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Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States
Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, was buried in Springfield in 1865. Eleven years later, two Chicago counterfeiters attempted to steal his body.

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This week in history: Plot to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body foiled

In 1876, Abraham Lincoln’s body sat in an unguarded tomb in a cemetery about two miles outside of Springfield. That year, two Chicago counterfeiters hatched a plot to steal it.

As reported in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

After his assassination on April 15, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln came home to Illinois where a tomb was built for him in Springfield. For 11 years, Lincoln rested peacefully in Oak Ridge Cemetery, located about two miles outside of Springfield, until one night in 1876.

On Nov. 7, 1876, several thieves attempted to break in and steal Lincoln’s body, according to the U.S. Secret Service. When a gunshot startled the thieves inside the tomb, they ran off and escaped.

Eleven days after the attempted theft, the Chicago Daily News published an update.

“Jack Hughes and Torrence Mullen, two notorious characters, were arrested last night for attempted robbery, on the night of the 7th inst., of the tomb of Abraham Lincoln,” the paper reported. “Hughes is under indictment for counterfeiting in connection with the notorious Boyd, and was out on bail.”

“Mullen is a Chicago thief and counterfeiter,” the paper continued. “It is established beyond doubt that the attempt to remove Lincoln’s body was made for the purpose of securing the ransom of Boyd, the incarcerated counterfeiter.”

The paper did not publish a longer article detailing what happened, but here’s what historians know now.

Earlier that year, Chicago law enforcement locked up currency plates counterfeiter Benjamin Boyd, who worked for small-time crime boss James “Big Jim” Kennally, according to Thomas J. Craughwell, author of “Stealing Lincoln’s Body,” writing for U.S. News and World Report. Disappointed with losing one of his best counterfeiters, Kennally persuaded two associates, Hughes and Mullen, to steal Lincoln’s body and hold it for ransom to secure Boyd’s release plus $200,000.

Neither Hughes nor Mullen had grave robbing experience, so they tapped Lewis Swegles — who happened to be a Secret Service informant, Craughwell said. Swegles reported the tip to Patrick D. Tyrrell, chief of the Chicago district office of the Secret Service, and together with surviving son Robert T. Lincoln and local law enforcement, they hatched a plan.

On the night of the theft, the lawmen surrounded the tomb and waited for Swegles and the thieves to appear, which they did about two hours later, Craughwell said. As the counterfeiters attempted to remove Lincoln’s body, a shot rang out from a detective’s pistol. The shot alerted the robbers, who ran for it, and confused the lawmen, who thought the thieves had fired on them.

It took 10 days, but authorities finally apprehended the thieves in Chicago.

Back in Springfield, John Carroll Power, the custodian of the tomb, feared what would happen if real grave robbers ever targeted Lincoln’s body, Craughwell said. To protect it, Power and five friends reburied the body one night in a “shallow, unmarked grave in the tomb’s basement.”

The body remained there until 1901 when Robert T. Lincoln gave permission to exhume the body and rebury it once more in a steel cage resting in a 10-foot-deep vault and covered with concrete, Craughwell said. Lincoln’s body remains there today.

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