Ransoming Lincoln

Two of the men who tried to steal Abraham Lincoln's body,
Jack Hughes (left) and Terrence Mullins (right). Photos from the
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.
It was early on the sad morning of May 3, 1865, when a nine-car train, draped in mourning and carrying the bodies of the murdered President Abraham Lincoln and that of his son Willie who had died in Washington three years earlier, at long last reached Lincoln’s adopted hometown of Springfield. The train had carried the body of the Great Emancipator on a two-week, 1600 mile journey through the north, finally arriving in Springfield for his burial.

After a two-day funeral in the state’s capitol building, Lincoln was carried by a hearse to Oak Ridge Cemetery, north of downtown, to what was intended to be his final resting place. A temporary vault held the President’s remains while his more ornate tomb was completed. It was expected that this was where Lincoln would lay in repose permanently, but within a decade a band of Chicago thieves had made other plans.

A Chicago counterfeiter named Big Jim Kennally had a problem. The linchpin of his counterfeiting operation was his engraver, Benjamin Boyd, and Benjamin Boyd had just been relocated from Chicago to Joliet, compliments of the state of Illinois. In fact, he was going to be a guest of the state for a term of ten years. Kennally couldn’t wait that long.

Desperate to spring his engraver and start up his criminal enterprise again, Kennally needed a plan. Simply busting Boyd out of prison wouldn’t be good enough: at any moment he could be swept up and sent right back to the penitentiary. Kennally needed something more permanent, something like a pardon.

But how to obtain a pardon for a convicted felon? He would need some sort of leverage. Kennally and two other members of his gang, Terence Mullen and Jack Hughes put their heads together and came up with a plan: they would travel to Springfield break into Abraham Lincoln’s Tomb, steal his body, hide it away and demand a pardon for their friend in exchange for its safe return. For good measure, they would also demand a $200,000 ransom payment.

What could go wrong?

Kennally’s gang’s skill set included a diverse collection of criminal aptitudes, but one talent that was lacking was grave-robbing. To address this deficiency, Kennally connected with Lewis Swegles, whom Kennally understood to be an accomplished grave robber, and brought him into the plot. Together, the four conspirators put a plan together to sweep into Oak Ridge Cemetery after dark, open the tomb, remove Lincoln’s body and make their demands.

The caper was actually a bit easier than it might have sounded. Oak Ridge Cemetery had no nighttime security or even a groundskeeper in residence. The would-be thieves also made one very clever decision, setting the date for their heist as a Tuesday night in November 1876, the night that most Springfield residents would be busy watching the returns from that day’s election. It was the perfect crime.

Until everything fell apart.

To begin with, Lewis Swegles was not who Kennally thought he was.

In addition to his experience as a criminal Swegles was also an informant for the U.S. Secret Service, and from his first conversation with Kennally, he had been passing information along to Patrick Tyrell, who ran the Secret Service office in Chicago. Tyrell was the same agent who had arrested Boyd and set this whole train of events in motion. When the criminal gang departed for Springfield, Tyrell’s team of agents was right behind them. Secret Service agents observed as Mullins and Tyrell paid a daytime visit to the tomb under the guise of tourists while they cased the scene. That night, agents were lying in wait for them when they sneaked into Oak Ridge Cemetery and approached Lincoln’s tomb.

Public receiving tomb of Abraham Lincoln at Oak Ridge Cemetery, 1865. 

It turns out that grave-robbing wasn’t the only skill lacking from the miscreants now threatening to disturb Lincoln’s rest. They also did not know how to pick a lock like the one on the door of the tomb. Undeterred, they began sawing away at it with a metal file. This perhaps made the decision to strike on election night seem like a stroke of genius as anyone within earshot of the noisy implement would have been instantly suspicious of the goings-on.

Finally breaking into the interior of the tomb, the thieves were confronted with another challenge they had not anticipated. They now had to figure out how to remove Lincoln’s enormous, heavy coffin from the tomb. As they struggled to wrestle the 500-pound coffin out the door, one of the Secret Service agents outside dropped his pistol, causing it to go off and alert the criminals inside. They abandoned their plot and fled into the night and out of the capital city.

Days later, back in their favorite saloon in Chicago, The Hub on Madison Avenue, the conspirators were easily rounded up by the Secret Service.

Hauled back to Springfield, Mullins and Hughes were charged by a grand jury with conspiracy and attempted larceny on November 20. Six months later they were tried and convicted, then sentenced to a year in Joliet, where their friend Boyd still languished.

Possibly inspired by this incident, a few years later the Illinois General Assembly would increase the penalty for grave robbing to as much as 10 years in prison. The publicity surrounding the caper and it’s thwarting made Tyrell a hero and did much to burnish the reputation of the Secret Service, a Treasury Department agency which until this time was focused almost entirely on counterfeiters and other such criminals. When the providing of better protection for Presidents was at last recognized as a critical need, the agency’s sterling reputation made it a logical choice for the task.

Meanwhile, prominent Springfield leaders were horrified to learn of the attempt to steal the body of the city’s most prominent citizen. Barely a decade before, Lincoln had been murdered as a result of a criminal conspiracy, now his body had very nearly been stolen by another group of conspirators. The crime had not been prevented by adequate security, but by the stunning ineptitude of the thieves involved. Something had to change.

While they sorted out what to do, the leaders of the Lincoln Monument Association, led by the tomb’s custodian John Carroll Power, moved Lincoln’s body and concealed it with leftover debris from the tomb – their plan to dig a new grave thwarted by wet conditions. The men swore an oath of secrecy which they would take to their own graves, reasoning that if no one knew the true location of Lincoln’s body, no one could threaten it.

It took two years to dig a suitable grave beneath the obelisk of the tomb, but in November 1878 Lincoln was finally re-buried. Over the years, the Lincoln family’s remains were re-located again and again, sometimes for security reasons, other times due to deficiencies in the construction of the tomb. When Mary Lincoln died in 1882 she too was buried in Oak Ridge with her husband and three of her sons. Abraham and Mary’s only surviving son, Robert, would be interred in Arlington National Cemetery following his death in 1926.

It wasn’t until 1901 that the Lincoln family was buried for the last time, deep beneath the tomb structure in Oak Ridge Cemetery, encased in concrete, and at long last safe from grave robbers and conspirators.