“Stealing Lincoln’s Body” to air on The History Channel

Abraham Lincoln's Original TombOf all the many stories, myths and legends involving Abraham Lincoln, the  most bizarre incident involving our 16th President actually happened 11 years  after his death. Friday, April 16th at 10 pm, The History Channel will present “Stealing Lincoln’s Body,” a two hour documentary that originally aired in 2009.  The program covers a 36 year period, beginning with Lincoln’s assassination on  April 14th, 1865, his extensive funeral which saw his remains moved by train  from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, with 12 stops in between, and  ending with his final internment in 1901. But the heart of “Stealing Lincoln’s  Body” is the stranger-than-fiction tale of the attempted theft of Abraham  Lincoln’s corpse.

In 1876, a gang of Illinois counterfeiters had come upon hard times when  their master engraver, Sam Boyd, was sent to prison. Desperate to get back into  business, the gang’s leader, “Big Jim” Kinealy devised what he felt to be the  perfect caper. Kinealy’s plan was to break into Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield  tomb, make off with the body, and use it to demand a $200,000 ransom, in  addition to the immediate release of Sam Boyd. Kinealy’s first order of business  was to recruit a new gang member by the name of Lewis Swegles, who was, in  reality, an undercover secret service agent.

The night of November 7th, 1876 was chosen for the “heist,” because it was  election night and Kinealy figured that the city of Springfield would be  preoccupied following the Hayes-Tilden voting. As anticipated, there were no  signs of security at the Oak Ridge Cemetery, and once on the grounds, the gang  quickly managed to saw off the padlock to the crypt’s door and then succeeded in  removing the marble lid to Lincoln’s sarcophagus. While trying to pry the coffin  out of the sarcophagus, Swegles was ordered to fetch the horse-drawn wagon that  was to be used to transport the body to neighboring Indiana. Instead, Swegles  signaled the eight detectives to come out of hiding, and although the would be  grave robbers were able to escape the cemetery, they were rounded up days later.  The Kinealy gang were eventually sent to prison for one year, which, amazingly,  was the maximum sentence for their offence.

There is an unusual postscript to this story. In 1901, improvements to  Lincoln’s burial site resulted in his remains being disturbed once again. It was  decided that his coffin would be placed in a ten foot deep vault, which would be  covered with concrete, eliminating any future plots to steal the 16th  President’s body. Before the final internment, a decision was made to open the  coffin, just to confirm Lincoln’s presence inside. On September 26th, 1901, 23  people gazed upon a face which, even 36 years dead, was still familiar to  all.