Why the criminals came for the corpse of the Great Emancipator

Stealing Lincoln's Body

August 10, 2007

The "American Way of Death" was already in place by the 1860s, at least for the well-to-do. Verdant and landscaped cemeteries outside cities provided havens of peace for mourners, coffins became more elaborate, and embalming processes, pioneered in France, were taken up by leading American undertakers and found a wider clientele during the Civil War when embalming "parlours" were set up in military camps, enabling the bodies of fallen soldiers to be transported back to their families in a recognisable state.

When the President of the United States was assassinated, his body was looked after by the embalmer of the most prominent firm of undertakers. Pumped full of zinc chloride, which gave cadavers the appearance of luminous white marble, and laid in a masterpiece of the coffin-maker's art, the body was ready for its lying in state. The decision about Abraham Lincoln's final resting place was controversial. Should he be buried in Washington or near his home at Springfield, Illinois? If the latter, should he be interred in the centre of the town, as local politicians preferred, or in the new rural or "garden" cemetery of Oak Ridge some two miles out of town?

In the end, the preference of Mrs Lincoln for Oak Ridge prevailed; and there, after a long train journey with many halts for viewings, processions and ceremonies, the body was taken, although workmen were still busy building the marble sarcophagus where it was to be encased. It was not to be allowed to rest in peace.

Thomas Craughwell's account of the attempt to steal Lincoln's body is more than just a bizarre tale of incompetent body-snatchers. The story, its context and personae reveal much about mid-19th century America: the problem of counterfeit currency, the slow growth of federal law enforcement and the tensions that arose with large-scale immigration. There were plenty of body snatchers around - for how else were medical schools to lay their hand on corpses - but those who sought to take Lincoln's body were impelled by different motives.

From well before the War of Independence, the American colonies had had a problem with counterfeit currency, and by the end of the Civil War counterfeiting had reached crisis proportions, threatening confidence in the new federal currency. It was largely to confront counterfeiting that the Secret Service came into being, and gradually the work of its agents began to make life difficult for the forgers. The motive behind the plot to seize and ransom Lincoln's body was to obtain the release of the best counterfeiter of the day, the talented engraver Benjamin Boyd.

The desperate and ill-thought-out plan was conceived in the largely Irish slums of Chicago. The city's Irish population had grown rapidly, and as elsewhere, poor, ill-educated and Catholic immigrants with different drinking habits and attitudes to the Sabbath - but who spoke English and produced leaders who were soon organising ward politics - posed a challenge to Protestant America and resulted in social and cultural crisis.

Not all Irish immigrants were, however, content with the limited horizons and inward-looking culture of poor communities, and Craughwell adroitly places the attempt to steal Lincoln's body in the circumstances of "tension between the Irish criminal underclass and the striving Irish middle class played out between the counterfeiters and would-be grave robbers". The brains and the money behind the plan were provided by a small-time counterfeiter and silent partner in a Chicago saloon and billiard hall, Big Jim Kennally, and his hapless henchmen were minor Chicago criminals, Terence Mullen and John Hughes. But their nemesis was a very different type of Irish immigrant, the Secret Serviceman Patrick D. Tyrell, hard-working and socially ambitious.

This is the story of an ill-planned plot made by a drunken and boastful gang and easily countered due to an informer and competent police work. When the thieves eventually broke into Lincoln's tomb a reception party that included the head of the Secret Service awaited them. The almost sacrilegious event scarcely made the headlines because it happened on the day of the presidential election of 1875.

Stealing Lincoln's Body is a fascinating thriller, and it provides a macabre footnote to American history, but the real strength of the book lies in the way the context - the dynamic but turbulent society of America in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War - is so skilfully described.

A. W. Purdue is visiting senior lecturer, Open University.


Stealing Lincoln's Body

Author - Thomas J. Craughwell
Publisher - Belknap/Harvard University Press
Pages - 288
Price - £16.95
ISBN - 9780674024588

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