Monday, May 7, 2007

"Bring it, boy. I'm gonna emancipate your teeth."

A new book about Lincoln, "Stealing Lincoln's Body" by one Thomas J. Craughwell, tells about a plot to... well, steal his corpse.
The plan, hatched in a Chicago tavern, was to take the coffin from the tomb, put it in a wagon, haul it 200 miles north to the Indiana Dunes and hold it until the state of Illinois paid $200,000 ransom to get it back.

The plot was doomed from the start, though, in large part because the criminals weren't very bright.

"They really were knuckleheads," said Craughwell, a Chicago native who now lives in Connecticut.

The ringleader was James "Big Jim" Kennally, a convicted counterfeiter and co-owner of a Chicago tavern called The Hub. The Secret Service, established precisely because counterfeiting was a huge problem at the time, knew that The Hub was a favorite watering hole for counterfeiters.

Enter Lewis Swegles, a small-time crook — and not such a good one at that — who by this time was working as a Secret Service informant.

Kennally and his cohorts asked Swegles if he wanted in on the heist of Lincoln's body, to which Swegles reportedly replied: "I'm the boss body snatcher of Chicago."

Today, a line like that might raise questions. At the time, though, there were plenty of medical schools eager to get their hands on cadavers. And they didn't ask a lot of questions about where their suppliers got them.

So Swegles had himself a job. He tipped off the feds and the two groups — crooks and cops — boarded the same train bound for Springfield on Nov. 6, 1876. Kennally didn't make the trip.

At the cemetery, the Secret Service agents and a couple of Pinkerton detectives they'd brought along hid and waited for Swegles to give them the word that the crime was in progress.

Meanwhile, the grave robbers and Swegles walked to the tomb.

"There was no night watchman ... and the custodian of the tomb lived in Springfield, two, three miles away," Craughwell said. "The only security, if you call it that, was a single padlock."

As for Lincoln's body, it was above ground, inside a sarcophagus sealed, not with cement, but plaster of Paris. When the robbers broke into the tomb and opened the sarcophagus, Swegles signaled the agents to move in.

If the crooks were a hapless Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, it was about to become clear they were up against the Keystone Kops.

Either before he started running across the lawn to capture the crooks or as they were running, a nervous Pinkerton detective cocked his pistol.

"It went off," said Craughwell. "In a quiet cemetery in the middle of the night it sounded like a cannon shot."

The robbers dropped their crowbars and saws and ran away. Not knowing the crooks were long gone, the lawmen searched the darkened cemetery. Before long, they were shooting at each other. Perhaps not surprisingly, their aim was as bad as their judgment and nobody was hit.

Meanwhile, the crooks scurried to the one place they should have avoided: The Hub. That's where they were picked up a couple days later.

None of this made much of a splash, Craughwell explains, because it took place on the night voters cast their ballots in the presidential race between Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden — a hotly contested race that wasn't decided until the next year.

"In some cities the Lincoln break-in didn't get any coverage," said Craughwell. "And in some cases (newspapers) printed the story but they told their readers it wasn't true."

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