Episode 20 - National Treasure 3: Stealing Lincoln

The secret service was created on July 5, 1865. The legislation creating the agency was actually sitting on Abraham Lincoln’s desk waiting to be signed the night he was assassinated. Not that creating the agency before he was shot on April 15, 1865. The Secret Service was actually created by the department of treasury as a federal law enforcement agency focused on investigating counterfeit money, bank robberies, and illegal gambling. By the time the secret service was created, it was believed that half of all bills in circulation in America were counterfeit. The first time that the secret service actually served as presidential bodyguards was in 1894 for President Grover Cleveland.Big Jim Kennally was a crime boss that led a small group of counterfeiters out of Chicago. He had been arrested for attempting to use a counterfeit $50 bill and served five years at the Illinois State Penitentiary. After that, he refused to touch counterfeit money himself, instead becoming the middle man for counterfeit creators and the shovers that would put the fake money into circulation. Ben Boyd was Big Jim’s favorite counterfeit engraver. Apparently, Boyd’s five dollar plates were so close to perfect that over 300,000 $5 bills were printed from it and used without anyone noticing until the United States Treasury recalled all $5 bills. In 1875, Ben Boyd was arrested for counterfeiting and sentenced to 10 years in the Illinois State Penitentiary. This left Big Jim without any counterfeit money to sell to the gangs. Big Jim couldn’t do business without Boyd, so Big Jim concocted a plan to get him out. He would steal Lincoln’s body and hold it as ransom until Boyd was released along with a large sum of cash.In 1876, Big Jim rounded up some of his lackeys at a bar owned by Ben Sheridan in Lincoln, Illinois. He told his gang members about his plan to take Lincoln’s body from its tomb in Springfield, then hide it in a brick beer cave just south of Lincoln until Boyd was released from prison. Ben Sheridan and four other gang members left for Springfield two weeks before they planned on stealing Lincoln’s body on July 3. While they were waiting for July 3rd to come, they spent their time in Springfield visiting several of the brothels in town. At one of these brothels, Ben Sheridan got super drunk and told one of the brothel hostesses that he was going to steal old Lincoln’s bones, collect the ransom, and then come spend all that money at the brothel. The hostess went and told the sheriff. So when Sheridan found out the next morning that he had told of the groups plan, the plot was called off.Big Jim still liked his plan though and decided to try it again, but with different guys. Big Jim recruited a 27 year old bar owner named Terrence Mullen and a counterfeit shover named Jack Hughes. The new plan was that Big Jim, Mullen, and Hughes would meet in Springfield, steal Lincoln’s body, put it on a horse-drawn wagon, and drive it 200 miles to the sand dunes on the southern tip of Lake Michigan, just southeast of Chicago. They would bury Lincoln’s body in the sand dunes and mark the spot by using permanent landmarks to triangulate the spot. The body would stay in the sand dunes until Boyd was released. They would also leave a torn piece of a rare newspaper inside of Lincoln’s tomb and keep the rest of the paper inside a bust of Lincoln at Mullen’s bar, that way they could prove that they were the body snatchers when it was time to collect the ransom money, which they decided should be $200,000 (about 4.9 million today).That October, a Secret Service agent in Indianapolis was tipped off that there was a plot to steal Lincoln’s body, so informed the Chicago bureau chief, Patrick D. Tyrrell. Tyrrell then recruited Louis C. Swegles, a professional informer, to infiltrate the gang on behalf of the Secret Service. Swegles started hanging out at Mullen’s bar, drinking and talking about all of the criminals that he had hung out with in the past. Thegang took notice and invited him to be part of the plan and even started having meetings in the room the Swegles was staying in. After the meetings, Swegles would go to Tyrrell what they talked about. On November 6, Swegles informed Tyrrell that the plan was to steal the body the next night which was Election Day. Tyrrell informed his boss in Washington and then visited Robert Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, to tell him about the plot. Everyone agreed that Tyrrell needed help foiling the bodysnatchers, so they hired out two operatives from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, John C. McGinn and George Hay. Tyrrell also recruited Elmer Washburn the ex-chief of the Secret Service, John McDonald a detective from the Illinois Humane Society, and John English Washburn’s private secretary.At nine o’clock that night, Hughes, Mullen, Swegles and a guy named Billy Brown that Swegles had said he recruited as a getaway driver all boarded a train headed for Springfield. Mullen had brought a bag that he packed with a can of blasting powder, a fuse, steel punch drills, a steel saw, and a file, figuring that should be enough tools to break into the tomb. Tyrrell and the Pinkerton detectives also boarded the train, but in a different passenger car and the plan was for Washburn, English, and McDonald to meet Tyrrell and the Pinkertons in Springfield the next morning. The train got into Springfield at 6 am on election day and both the plotters and detectives checked into hotels to get some sleep.That afternoon, Swegles, Hughes, and Mullen went to the tomb to work out last minute details for the heist. Hughes told the others that after they made it into the tomb, he probably could just kick open the sarcophagus to get to Lincoln’s bones, but Mullen decided that an axe would probably work better, so he left the tomb and went and stole an axe. At 4:45 pm, Swegles snuck away to go let Tyrrell know all of the details of the heist and then met back up with the plotters at 6 pm. Around 6:40 pm, the detectives arrived at the tomb and the tomb custodian led them into the tomb. The tomb was completely dark, so the detectives all held hands until they got to the spot where they would hide and wait for the robbers.Here I’m going to quote an article by Peggy Robertson that was printed in American Heritage to describe Lincoln’s tomb so that you have a better idea of what it looks like:“Built atop a ridge amid a twelve-acre park liberally studded with towering oaks, the tomb is essentially a massive, rectangular, one-story granite base supporting four cylindrical piers and a 117-foot granite obelisk. The roof of the base serves as a railed terrace, sixteen feet above ground level, which is reached by a stairway at each of its four corners. Inside the base, right-angled corridors running between unexpected corners and alcoves formed by the interior supporting walls form a puzzling maze, save for two large rooms. The burial chamber, where Lincoln’s body was, is a semicircular room at the north end of the monument; the President’s body rested within a massive marble sarcophagus in the center of the room; Memorial Hall, an oval rotunda filled with statuary and mementos, curves out from the south end of the monument’s base.”Tyrrell stationed John English at the wall between the maze and the burial chamber. English was supposed to notify when Tyrrell heard the robbers in the burial chamber. Tyrrell and the rest of the detectives then went and hid in Memorial Hall, where they took off their shoes and sat down to wait. At about 9 o’clock, Swegles, Hughes, and Mullen arrived to the tomb and almost immediately began to cut through the padlock on the door to the burial chamber. They started with the saw, but Mullen broke it almost immediately, so he had to switch over to the file that he brought. John English heard them working on thelock, so he went to go tell Tyrrell that he heard them trying to saw the lock and cursing. Tyrrell told the detectives to wait, he wanted to arrest them when they broke into the sarcophagus.The robbers finally got the lock off and made their way into the burial chamber. Swegles held a lantern, while Hughes and Mullen went to work on opening the sarcophagus. They were able to lift the marble cover off and they carried it over to the back wall where they put it down. But when they tried to open the inner lid, they couldn’t get it to open. Mullen grabbed a sledge hammer to bust the lid open, but Swegles stopped him, telling him that the loud noises could alert the custodian. After looking closer, they saw that the lid was held down by copper dowels, so they worked on getting those removed. Finally, they got the inner lid off just enough to be able to slide Lincoln’s cedar-covered lead coffin part way out. Mullen and Hughes told Swegle to go let his friend Billy know to bring up the get away wagon that was supposed to be waiting at the foot of the hill. As Swegle left, Mullen told him “When you get back, give the whistle; otherwise you are liable to get hurt. We might fire at you, thinking it was somebody else. We are not going to let anyone come monkeying around here.”So Swegles leaves, but of course there is no wagon. He ran down the hill until he was sure Mullen and Hughes wouldn’t be able to see him, then he ran around and back up the hill to the entrance of the Memorial Hall part of the tomb. Swegles said the password and told Tyrrell that he needed to arrest Hughes and Mullen now or never. So Tyrrell and the detectives ran around to the other side of tomb, still not wearing their shoes. While running, Detective McGinn’s gun went off. Afraid that the gunshot had alerted the body-snatchers, Tyrrell burst into the burial chamber and told the robbers to surrender, but there was no answer. Tyrrell lit a match and saw the broken open sarcophagus, but no robbers. Tyrell ran back to Memorial Hall and told the custodian to bring lanterns. He finally put on his shoes and ran to the southwest stairs of the terrace. From there he saw the outline of two men on the northwest corner of the terrace about 70 feet away, so he started shooting at them. The men started shooting back, so Tyrrell ran to the southeast corner to hide. Tyrrell then shouted to Washburn “Chief, we have the devils up here!” That’s when one of the men that Tyrrell was shooting at said “Tyrrell, is that you? Tyrrell, for God’s sake, answer, is that you shooting at us?” Tyrrell had been shooting at the Pinkerton detectives.After Swegles had left the burial chamber to go get the imaginary escape wagon, Hughes and Mullen had left the chamber to go wait under an oak tree that was about 100 feet away. When the detectives had come around the corner to arrest them, Hughes and Mullen started walking towards them thinking that the detecties were Swegle and Billy Brown. When they got about 30 feet away from the detectives, they realized who they were and they turned around and took off. By the time that McGinn’s gun had accidentally gone off, Hughes and Mullen were already outside of the cemetery and almost to the street railway. Tyrrell was extremely disappointed that Hughes and Mullen had gotten away saying “it was one of the most unfortunate nights I have ever experienced, yet God protected us in doing right.”The tomb custodian figured that it probably was for the best the Tyrrell missed the robbers though saying “If Tyrrell had found them in the burial chamber, entering the door as he did, they could and would have seen and shot him before he could have learned which one of the dark corners they were in.” Mullen and Hughes ran through farmland surrounding Springfield that night while the detectives all walked back into Springfield from the cemetery, except for Washburn who had sprained his ankle while running around the tomb and had to ride back into town in a borrowed wagon. Tyrrell, Hay, and McDonald all caught a train

that night that was headed to Chicago, while Washburn and McGinn stayed so they could look for clues the next morning.By dawn, Hughes and Mullen had made it to a farm about seven miles northeast of Springfield. They asked the farmer there if he had seen any strange men around lately. He said that he hadn’t, so they bought breakfast from him, and then made their way to Hughes’ fathers farm near Loda, Illinois. Hughes decided to stay there for a while, so Mullen went back to his bar in Chicago alone. Swegles visited Mullen’s bar, telling Mullen all about he barely escaped the detectives and Mullen believed him. Swegles continued to frequent the bar, hoping that Hughes would show up eventually. On November 17, Hughes walked into the bar and Swegles informed Tyrrell. Tyrrell, McGinn, Washburn, and an officer of the Chicago police went to the bar and arrested Hughes and Mullen and took them to Chicago’s central police station.At this time, there were no Illinois laws that made grave robbing illegal. So Hughes and Mullen were charged with unlawfully and feloniously attempting to steal, take and carry away certain personal goods and property, including: one casket, the personal goods and property of the National Lincoln Monument Association, against the peace and dignity of the people of the state of Illinois. Hughes and Mullen pled not guilty, claiming that they were framed by the secret service. During the trial, the prosecution read out loud two letters that Mullen had tried to get smuggled out of his cell that basically detailed what he wanted two of his witnesses to say during their testimony. One letter that he had written to Thomas J. Sharp said “I will send you a statement what I want Mr. Curtes to say. I want to prove by him that we missed the train and stayed at his house that night. Have him give me the location of his house and description of the house and how many in his family.” The other letter, written to William A. Birdsall said “If you can’t prove you took us towards Chesnut, get things fixed solid, so you can prove that we stayed with you all night; I think you can do it if you only use your head a little. Hughes has long thin whiskers, of a sandy color; is not very fleshy; about 5 foot 8 inches. Mullins is about 5 feet 7 inches, long mustache, and is rather fleshy. We will secure the money for you.”The trial only lasted two days and on May 31, 1877, Hughes and Mullens were found guilty. They were each sentenced to on year of solitary confinement and hard labor at the Illinois State Penitentiary. After serving their sentences, Hughes disappeared. Mullen was arrested again though. In 1888, he was found guilty of conspiracy in a land fraud case was sent to the New Mexico State Penitentiary for three years.Big Jim got away with being the mastermind behind the Lincoln body kidnapping, but in 1880 he was arrested in St. Louis for being in possession of a counterfeit ten dollar bill. He was sentenced to one year at the Illinois State Penitentiary where Ben Boyd was still serving his sentence.Back at Lincoln’s tomb, the custodian was worried that if these amateurs could get so close to stealing Lincoln’s body, a professional would have no problem. So he decided to hide Lincoln’s body where no one could find it. The custodian and five of his friends stole Lincoln’s body and buried it in a shallow, unmarked grave in the tomb’s basement. All of the men swore to never reveal the actual location of Lincoln’s body. In 1895, the tomb needed serious repairs done, so all of the bodies in the tomb (there were five by this time, Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, and three of there sons) were moved to a different vault while the repairs were done. After the tomb was fixed up, Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s only surviving son, requested that the President’s remains be placed inside a steel cage, lowered into a 10 foot deep

  1. vault and then buried by concrete, and as far as we know, his body remains there today.Sources:“The Plot To Steal Lincoln’s Body” by Peggy Robertson“A Plot To Steal Lincoln’s Body” by Thomas J. Craughwell“Counterfeiting in Colonial America” by Kenneth Scott

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