Counterfeiters tried to steal Lincoln's body in 1876

Monday, November 5, 2001

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Crowds clogged the muddy streets around the state Capitol as the dreary day receded into night. Liquor flowed freely, gamblers took bets and fights broke out at polling places.

A black voter had even been knifed and killed amid the chaos of Nov. 7, 1876, the day of the tightest presidential election the country had ever seen. And Springfield was paying little attention to the spot two miles north where the nation's savior was buried.

There, in the coal-black silence, petty counterfeiters labored to join history's most notorious criminals by stealing the body of Abraham Lincoln.

In the end, though, history remembers them as bunglers and their plot -- 125 years ago Wednesday -- as a debacle.

It's a story of hooligans convinced that overwrought Illinoisans would release the gang's ringleader from prison as ransom, of government agents inadvertently shooting at one another and of a nation so aghast at the ghoulish scheme that the story wasn't believed for days.

"Every historic site I've ever worked at has a myth," Lincoln Tomb site manager Nan Wynn said. "I'm not sure I've ever worked at one where the myth is true."

'Shovers' upset

The story began more than a year before the theft attempt, when Patrick Tyrrell, a Chicago-based U.S. Secret Service agent captured counterfeiter Benjamin Boyd in Fulton, on the Mississippi River.

The master engraver's 10-year prison sentence in Joliet crippled a criminal industry that was thriving in an economy awash in paper money floated to finance the Civil War. Missing Boyd's skills, a desperate distributor hatched the heist plot and turned to Terrence Mullen and John Hughes.

Mullen's Chicago saloon, The Hub, was a distribution point in the counterfeiting network. Hughes was a "shover" who laundered the fake bills by spending them shop to shop, according to Bonnie Stahlman Speer's 1990 book, "The Great Abraham Lincoln Hijack."

The criminals agreed to break into the tomb, just two years after President Grant dedicated the $171,000 monument. They would do it the night of the closely watched election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, which Hayes claimed despite Tilden's popular-vote victory.

They convinced themselves they could carry Lincoln's coffin off and hide it in Indiana's sand dunes until authorities freed Boyd and paid $200,000 ransom.

"They thought, 'My God, people will find out about this and the hue and cry will be such that they'll just do anything to get the body back,'" said Kim Bauer, curator of the Illinois State Historical Library's Lincoln collection.

Horse thief infiltrated ring

But they did not realize the Secret Service had targeted their ring.

Tyrrell -- "an early day 'Untouchable,'" Bauer said -- had hired horse thief Lewis Swegles to infiltrate The Hub gang. Swegles soon tipped him off to the plan to steal Lincoln's body.

The night of the election, Mullen sawed through a lock on the iron gate on the tomb's north side. They broke open the marble sarcophagus and found a nearly immovable, 500-pound coffin.

Swegles slipped out to alert the agents, who were waiting in Memorial Hall, the tomb's south-end vestibule.

Tyrrell led his team around the tomb to nab the thieves but found the crypt empty. Mullen and Hughes had seen the agents and fled.

Sending the men searching, Tyrrell scaled the stairs to the terrace above the burial vault. Seeing shadowy figures at the other end of the terrace, he fired and the figures fired back. Unfortunately, those figures were federal agents, and Tyrrell had fired at his own men.

"If it wasn't so sad, it would be a tragic comedy -- 'The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight,'" Bauer said, referring to the robbers but reserving some criticism for the lawmen. "This was just ridiculous."

Told Lincoln's son

Later, according to Speer's book, an agent wired a friend of the late president's son, Robert Lincoln: "Parties escaped. Temporarily baffled, but confident of arrest soon."

Incredulous at the attempt -- "Atrocious Vandalism! Lincoln's Body Stolen!" Springfield's Illinois State Journal incorrectly cried -- people at first refused to believe.

But Mullen and Hughes were soon captured in Chicago and brought back to Springfield. Crowds packed a Sangamon County courtroom in the spring of 1877 to see the duo convicted of larceny and sentenced to a year in prison.

The most damaging evidence were letters Mullen stupidly sent from jail, intercepted by the sheriff, asking friends to help him create an alibi.

Officials then hid Lincoln's casket behind the tomb's inner walls and never told the public the sarcophagus on public view was empty. In a 1900 renovation, the president's remains were buried in a steel-and-concrete vault beneath the marble stone that now marks his grave.

"I'm sure at that time, it was rather horrifying to people, especially with that proper Victorian background," Bauer said. "But looking at it today, you just kind of hit your hand to your head and wonder, what were they thinking?"

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