The Case of the Runaway Corpse is a perennial favorite of Perry Mason mystery fans. Written by Erle Stanley Gardner, it features fraud, murder, alcoholism and a traveling corpse as key story elements.
How is it that the burial of President Abraham Lincoln contains all of these sordid components plus a ring of unscrupulous counterfeiters?
It’s true: Lincoln’s real final disposition took place thirty-six years after he was assassinated.
Those three intervening decades swirled with plots, failed schemes, and crimes including attempted grave robbery. Lincoln’s body was moved at least four times — perhaps more, but that answer is lost to history.
Controversies over the beloved president’s remains began immediately after his death in April of 1865. His widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, decided the interment should take place in Springfield, Illinois, the longtime family home base. The National Lincoln Monument Association, a group of leading Illinois citizens, was formed — shortly thereafter, the group and Mrs. Lincoln engaged in a dispute about the appropriate gravesite. She favored Oak Ridge Cemetery, several miles out in the country, while the association favored something closer to downtown. After a prickly three week back-and-forth, Oak Ridge was selected.
More than seven million people turned out to view the nine car train which transported Lincoln’s body from Washington to Springfield. In ten cities, his coffin was removed for processions and funeral ceremonies.
On May 4, there was one last observance at the tomb in Oak Ridge. The concluding eulogy was delivered by Methodist Bishop Matthew Simpson. After that, the doors of the vault were shut and padlocked.
Oak Ridge had no security. A simple latch was all that protected Lincoln’s body from the vagaries of the outside world.
Enter the counterfeiters.
When Lincoln was in the White House, counterfeiting was the drug business of its day. Between one-third and one-half of the currency in circulation was illegitimate. The United States Secret Service was established to suppress counterfeiting — ironically, Abraham Lincoln signed off on the creation of the Secret Service hours before his assassination, but the agency was not yet assigned to protect him, so he went to Ford’s Theatre in the company of a single bodyguard.
The Rembrandt of engravers of counterfeit plates was Benjamin Boyd; one of his notorious plates had put more than $300,000 into the country’s financial system. He was finally nabbed and in February of 1876, nine months after the Lincoln interment, Boyd found himself in a Joliet, Illinois prison, set to serve ten years.
Boyd’s boss, Big Jim Kennally, a Chicago resident, was none too happy. The apprehension of Boyd had thrown a big kink into the enterprise. So Kennally hatched a bizarre plan: rob Lincoln’s grave, ransom it to the state of Illinois for the release of Boyd and a bounty of $200,000. Kennally was a bold thinker, not necessarily a logical one.
Recruiting a Chicago bar owner, Terrence Mullen, and a counterfeiter, Jack Hughes, Kennally devised a Katzenjammer scheme to steal the Lincoln body and then convey it by horse drawn cart more than 200 miles to the Indiana Dunes, a beachfront location on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. The body would be re-buried and the negotiations with the State of Illinois would commence. Notably, Kennally planned to remain at a distance, taking no part in the heist whatsoever.
The notion that seizing the cadaver, placing it in a coffin on a wagon and traveling ten days without complication did not appear to the plotters to be preposterous. The more alcohol they consumed, the better it all sounded.
A ruinous hitch developed when Mullen and Hughes, acting on their own, decided they needed a third accomplice to help with the heavy lifting — they signed on Lewis Swegles, a well-known horse thief, grave robber and all-around underworld hotshot. Problem was that, whatever his criminal qualifications, Swegles also happened to be a paid (five dollars a day) Secret Service informant. Shortly after agreeing to join on, Swegles reported the plan to the authorities.
It was eventually decided to let the grave robbers follow through with their conspiracy — and then ambush them in the act at Oak Ridge Cemetery.
On election night, November 7, 1876, the final scenes of this vaudeville farce played out. Mullen, Hughes and Swegles entered the Lincoln tomb: a posse of law enforcement officials was deployed around the area. The thieves had removed Lincoln’s coffin from the white marble sarcophagus when one of nearby detectives accidentally discharged his pistol — chaos ensued, Mullen and Hughes escaped on foot.
The two were apprehended a few days later in their hangout Chicago bar; subsequently they were convicted of larceny and conspiracy. Kennally, the mastermind, was later jailed for counterfeiting related crimes.
It was after the inept grave robbery caper that Lincoln’s body continued its travels. John Carroll Power, the custodian of the tomb, and Mary Lincoln’s cousin, John Todd Stuart, recognized that Lincoln could still be the target of a ransom atrocity. So they re-buried him in an unmarked grave in the basement of the monument.
Power, who was absolutely devoted to guarding Lincoln’s remains, re-buried the President a number of times. Exactly how many times is the subject of debate.
Lincoln was finally interred on September 26, 1901 in an updated, secure tomb. He was encased in a steel enclosure which was covered by pounds of cement.
Historical footnote: when the Secret Service interceded in the Lincoln grave robbery, it was the first time the agency assisted in protecting a U.S. President. In 1902, it assumed the full time responsibility of providing that protection.