In the 1870’s a gang of counterfeiters turned grave robbers in an attempt to free one of their members by holding Abraham Lincoln’s body hostage.
One of the country’s largest counterfeiting gangs ran its operation in Illinois. When Ben Boyd, a master engraver, was thrown in jail, the gang’s supply of counterfeit money dwindled.
From Counterfeiting to Grave Robbing
The gang’s leader, Big Jim Kennally came up with an idea to steal Abraham Lincoln’s corpse and hold it hostage for $200,000 and Boyd’s freedom.
However, one of the conspirators, Ben Sheridan, had too much to drink one night and talked too much to a hostesses of a local brothel. He revealed the plot to her and she told others. The story spread and the gang had to flee Springfield.
The Second Attempt
Kennally didn’t give up the idea. He went to Chicago and began recruiting a new gang to steal Lincoln’s body. One of the men was Lewis Swegles.
They created a plan to stuff Lincoln’s body into a sack, put it on a wagon, drive it to Indiana, and hide it in sand dunes in the northern part of the state.
Another part of the plan was that “Behind them, inside the tomb, they would leave a piece torn from the front page of The Catholic Union and Times, published in England and purchased at Tom Mackin’s newsstand on Dearborn Street. This newspaper was so rare in Chicago that the police would surely file it away as a clue. The rest of the front page would be hidden inside the bust of Lincoln above the bar at The Hub. It would be used to identify Kinelly and Co. as the genuine kidnapers when the time came to announce their demands: two hundred thousand dollars in cash—the cost of the monument—and the release of Ben Boyd,” wrote Deane and Peggy Robertson in their article “The Plot to Steal Lincoln’s Body.”
Unfortuneately, Swegles was a Secret Service informant and he let his handlers know of the plot.
Stealing the Body
On election day November 7, 1876, Kennally and his gang set off for Oak Ridge Cemetery where the body was buried. The idea was that the cemetery would be deserted in the dead of night while people were counting election votes.
The tomb was a large, rectangular, granite base that supported four cylindrical piers and a 117-foot-tall granite obelisk. The top of the base was reached by one of four staircases at the corners of the base. Inside the base, there were two large rooms. One was the burial chamber where the body was located and the other was the Memorial Hall, which was filled with Lincoln memorabilia.
The cemetery had little security. There was no night watchman or tomb custodian on site.
The gang sawed the padlock off the door to the tomb. Once inside, they pried the marble lid off the sarcophagus and began to pull out the heavy wooden coffin.
Swegles was ordered to bring the horses and wagon to the tomb. When Swegles went outside, he instead alerted detectives who were in hiding.
The armed men rushed the tomb. During the shooting battle, Kennally’s crew was able to escape through the east gate to the cemetery.
Arrest and Prosecution
Their freedom was short-lived. They were captured in Chicago 10 days later.
It took eight months for the case to come to trial. The gang was found guilty and sentenced to a year in Joliet State Prison. This was the worst sentence for grave robbing in Illinois at the time. The gang was taken to prison on June 22, 1877.
In 1890, the Illinois state legislature revised the penalty for grave robbing to be up to 10 years in the state penitentiary.