- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

As we know, the weekend following Lincoln’s assassination on Friday, April 14, 1865, was a hectic

As we know, the weekend following Lincoln’s assassination on Friday, April 14, 1865, was a hectic one in Washington. At the War Department, Secretary Edwin Stanton took the lead in a furious search for the assassin, John Wilkes Booth. At the same time, preparations for the late president’s funeral occupied the attention of much of official Washington.

On Tuesday, the embalmers having finished their work, Lincoln lay in state in the East Room of the White House. Army and Navy officers stood at attention at the foot of the catafalque. Soldiers and black Americans were well-represented in the mournful procession that shuffled past the catafalque, each visitor ascending the steps for a last look at their president.

On the next day came the first of many funeral services. The Rev. Phineas D. Gurley preached in the East Room, and, after closing prayers, the coffin was closed and moved, with suitable pomp, to the Rotunda of the Capitol. There, even larger throngs came to pay their respects. On the morning of April 21, the coffin was placed on a train for a circuitous, 13-day trip to Springfield, Ill., one in which thousands of Americans would pay their respects to the martyred president.

Lincoln was buried at Oak Ridge cemetery outside Springfield in accordance with Mrs. Lincoln’s wishes. There the president might have rested in peace except for a curious convergence of factors.

Grave robbing was a growth industry in 19th-century America. Wealthy families paid huge sums to ransom the stolen remains of their loved ones. Medical schools required cadavers and asked few questions. The father of President Benjamin Harrison was exhumed and sold to the Medical College of Ohio, causing a considerable stir.

Counterfeiting also was rife, made easier by the fact that a new national currency had been introduced in 1862 and all bills looked new. When a skillful Chicago counterfeiter, Benjamin Boyd, was arrested and jailed in 1875, his confederates sought a means of getting him out of stir to again have access to his talents. What better way than to seize the body of President Lincoln and exchange it for Boyd? Not surprisingly, the gang’s planning showed signs of having been thrashed out in one of Chicago’s many saloons.

A Chicago counterfeiter, “Big Jim” Kennally, enlisted three thugs to carry out his plan. Alas, one of the three, Lewis Swegles, was an informant for the Secret Service. On what was presumably a dark and stormy night in November 1876, the counterfeiters succeeded in breaking the lock to the Lincoln vault. Once inside, the author writes, the would-be robbers “seemed transfixed by the white marble sarcophagus.” With some effort the men succeeded in prying off the heavy marble lid.

However, this was as far as they got. The lead and cedar coffin proved far too heavy for three men to move, and while they were debating their next move Swegles signaled to the police outside that they should make their move. At this point, the break-in took on an aspect of Gilbert and Sullivan. Shots were fired, but no one was injured; the firing turned out to be cops shooting at other cops. The two perpetrators escaped, only to be captured 10 days later. Both served time for counterfeiting.

The abortive break-in shocked the trustees of the Lincoln tomb. The body of the late president was moved to a secret location pending the construction of a new, permanent vault. In 1901, Lincoln’s one surviving son, Robert, supervised the reinterment of his father in a 10-foot-deep, concrete-filled vault in Springfield. There, Mr. Craughwell writes, “Abraham Lincoln’s body has lain … safe and secure, ever since.”

At first glance, the author his written perhaps the frothiest bit of Lincoln trivia yet: a book about a nonhappening to the nonliving, but Mr. Craughwell is a graceful writer, and in the course of his book the reader learns quite a bit about counterfeiting, grave robbing and 19th-century Chicago.

Historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean, Va. His books include “William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand.”


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