On the night of the presidential election in 1876, a gang of counterfeiters out of Chicago attempted to steal the entombed embalmed body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. The custodian of the tomb was so shaken by the incident that he willingly dedicated the rest of his life to protecting the president's corpse.
In a lively and dramatic narrative, Thomas J. Craughwell returns to this bizarre, and largely forgotten, event with the first book to place the grave robbery in historical context. He takes us through the planning and execution of the crime and the outcome of the investigation. He describes the reactions of Mary Todd Lincoln and Robert Todd Lincoln to the theft--and the peculiar silence of a nation. He follows the unlikely tale of what happened to Lincoln's remains after the attempted robbery, and details the plan devised by the Lincoln Guard of Honor to prevent a similar abominable recurrence.
Along the way, Craughwell offers entertaining sidelights on the rise of counterfeiting in America and the establishment of the Secret Service to combat it; the prevalence of grave robberies; the art of nineteenth-century embalming; and the emergence among Irish immigrants of an ambitious middle class--and a criminal underclass.
This rousing story of hapless con men, intrepid federal agents, and ordinary Springfield citizens who honored their native son by keeping a valuable, burdensome secret for decades offers a riveting glimpse into late-nineteenth-century America, and underscores that truth really is sometimes stranger than fiction.
Craughwell (Saints Behaving Badly) provides an intriguing glimpse at a macabre but interesting footnote to the story of Abraham Lincoln: the tale of how, on election night of 1876, several Chicago counterfeiters attempted to abduct and hold for ransom the 16th president's corpse. As Craughwell demonstrates, authorities received advance warning, and Lincoln's bones never, in the end, left his Springfield, Ill., tomb--even though the would-be abductors did succeed in wresting the casket from its sarcophagus. In telling this story, Craughwell also provides something of a biography of Lincoln's cadaver, chronicling its long voyage to final rest. After the 1876 attempt, the "sacred remains" spent 11 years half-buried in a subbasement of the tomb, covered with boards, as a security measure, while thousands of pious citizens paid their respects to the empty sarcophagus above. Then, from 1887 through 1889, the dead president's body lingered in a specially constructed catacomb immediately beneath the sarcophagus room (again, secretly). Not until 1901--after several prominent Springfieldians opened the casket and verified the identity of its occupant--was Lincoln's corpse permanently installed within his monument beneath several feet of poured cement, never again to be disturbed. Craughwell offers an entertaining account of one of the stranger incidents in American history. (Apr.)
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Harvard University Press
October 14, 2008
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