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Thursday, January 29, 2009

STEALING ABRAHAM LINCOLN

I would say, to use the criminal vernacular, that Big Jim Kinealy went 'Chinese angle' when the 'buttons' nipped his 'boodler'.
Benjamen F. Boyd was the Midwest’s foremost boodler, and maybe the finest engraver of conterfeit printing plates outside of the U.S. Treasury Department. Boyd’s queer fin was so good that by 1875 there were more than 300,000 examples floating about, maybe half of all five dollar notes in circulation. The treasury stopped issuing legitimate fins out of the Chicago branch entirely.
Then, in October, the Secret Service descended upon the little Mississippi river town of Fulton, Illinois and before Ben Boyd could slip across the railroad bridge to Iowa, slapped the bracelets on him right in front of his outraged wife. And that left Big Jim squarely behind the eight ball.Big Jim owned a stable in St. Louis, but that was just his dodge. He was “a born crook” and the high pillow to hundreds of finders, passers, runners, smashers, bindle stiffs, butter and egg men and fake-a-loo artists, in short everyone and anyone who passed the queer soft on to unsuspecting marks. So with Ben doing a decade in the Joliet caboose (above) you would guess that Big Jim would to be looking for a new slant. Instead he came up with a plan that was a real bunny; he would steal the body of Abraham Lincoln, and exchange it for the live body Benjamnn Boyd - plus $200,000, just as an afterthought.Late in January of 1876 Big Jim reached out to one of his Chicago passers, Ben Sheridan, who was looking for a vacation anyway after getting pinched and jumping bail. Ben was a cool customer and played the Jasper in his fancy suit with a full beard. Big Jim figured him as the man who knew just how far he could push the bulge.
So he set Sheridan and his four man crew of goons up in a tavern in Springfield, Illinois (above), complete with a full liquor stock, and they spent a couple of months just taking the lay of the land. They played tourists at Lincoln’s tomb in the Oak Ridge Cemetery several times and it looked like an eggs-in-the-coffee job to them. The rectangular granite monument sat atop the highest point in the cemetery. Two curving, confusing corridors met in the center of the marble monument at two rooms. In one room rested the body of Mary Todd Lincoln. In the other rested the President’s sarcophagus.The monument itself was surrounded by tall oaks that would hide any nighttime visitors. The cemetery was two miles outside of town, the room containing the sarcophagus had but a single padlock on its gate, the groundskeeper lived elsewhere, there were no bulls on duty at night and questioning a custodian revealed that the casket itself had been sealed with simple plaster of Paris.By the end of June things looked so Jake to Sheridan that he took a night off to relax. And that was when he stuck his foot in it. Drunk on corn in a local "can house" (above), Sheridan boasted to a chippy that on the night of July the third he was going “steal old Lincoln’s bones”. Well, the chippy called copper, which is to say she notified the local bulls, and in the morning the buttons paid a visit to Sheridan’s establishment just to let him know the caper was blown. Big Jim was not happy. He repossessed the liquor stock, locked the tavern tight and ordered the whole crew back to Chicago.
The truth was, Big Jim might have been lucky things went adrift at this point, because when John Carroll Power, the custodian, was interviewed later he described in detail the entire gang and offered the opinion that Sheridan was “of more intelligence “than all four goons “combined”, but “of exceedingly depraved morals”. Obviously Mr. Power was an observent judge of character and a powerful witness.That fall, in the back room of The Hub, a saloon at 294 West Madison Street in Chicago, Big Jim met with his second choice of conspirators; Terrence Mullen (above), the bar owner, and a passer named Jack Hughes (below).
But Big Jim decided that this time they needed an actual resurrectionist, a man familiar with the problems of body snatching. And he was lucky enough that just such a man had recently started hanging out at The Hub, an ex-sailor and life long bindle stiff and body snatcher by the name of Louis C. Swegles. Swegles knew the right people and they seemed to know him, so Big Jim brought him into the plot, now laid on for election night, “a da-ned fine elegant time to do it”, as Jack Hughes said.They caught the night train for Springfield and arrived at six on the morning of November seventh, and checked into the St. Charles Hotel. In their luggage they brought a can of blasting powder, a six foot fuse, a small file and a saw. They gang caught some sleep, leaving a call for 10:30 A.M. After breakfast Louis Swegles and Jack Hughs paid a visit to the monument. Hughes assured his fellows they wouldn’t need their tools to open the locked gate on the tomb. “I could fall against it and open it,” he boasted. Terry Mullen wanted to be certain, so that afternoon he stole an axe from a hardware store.
About nine o’clock that night they slipped into the looming silent monument. While Swegle held the lantern, Mullen began to saw through the padlock that Hughes had shown such disrespect for. And almost immediately the saw blade broke. Mullen was reduced to working the padlock with the file. It felt like it was going to take forever.
Finally the padlock fell apart and the three then prepared to attack the sarcophagus itself. Mullen wanted to use a sledge hammer but Swegles pointed to the copper dowels that were all that held the lid on. Having removed the lid (the open sarcophagus, above) they slid the President’s cedar covered lead coffin out. Swegles handed the lantern to Hughes and slipped back outside to bring the wagon up to the service door.After waiting a few moments for Swegles to reappear, Hughes and Mullen decided it would be better if they waited outside. They were standing under an oak tree a hundred feet away from the service door when they heard the crack of a gunshot echoing from inside the monument. Being experienced theives, they ran for it. Outside the cemetery walls they boarded the last streetcar for the night bound for downtown Springfield, and heard more shots and shouting behind them. Hughes and Mullen did not return to their hotel, but split up and made their seperate ways out of Springfield on foot.By November 9th Mullen was back in Chicago, tending bar at the Hub as if nothing had happened. Two days later Swegles reappeared with a harrowing tale of having escaped the bulls by the skin of his teeth. A week afterward Hughes showed as well. They were all thinking themselves very lucky to have escaped the Bulls.
But just as Mullen and Hughes started to ask themselves what had gone wrong, that was when the bulls swept them up. Both Hughes and Mullen were arrested and transported back to Springfield. Swegles was not arrested because he had been a stoolie for the Treasury bulls from the very beginning. From the second he had been asked to join the scheme, the bulls had been kept apace at every step of the way. Swegles had not gone for the wagon, he and alerted the bulls waiting in tomb to make the arrest. But instead they had ended up fighting a gunbattle with each other in the dark. And Big Jim? Well, he never liked to be close to the actual crime, and immediatly made himself scarce. The last he was heard of, Big Jim was heading for New Mexico territory.Oddly enough there was no law in Illinois against grave robbing, so Hughes and Mullen were convicted only of the theft of Lincoln’s coffin, value set at $75.00. They were sentenced to one year each at hard labor and then dissappeared from the pages of history. Big Jim would be convicted in 1880 of a land fraud in New Mexico Territory, and end up serving his time in the Joliet prison, the same institution once occupied by his onetime printer, Ben Boyd.
As for the corpse of President Abraham Lincoln, the unwilling player in this farce, Mr. Power had him secretly reburied in the basement of the tomb. And there he resided in obscurity in his own tomb until 1901 when Lincoln's son, Robert, had his father's coffin reburied. But this time it was placed inside a steel cage, lowered into a new 10 foot vault dug into the Illinois soil, into which was poured several tons of concrete and then the original stone sarcophagus was placed on top of it all, making it very unlikely anyone would ever try to steal Lincoln's corpse, ever again.
-30 -

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