History: Stealing the President

Mozelle Martin

President Abraham Lincoln was loved and admired by many when he was alive. His popularity was likely the reason why a group of men tried to kidnap him. They believed that people would be willing to pay a lot of money to see the 16th president alive or dead.

That 1876 plot was hatched 11 years after President Lincoln's assassination by John Wilkes Booth. Benjamin Boyd, an Illinois engraver, had been arrested for creating engraving plates and making counterfeit money. Boyd's boss, James "Big Jim" Kinealy was known in Chicagoland as the "King of Counterfeiters". He was determined to get Boyd out of prison so his counterfeiting business could continue.

Big Jim's plan was to kidnap Lincoln's corpse from his mausoleum at the Oak Ridge Cemetery. He was going to hold his corpse for ransom, specifically $200,000 in cash and a full pardon for Boyd. Not wanting to do his own dirty work, Big Jim asked two men - John (Jack) Hughes and Terrence Mullen. Big Jim met them at the bar he frequented on Madison Street in Chicago. The bar was called The Hub.

Big Jim told Hughes and Mullen that he was hiring them to steal Lincoln's body on Election Night, November 7th. At that time, they were to load his body onto a cart and take it 200 miles north to the shores of Lake Michigan. Then they were to bury Lincoln's body in the sand for safekeeping until the ransom was paid. The plan seemed foolproof until the two he hired decided they couldn't complete the "steal the president" task alone. So they hired a 3rd person named Lewis Swegles. Soon they regretted it.

The Backfire...

Patrick D. Tyrrell, a Secret Service Agent in Chicago, was directly responsible for the arrest of Engraver Benjamin Boyd. Long before the Secret Service was in charge of protecting the President, one of their main jobs was to track down and arrest those committing financial crimes. One of Tyrrell's informants was... yep! Lewis Swegles, the third guy hired to steal Lincoln.

Thanks to this informant, everything the dangerous duo was planning was reported back to Officer Tyrrell. So, as the three grave robbers arrived at the Lincoln Mausoleum on November 7, 1876, they were unaware that the federal agents were already there waiting.

The grave robbers broke open Lincoln's casket as Swegles went to get the wagon. On the way to the wagon, Swegles signaled to the Secret Service as ordered. However, once the agents got to Lincoln's mausoleum, Lincoln was gone. In all the confusion. Hughes and Mullen had vanished into the night but left Lincoln's body behind.

Unsure what to do now, Tyrrell ordered Swegles back to Chicago to see if he could see where the bodysnatchers went. Eventually, Swegles found them in a local tavern. On November 16, Hughes and Mullen were arrested without incident.

Lincoln was laid to rest (again)...

There were no laws in existence at that time regarding tampering with a dead body. Therefore, the men were only charged with attempted larceny of the coffin and conspiracy.

After a brief trial, both men were found guilty and served one year in the Illinois state penitentiary in Joliet.

As for Lincoln's coffin, it is at rest in the Oak Ridge Cemetery after being moved 17 times and opened 6 times. On September 26, 1901, the Lincoln family took steps to ensure his body could never be stolen again. They had it buried 10 feet under the mausoleum floor, inside a metal cage, and under thousands of pounds of cement.

How much would you have paid to see President Lincoln's dead body?

Abe Lincoln correspondencePhoto byState of Illinois

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