- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007


By Thomas J. Craughwell

Harvard University Press, $24.95, 234 pages


It’s a truism of the writing craft that a lot of book ideas are good for magazine articles, no more. The trick is to tell the difference.

What then to make of “Stealing Lincoln’s Body,” the basic tale of which has been a staple of history magazines for years? What’s new and compelling about what at base is a shabby, clownish yarn about a sad and morbid attempted crime?

Happily, the answer is in the context of the story that author Thomas Craughwell has unearthed. Mr. Craughwell’s previous books have focused largely on Catholic historiography, but here he shifts his lens to an era when America was at the beginnings of a truly national structure in its culture, politics and, interestingly, its crime.

The attempted crime itself is laugh-making except for its sad morbidity. On the night of the 1876 presidential elections, a mastermind counterfeiter set a gang of stumblebums to break into Lincoln’s jerry-built mausoleum in the deceased president’s hometown of Springfield, Ill. The plan was not only to ransom Lincoln’s body for money but also to secure the release from prison of one of the crime boss’ most skilled engravers of bogus currency.

We tend to gloss over this period in our history between the end of Civil War Reconstruction and the end of the century, and we should not. Before the Civil War, the United States was a fractious collection of distant regions bound by tentative economic ties and few cultural ones.

In the plot to kidnap Lincoln’s corpse we see the advent of both the first truly nationwide organized criminal activity — counterfeiting — and the forming of the first truly nationwide police agency — the U.S. Secret Service. The America Mr. Craughwell introduces us to reflects more change in progress than the trauma of the Civil War alone produced.

Social changes brought on by immigration exacerbated a radicalizing of labor-ownership relations. The sentimentality of death by both technical advances and cultural change are set out to add substance to a basic narrative that reads like crime fiction but is really sound history.

Abraham Lincoln is still our least tarnished president, despite recent attempts to make him otherwise. One cannot fully comprehend just how much of a sainted martyr he was 130 years ago; his murder was an emotional trauma for an entire population. The 1,654-mile procession by special train from Washington to the new Oak Ridge Cemetery outside Springfield drew weeping mobs in the hundreds of thousands whenever it paused for viewings in major cities. Getting the train to stop became an issue of high commercial politics.

In all, perhaps a million more saw Lincoln’s casket pass slowly by their villages during the two-week procession. There was no rest even when Lincoln arrived back in his hometown, for city fathers had decided it more advantageous to have his crypt located as a commercial tourist attraction in the city center instead of where the distraught widow Mary Todd Lincoln had dictated. The final skirmish was not an edifying event.

By then the fashion dictates surrounding death and funerals had become an overwrought exercise that Lincoln’s burial merely inflated beyond modern comprehension. The war had brought advances in embalming that prolonged the ceremonies of viewing the departed (two weeks in Lincoln’s case).

Inevitably those of a criminal bent saw the emotional vulnerability of the survivors and their attachment to the remains of a loved one as an opportunity for advantage, albeit a grisly one. Grave-robbing transformed itself from traditional theft for resale to medical schools into a form of kidnapping in which the corpses of the well-to-do were disinterred from the now distant crypts of rural cemeteries (town churchyards were now overcrowded) and held for ransom.

In turn, a new industry of mausoleum security replete with steel-reinforced cement shafts and granite vaults where the only questions were of price and the ingenuity of the robbers. Lincoln’s casket was given surprisingly little security attention. The mausoleum was a shabby affair with a simple padlock securing the door to where the marble sarcophagus held his casket with that of his lamented son Willie nearby. No sexton lived on the grounds; no security guard patrolled the tomb at night. That it stayed safe for a decade is something of a miracle.

Yet Lincoln himself may unwittingly have provided the catalyst that made the plot to steal his remains inevitable. Counterfeiting is an inescapable companion of all currencies. But prior to the Civil War paper money was the limited province of community banks and state governments. At most the quantities involved were a serious but not fatal economic threat to the nation.

But to finance the horrendous costs of the war, Lincoln authorized the circulation of paper “greenback” dollars that could be redeemed in precious metal coinage later. This truly national money produced a new market for money fakers who would sit safely in one place — say a crowded city like Chicago — and safely distribute their bogus notes through elaborate networks of “pushers” who operated far away. Needless to say, the premium on skilled engravers to produce plausible plates was immediately inflated.

Just as quickly, the need for a law enforcement agency to police these disparate networks of producers and distributors moved the Lincoln government to create the Secret Service, hiring as its first director a man reputed to be a counterfeiter; he in turn hired three agents, all of whom were either in jail or under charge for felonies ranging from counterfeiting to multiple murder.

But in the decade that followed the Secret Service got a lot more honest and a whole lot more successful; one of the areas of its greatest success was in the sprawling epicenter of economic growth between St. Louis and Chicago. Enter Big Jim Kennally, a counterfeiting ring boss and Chicago tavern keeper whose two top engravers had been rounded up in early 1876 and were serving prison terms in Springfield. Grab Abe, get the Illinois governor to release the chief engraver and tell the authorities where to find the casket hidden not far away. A simple plan.

But the raid that followed in November was conducted by locally recruited drunken louts who managed to damage Lincoln’s sarcophagus but not extract the body; they were quickly rounded up and imprisoned, and Kennally disappeared. There is no real happy ending to this book. Wrangling between the Lincoln family and local authorities delayed the rebuilding of a suitable tomb (the current one) until 1901. During part of that time Lincoln’s body was hidden in the basement under a pile of rubble.

A sad tale indeed, but a fascinating one that is well told.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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