On this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois. Did you know that an attempt was later made to steal his body? The thieves planned to hold it for ransom.
There’s more to this story than you might think.
After Lincoln’s assassination, a funeral train slowly carried his body across the country from Washington, D.C. to Illinois. Tens of thousands of people attended funeral processions in city after city. Even political opponents paid their respects. “There were so many memorable moments along the way,” historian Thomas J. Craughwell notes, “that it would be the labor of a lifetime to catalog them all.”
No one could quite believe what had just happened.
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that, even in death, Lincoln couldn’t avoid controversy? Cities had jostled over which ones would get to receive the President’s body. In Springfield, there was disagreement about which cemetery would have the honor of holding Lincoln’s grave. In the end, of course, Mary Lincoln had the final say. She approved the train’s itinerary—and she chose Oak Ridge Cemetery.
Mary said that she was simply fulfilling Lincoln’s wishes. Mere weeks before his death, they’d taken a walk through the countryside. She described the small, quiet cemetery they’d found. It was serene and beautiful. “Mary, you are younger than I,” the President reportedly said. “You will survive me. When I am gone, lay my remains in some quiet place like this.”
Thus, Lincoln was laid to rest in a quiet spot at Oak Ridge on May 4. The final tomb and memorial would come later, but they were still years away from being finished. Indeed, Lincoln’s Tomb wouldn’t be dedicated until October 1874.
The story should end there—except it doesn’t. Two years later, a couple of criminals had a crazy idea.
Big Jim Kennally was the leader of a counterfeiting gang in Chicago. One of his engravers, Benjamin Boyd, had been caught and imprisoned! Kennally relied heavily on Boyd and needed to get him out. Along with two members of his gang, Big Jim came up with a daring plan to kidnap Lincoln’s body. They would hold Lincoln until Boyd was granted a pardon.
As long as they were at it, they’d ask for a $200,000 ransom, too.
Lincoln’s Tomb was only lightly guarded and they might have succeeded but for one thing: They invited someone to help them. The gang members thought that Lewis Swegles was a grave robber, but he was actually working undercover for the Secret Service.
Did you ever wonder how the Secret Service went from working on counterfeit crime to working on presidential security? Their efforts to protect Lincoln’s body helped to open that door. Because of Swegles’s work, the would-be thieves were interrupted mid-theft. They fled, but were captured a few days later at a tavern that was well-known for hosting counterfeiters.
Maybe they should have found a better hiding place?
The tomb’s custodians would hide Lincoln’s body in an unmarked grave for years afterwards. It was finally moved to its current—permanent and safe—spot under tons of concrete at Oak Ridge Cemetery in 1901.
Finally, Lincoln could rest in peace.
John Carroll Power, History of an Attempt to Steal the Body of Abraham Lincoln (1890)
Peggy Robertson, The Plot to Steal Lincoln’s Body (American Heritage; April/May 1982)
Thomas J. Craughwell, Stealing Lincoln’s Body (2007)