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Stealing Lincoln's Body Paperback – September 22, 2008
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Amazon Significant Seven, April 2007: Thomas Craughwell exhumes a fascinating and bizarre Lincoln tale that you didn't hear in school: The plot hatched by a group of Chicago counterfeiters to steal Honest Abe's remains and ransom them for $200,000 and the release of an imprisoned cohort. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the brazen scheme launched The First Cadaver on a peripatetic 25-year journey to its final, concrete-encased resting place. Along the way, Stealing Lincoln's Body detours into the story of rampant counterfeiting prior to and through the Civil War that nearly bankrupted the U.S. treasury, the scoundrelly origins of the Secret Service, and some of the stranger embalming techniques of 19th-century America. --Jon Foro
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top customer reviews
Craughwell's story starts with Lincoln's death. Even if there had been no grave-robbing, Lincoln's was among the best travelled and most fussed-over of cadavers, so there is a description of the history of embalming here, and of the body's travels to Springfield, Illinois. Then Craughwell gives us the history of American counterfeiting, an activity that was busily pursued long before we had our own currency. The reason that this is a justifiable digression in the story is that it was counterfeiters that plotted the theft of Lincoln's corpse, and the Secret Service that took charge of bringing them in. A big crook hired minor crooks for the job of getting Lincoln's corpse for ransom, and they took on a small-time crook to help them in their effort, only he was a stool-pigeon for the Secret Service which had been put on alert after the first conspirators fled. Thus, on election day in 1876, the conspirators took the tour of the Lincoln mausoleum, with the custodian fully aware of who they were and why they were there. They returned that night, ill-equipped to saw through the one padlock that secured the place, and when they finally got in and broke into the sarcophagus, they found the lead and cedar coffin too heavy to carry. They were relieved from having to do so by the Secret Service which was lying in wait for them in stocking feet so that their footsteps didn't echo in the tomb chamber. Unfortunately, one of the detectives accidentally fired his pistol, alerting the would-be grave robbers who got away. This left the lawmen nothing to do but engage in a futile hunt within the cemetery, and along the way mistakenly shoot at each other, with aim fortunately as bad as the rest of their night's doings. No one was hurt.
The perpetrators were eventually caught and imprisoned in Joliet prison. The wild story of the attempted theft in the graveyard was buried beneath the bigger story of the attempted theft (by both Republicans and Democrats) of the Tilden / Hayes election. Also, the story of the tomb robbers was simply too incredible for the public to believe. Lincoln's body did not rest easily for some further decades. The custodians within the secret fraternal organization the Lincoln Guard of Honor decided to keep it safe by secretly burying it in the basement of the mausoleum, allowing tourists to continue to be moved by viewing an empty sarcophagus. (Rumors flew around Springfield that the tomb was empty.) Mary Todd Lincoln joined him there after her death in 1882. The custodians opened the coffin in 1887 to make sure it was really Lincoln in there and then reburied it. There was a final reburial in 1901, and the style of reburial was borrowed from that of George Pullman, who because of his relations with labor at his company was one of the most despised men in America and who fretted that his own grave would be robbed. The Lincolns, with the blessing of their son Robert, were encased in lead, then in a cage of steel, and then in tons of cement. It's a good bet that they will rest in peace now, but the story does not quite end there. The sarcophagus that had previously held the body was being held for history's sake when the tomb was repaired in 1930. The sarcophagus was left outside, and was smashed to bits by vandals, parts of it carried off, possibly for souvenirs. Perhaps it was as close to robbing the graves as the vandals could get. Craughwell's wide-ranging, brightly written history puts this and other bizarre incidents into context. The story of Lincoln postmortem is surprisingly full of lively incidents and hilarious, macabre folly.
I give the writer 4 stars for this historical account of an incident that I had never heard of before. His numerous footnotes added credence to the fact that this absurd attempt to kidnap our dead President's body was carefully planned, and would have been successful had it not been for the efforts of the Lincoln Memorial attendants, who hid the body until a permanant resting place could be completed.
A great tale to add to the sometimes unbelievable events that are part of our great American heritage.
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