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.