeks. Accused of conspiracy and larceny, the two men went on trial in May 1877, with Lewis Swegles testifying for the prosecution. The two were convicted and sent to Joliet for a couple of years. Big Jim Kennally was not formally linked to the attempted body theft, but spent significant time in prison over the next few years on various charges including counterfeiting. Mullen popped up in New Mexico in 1888 in a land fraud case, but other than that, we have no further record of the Kennally gang.
A question remained in the wake of the failed caper: How best to protect Lincoln’s body in the future? The caretakers of the tomb fretted desperately about another robbery attempt. They arrived at an interesting solution. Armed guards? No. An impregnable fence? Nope. A 10-foot deep hole? Nothing so rational.
They secretly buried the Great Emancipator in a rat hole.
Without informing higher authorities, a crew hoisted Lincoln’s coffin out of its marble vault a few days after the attempted robbery. The box was hauled to a moldy basement below the tomb, and, eventually, was buried in a shallow unmarked grave. The custodians moved Mrs. Lincoln there, too, upon her death in 1882. All told, Old Abe resided in the cruddy basement for more than a decade. Visitors to the tomb were not informed of this fact, even as they prayed in front of the glorious sarcophagus upstairs, where they thought Lincoln’s body was located.
“Shabby,” summarizes historian Thomas J. Craughwell, the definitive chronicler of the Lincoln robbery plot and its aftermath.
The situation improved in 1887. The two caskets were reburied in the tomb in a well-protected grave. This hole was filled with tons of concrete.
End of story? Not quite.
In 1901, when the Lincoln Tomb was refurbished, authorities decided to move the coffins again. Workers hacked the boxes out of the concrete.
The tomb’s caretakers and various interested parties had decided to install the two coffins in a new steel box, and slather on a fresh layer of concrete. First, though, they decided to take a last gander at Abe. They cut a small hole in his box. Twenty-two local citizens checked out the body, apparently (even though he’d also been examined in 1887) to make sure he was still in there after all the fuss of preceding years. Abe looked fine.
Given the fact that Lincoln’s remains were in such good shape in 1901, it’s “definitely possible, though not certain” that his body is still intact today, underneath all the concrete, says historian Jon Austin, executive director of the Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield. Among the people examining Lincoln in 1901 was a Springfield resident named Fleetwood Lindley, who died in 1963. He was the last living person to examine the face of the 16th president.
Bob Frost wrote about the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 in the September/October 2008 issue of the magazine.