The Attempt to Steal
Lincoln’s Corpse

By Harold Frost

The History Channel Magazine, 2008

A plot to steal the mortal remains of Abraham Lincoln was set in motion in 1876 by a Chicago businessman named James (Big Jim) Kennally as a way to preserve his profit margin.

His business was counterfeiting. His most talented associate, an engraver named Ben Boyd, sat in a prison cell, convicted of creating a likeness of a $50 bill. How, Kennally wondered, can we spring Mr. Boyd? He came up with a unique solution.

Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois.

History doesn’t record Kennally’s sales pitch to his gang, but perhaps it ran along these lines:

“Gentlemen, this is gonna be the easiest robbery in the history of the world. Abe’s been dead for 11 years and nobody’s guarding his tomb in Springfield – no Pinkertons, no cops, nobody. The graveyard is deserted, gentlemen. No one’s guarding a national treasure.

“So here’s what you do. You wait until dark. You climb over the fence. You bust open the lock on the tomb’s door and you go inside. There’s a big marble container in there. Bust it open and you’ll find Lincoln’s coffin. Haul it out. Load it on a wagon. Get out of town. Meanwhile I’ll send a ransom note to the government. I’ll ask for a nice round sum – I’m thinking two hundred thousand bucks. Plus the release of Mr. Boyd. If they say no, the eternal rest of Honest Abe is gonna transpire in some sand dunes on Lake Michigan.”


Big Jim’s plot may have been inspired in part by the frequency of grave robbing in the 19th century.

Medical schools, seeking cadavers for dissection, paid well for fresh merchandise, no questions asked. Graves were robbed, deliveries were made in dark alleyways, cash changed hands, and science marched on. These thefts, if discovered, were not greeted happily by the public – mobs of citizens, outraged by body snatchings, attacked medical schools and doctor’s offices a number of times, including in New York City in 1788, Baltimore in 1807, New Haven in 1824, and Cleveland in 1852.

Most of the time, grave robbers didn’t get caught. They would open a plot in the middle of the night, slip the body into a canvas bag, re-sod the turf, and re-plant the lilies in nice straight lines. In coming weeks, visitors to the site would have no idea that their beloved Uncle Beaufort was stretched out on a stone slab downtown, exposed to the prying eyes and fingers of students.

Grave robbing declined in the second half of the 1800s as legislatures passed laws allowing medical schools to take possession of unclaimed bodies. Still, shortages sometimes occurred, and a moderate trade continued in North America and Europe. As late as 1911, the writer Ambrose Bierce, in his “Devil’s Dictionary,” defined “grave” as a “place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student.”

In 1875, a rash of medical body stealing broke out in Montreal, covered extensively by U.S. newspapers. Did these robberies contribute to James Kennally’s idea a year later? Maybe so. He may also have been influenced by a stillborn plot in 1867 to steal and ransom Lincoln’s body. That scheme collapsed in a heap, but perhaps Kennally heard about it as he traveled around Illinois attending to business.

Whatever the source of his inspiration, Big Jim decided to steal Old Abe.

The attempted theft occurred on the night of Tuesday, November 7, 1876, in Springfield, the Illinois capital.

Kennally (also spelled Kinelly and Kinealy) was not actually present in Springfield that night. He was in Chicago, 200 miles northeast, having ordered his gang to carry out the deed – John (Jack) Hughes, Terrence Mullen, and Lewis C. Swegles.

Hughes was a con man with a long rap sheet for passing counterfeit money. 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. As it happens, in the autumn of 1876 he was not only a member of the Kennally Gang, he was on the payroll of the United States government. He was an informant – a snitch, stoolie, canary, roper, fink – paid five dollars a day by the U.S. Secret Service to keep tabs on the counterfeiters and assorted ne’er-do-wells who drank and played pool at a Chicago saloon called the Hub.

Swegles began weaseling his way into the confidence of Hub denizens in the summer of 1876. Needing to convince his new pals of his criminal credentials, he mentioned his friendship with a local legend named Frenchy the Burglar. Next, he declared that he was the “boss body-snatcher of Chicago.” Hughes and Mullen were suitably impressed. They were  convinced, writes journalist and historian Lloyd Lewis, that this fellow was “shrewd and practiced.” So, Hughes and Mullen recruited Swegles to help with the Lincoln job.

Swegles scurried to his handlers in the Secret Service office in downtown Chicago and coughed up the story. The Feds sent him back to the Hub for more information, and he soon learned the exact date of the robbery: November 7, Election Night, picked by Hughes and Mullen because they figured that Springfield, ordinarily sleepy, would be full of people, bustle, and booze, and no one would pay heed to a group of strangers passing through.

On the designated night, Hughes, Mullen, and Swegles hiked along a dark Springfield road toward Oak Ridge Cemetery. As they made the trek, several Secret Service agents, informed earlier of the exact time for the heist, hid themselves near the president’s tomb, along with a couple of private detectives. They intended to swoop down on the bad guys at exactly the right moment and catch ’em red-handed. However, the evening got wacky.

The Lincoln Tomb, a large concrete structure, held Abe’s coffin plus those of his sons Willie and Eddie. Mary Lincoln would join them in a few years.

Detail of statuary at Lincoln’s Tomb.

The president’s lead-lined wooden casket was encased in a marble sarcophagus, which was located above ground, in the burial chamber. The thieves knew the layout. They had scouted the site thoroughly – visitors were allowed into the chamber to pay respects.

Abe had been embalmed in April of 1865, so he hadn’t become a skeleton, or dust. The robbers felt fairly sure that some vestige of the 16th president resided in that container.

Hughes, Mullen, and 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 guy, William Nealy, and high-tail it out of town.

William Nealy, as it happens, was another government informant.

Lewis Swegles, Informant Number One, 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 saw’s 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 fell apart. They opened the door and entered the tomb.

Shutting the door behind them, they lit a lantern and used tools to pry the lid off the marble vault. And lo, there it was: the sealed coffin of Abraham Lincoln.

Did they try lifting off the lid to get a glimpse of the great man, to make sure he was in there? Probably not, given that the cover was screwed on tight. They had no time to waste.

The coffin gave them big trouble. The damn thing was so laden with lead that they 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 told Swegles to run and fetch the fourth man, Nealy, for extra muscle.

Outside the tomb, in the cool night air, Swegles signaled to the authorities. The contingent of five officers moved in, accompanied by a newspaper reporter and a tomb custodian.

As the pistol-carrying officers and their friends quietly approached the tomb’s door, one of their number, George Hay, suddenly, somehow, allowed his gun to fire: BANG! Everybody probably jumped two feet.

The commanding officer, Patrick D. Tyrrell, recovered himself. Perhaps he paused and thought about what to do next. He strode to the vital door, yanked it open, struck a match, and peered inside. Empty. Not a living soul in there.

Tyrrell shouted “Search the area!” and spotted a shadowy figure behind a tree, lurking in a criminal-like manner. Tyrrell fired at this figure. The figure fired back. Another shot from Tyrrell. Two return shots. Tyrrell called for help: “The devil’s up here!” A question now came forth from the shadowy figure: “Tyrrell, is that you?” The figure was John McGinn of the Pinkerton Detective Agency – an unscathed John McGinn, by the grace of God.

The crooks, Hughes and Mullen, beat a hasty retreat after the accidental pistol report, absconding into cornfields north of town. Swegles stayed with the cops.

This, then, was a disaster for law enforcement, except for the fact that Lincoln’s remains were safe. The Feds quickly regained their momentum, arresting Hughes and Mullen shortly thereafter in Chicago. Accused of conspiracy and larceny, the two men went on trial in May, 1877, with Swegles testifying for the prosecution, and with court reporters recording the full story for posterity. Hughes and Mullen were convicted and sent to Joliet for a couple of years. The boss man, 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. The Kennally Gang then pretty much vanished from the pages of history.

A large question remained. How best to protect Lincoln’s remains in the future?

The caretakers of the tomb fretted about another robbery attempt. They arrived at an interesting solution.

Armed guards? No. An impregnable fence? No. A 10-foot-deep hole for the casket? Nothing so rational.

They secretly buried the Great Emancipator in a rat hole.

Without informing higher authorities, the caretakers ordered a crew to hoist Lincoln’s coffin out of its marble vault a few days after the attempted theft. The lead-lined box was hauled to a moldy basement below the tomb and stashed there. Eventually, the casket was buried in a shallow unmarked grave down there. The custodians interred Mrs. Lincoln’s remains in the same basement upon her death in 1882.

Old Abe resided in the cruddy quarters for more than a decade. Visitors to the tomb were not informed of this fact, even as, upstairs, they prayed for his eternal soul in front of the glorious sarcophagus they thought held his remains.

“Shabby,” summarizes historian Thomas J. Craughwell, the definitive chronicler of the Lincoln robbery plot and its aftermath.

The situation improved in 1887 when the caskets of Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were hauled out of their little holes and reburied in a well-protected below-ground grave nestled in the tomb structure. This hole was filled with tons of concrete.

End of story? Not quite.

In 1901 the Lincoln Tomb was refurbished. The authorities decided to again move the coffins of Abe and Mary. The two boxes were to be placed in a steel box (below ground), and fresh concrete would be slathered on. Workers hacked the boxes out of the old concrete.

Before final interment, officials felt the need to take a last gander at Abe, apparently to make sure he was still in his box after all the fuss of preceding years – even though he’d also been examined in 1887. Perhaps, too, they were motivated by the blissful prospect of gazing upon an American saint. (The primal appeal of such a thing can be gleaned from the exhumation in 2010 of the tomb of Simon Bolivar in Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez exulted: “We have experienced incredible moments tonight. We have seen the remains of the great Bolivar.”)

A worker cut a small hole in Lincoln’s coffin. Twenty-two local citizens checked out the old boy. He looked fine – seemingly ready to jump up, brush the yellow mold off his suit, say “Hello, boys!”, and start telling one of his funky stories.

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 that 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 view the physical remains of the 16th President of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln has resided in his fancy digs for five score        and eight years, and with a little luck, that’s where he will long endure.

Lincoln Sidebar: Weird Stuff After Death – William the Conqueror,
Evita Peron,Walt Disney, Etc.

By Harold Frost

The remains of Abraham Lincoln were almost stolen, but the body of William the Conqueror suffered an even stranger fate. It sort of exploded.

William died in France in 1087 CE after a horseback riding accident. His funeral was delayed several weeks to allow time for dignitaries to gather. During this time, physicians tried to embalm him, removing the internal organs. But they didn’t do a good job, and gases began to accumulate in the body’s cavities.

William’s corpse was swollen on the day of the funeral. The casket remained open; everyone needed to see that the king was really dead. After the viewing, officials struggled to shove William all the way into his box, shut the lid, and be done with the business. But the lid wouldn’t close, the king was too big, and suddenly some of the skin ripped apart – i.e., a sort of explosion. The author J.R. Planche, writing in 1874, mentions a “precipitate retreat of the mourners.”

Evita Peron

Evita Peron was First Lady of Argentina when she died of cancer in 1952 at the age of 33. The nation grieved, and her husband, President Juan Peron, displayed her embalmed remains for political advantage.

However, Juan Peron was soon overthrown by a military coup. The new leadership decided that Evita needed to be removed from politics, so, in 1955, they stole her, storing the corpse in a radio equipment box in an attic. They later secretly shipped the mummy to Italy, burying it under a false name.

In 1971, as the Peronist movement re-emerged in Argentina, Eva was found, dug up, and returned home. She was in pretty good shape overall, although her hair was dirty and her nose was flattened. Technicians fixed her up and she resumed her public career.

Juan Peron regained the presidency in 1973, only to die of a heart attack in 1974. Evita is buried today in Buenos Aires in a tomb reputed to be robbery-proof.

Oliver Cromwell

Soon after the death of English political leader Oliver Cromwell in 1658, his political opponents seized power, and one of their first priorities was to abuse his remains, in the interest of making resurrection of the intact body less likely on the Day of Judgment. They dug up his corpse, dragged it through the streets of London on a wooden sledge, hanged it, drew and quartered it, and beheaded it. The skull was stuck on an outdoor pole at Westminster Hall where it perched for more than 20 years. “Posthumous execution,” as this procedure is known, has been inflicted on several famous historical figures, including Mussolini, Vlad the Impaler, Rasputin, John Wycliffe, and Pancho Villa. (See here for background on the ferocious emotions that gripped England in the 17th century.)

Ho Chi Minh

American operatives are rumored to have attempted the theft of Ho Chi Minh’s body after the death of the North Vietnamese leader in 1969 during the Vietnam War. The stakes were high. In his book “Lenin’s Embalmers” (1999) Soviet embalmer Ilya Zbarsky quotes a North Vietnamese general who spoke to him about Ho’s body: “If the Yankees ever did get hold of it, we’d be prepared to hand over all our American prisoners in exchange for it.” But the Yankees never did. Ho’s mummy is displayed in a mausoleum in Hanoi.

Alexander the Great

The warrior’s dead body was regarded as a talisman and was preserved for centuries in a glass coffin filled with honey in Alexandria, Egypt. The mummy disappeared into the mists of time, perhaps when Sassanid Persians seized Alexandria in 619 CE or when Arabs conquered the city in 641. The archaeologist Howard Carter (discoverer of King Tutankhamun’s tomb) claimed in the early 1930s to know the whereabouts of Alexander but didn’t divulge any useful information before his death in 1939. Psychics have investigated the matter; they say the body may be residing deep under the streets of Alexandria. Julius Caesar and Cleopatra undoubtedly visited Alexander’s remains.

Walt Disney

Is Walt Disney frozen? Does he reside at Disneyland beneath the “Pirates of the Caribbean” awaiting a new life?

This legend, believed or half-believed by many people, is not true, according to several authoritative investigators, including Barbara and David Mikkelson, who thoroughly probe urban legends and historical rumors at The evidence shows that Disney was cremated after his death on December 15, 1966, at the age of 65, and that his ashes were interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. One key proof is the death certificate, a legally-binding document for which signees take personal responsibility.

The legend persists, of course. It’s much too juicy to succumb to mere facts.

Disney was supposedly frozen by experts in cryonics, the “science” of entombing dead humans in a low-temperature state with the hope of reviving them. The field began getting public attention in 1964 with publication of “The Prospect of Immortality” by Robert C.W. Ettinger. The book is an amazing expression of American technological hubris, which, in 1964, was at flood tide. The book includes Ettinger’s admission, “I had and have, no credentials worth mentioning….” (In terms of popular culture, an apotheosis of American technological hubris came with “The Man From UNCLE,” a huge TV hit, which debuted on September 22, 1964, a weekly ode to the ability of flashy high tech gear, plus a dollop of old-fashioned guts, to solve big problems.)

A few dozen dead Americans are frozen today, including baseball’s Ted Williams. Several people in France are also on ice.

The story about Frozen Walt probably got started in part because he was Mr. Gee-Whiz about new technologies. Also, on January 12, 1967, a few weeks after Disney’s death, the body of a man named James Bedford was popped into a freezer in Glendale, California, not far from Disneyland – the first person to be “successfully” frozen by cryonics technology. ●