Illinois bicentennial: 'Whisky alone' thwarted plan to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body

It was July 3, 1876 – the eve of our country’s first centennial. Everyone in Springfield would be celebrating downtown. No one would be near Oak Ridge Cemetery.

It was the perfect time to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body.

The dubious plot was hatched by Midwestern counterfeiters who had been shut down when their expert bill engraver was jailed. Benjamin Boyd’s bills were the best in the Midwest, possibly the country.

In 1875, he was captured in Fulton, found guilty and sent to the Joliet penitentiary for 10 years. Without his plates, the criminals who made and passed the counterfeit bills were out of business. They had to spring their money man.

“Big Jim” Kennally, a St. Louis Irishman who led Midwestern counterfeiters, according to Thomas J. Craughwell’s book, “Stealing Lincoln’s Body,” brainstormed a solution.

They would snatch Lincoln’s body, bury it in the Indiana Dunes, then ransom it for $200,000 and Boyd’s pardon and freedom.

His minions in Lincoln moved to Springfield to implement the plan. As a front, they opened a saloon and dance hall a block west of the current Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. When the criminals weren’t running the saloon, they posed as tourists to case Lincoln’s tomb.

With their preparations finished about the middle of June, the Logan County boys relaxed. They spent the night at a Springfield brothel and toasted their upcoming riches. In his well-oiled state, the gang’s leader boasted to one of the ladies that they were going to steal “old Lincoln’s bones” and ransom them. He even told her when.

She told the chief of police, who warned John Carroll Power, the tomb’s custodian. He told the Lincoln Monument Association, local friends and peers of Lincoln’s who were in charge of the tomb.

They did nothing. In a book he wrote about the crime (“History of an Attempt … ”), Power says: “It seemed to them so incredible that no attention was given to it.”

When the Logan County leader sobered up and realized what he’d done, he and his gang fled. “Whisky alone is entitled to the credit of having thwarted this well-laid scheme,” Power wrote.

A few months later, Kennally headed for Chicago to find new partners for his plot. He was part-owner of a bar there called “The Hub,” which had little to offer except booze and boodle (counterfeit) carriers. Here, Kennally proposed his idea to co-proprietor Terrence Mullen and Jack Hughes. They liked what they heard.

The duo needed more men for the job, so they approached Lewis Swegles, a horse thief who had become a frequent customer.

Unbeknownst to them, he also was a spy. The assistant chief of the Secret Service in Chicago, Patrick Tyrrell, hired Swegles to hang around The Hub and inform him of the habitue’s criminal activities.

As the would-be kidnappers honed their plan, Swegles told Tyrrell every detail. Tyrrell then told Lincoln’s oldest and only surviving son, Robert Lincoln, a Chicago attorney.

The detective asked Robert Lincoln to let the plot proceed so he could catch the kidnappers in the act and increase their chance of conviction. He agreed.

Mullen and his boys selected Nov. 7, election night, as the date. The presidential contest between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was heated, and once again, Springfield residents would be downtown celebrating and waiting for the results. No one would be near Oak Ridge Cemetery.

On Nov. 6, the counterfeiters caught a train to Springfield. In the back car, Tyrrell, other detectives and a Chicago Daily Tribune reporter were tailing them.

Once in Springfield, some of the gang procured tools, while the others visited the tomb, acting as tourists, to determine how to break in.

They only had to break a door’s padlock to reach Lincoln’s white marble sarcophagus.

Swegles later said, as reported in the Nov. 20, 1876, Illinois State Journal, that although his cohorts were able counterfeiters, they had few skills for burglary, especially when it came to picking the right tools.

That night, Tyrrell and his detectives got to the tomb first. They hid inside and waited. Mullen and his gang snuck up to the monument and began sawing the metal padlock on the door to the catacomb. They’d brought a flimsy metal saw for the job, and it broke. So they used a three-sided metal file, which took a half-hour, Craughwell wrote.

Once inside, the kidnappers opened the sarcophagus lid with a crowbar and sawed through the container’s front to reach Lincoln’s coffin. They pulled it out about a foot, but it was too heavy. Mullen told Swegles to get help. Instead, the informant signaled the detectives that it was time to raid the operation.

The agents dashed from their hideout toward the catacomb at the other end of the tomb. In the excitement, one accidentally shot his gun.

Frightened, the kidnappers fled. When the agents got to the sarcophagus, all that was left were the criminals’ misfit tools.

The agents spread out to catch the would-be thieves. Tyrrell ran to the tomb’s roof, where he spied a couple of men and shot at them. They returned fire. When Tyrrell called for backup, one figure called out: “Tyrrell, is that you?!” One of the Secret Service’s best detectives had been shooting at his own men.

Stupidly, the kidnappers ran right back to The Hub. Tyrrell arrested Mullen and Hughes there on Nov. 17. They were tried the following May.

Since grave robbing wasn’t a crime, the worst the two could be charged with was petty theft, for trying to steal Lincoln’s $75 coffin.

They were convicted and sent to Joliet, the same penitentiary from which they had tried to spring their engraver, Benjamin Boyd.

After their arrest, Charles Conant, the acting secretary of the U.S. Treasury, asked Robert Lincoln to pay for an attorney to prosecute charges against the counterfeiters, and to pay Swegles and another witness a per diem to make sure they stayed in the capital city until the trial. Robert Lincoln agreed, but it appears he was stiffed.

According to an article by Lincoln historian James Hickey in the Feb. 11-17, 1982, Illinois Times, despite Robert Lincoln’s many attempts to get his money back, there are no records that the feds ever paid it.

When initial reports of the attempted kidnapping were printed, many people, even detectives and other newspaper editors, thought it was a hoax. The crime was too sacrilegious to be believed.

Once verified, it was blamed on lots of people other than the real culprits. Some thought Democrats did it, others blamed it on vengeful former Confederates. In Illinois, Chicagoans thought it was a ruse planned by one of the detectives to help him win election for chief of police.

A few days after the attempted theft, Power and some of Robert Lincoln’s friends moved the president’s coffin to the tomb’s earthen floored basement for safety. It was moved several more times until 1901.

Then, per Robert Lincoln’s request, it was buried 10 feet beneath the catacomb in an enclosure of concrete and steel.

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