The Plot To Steal Lincoln’s Body

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Jack Hughes was an outstanding passer of phony bills. A thoroughly honest-looking man, respectably bearded and always well dressed, he spent his working day going from store to store, making one small purchase at each, and paying for it with crisply persuasive counterfeit money.

If his currency ever was questioned and the police called, no case could be made; he never had more than one bad bill in his possession.

His working supply trailed along a full block behind him, in the form of a small boy whose pockets were stuffed with bogus cash. After each stop, he would sidle up and slip Hughes another bill.

But sometime in September, 1874, in Washington Heights, Illinois, something went very wrong. Hughes was arrested by Secret Service agents and indicted for passing five counterfeit bills. He had jumped bail and was being sought by every policeman in Chicago when he joined the plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln’s corpse.

The architect of this bizarre scheme was a counterfeiting entrepreneur named James Kinealy (or “Big Jim” Kinelly), a sometime St. Louis livery-stable operator whom a local reporter once characterized as “a born crook.”

Kinelly had served a five-year term in the Illinois State Penitentiary for passing a bogus fifty-dollar note in Peoria; thereafter he kept his own hands clean of counterfeit bills. He became instead a wholesaler, linking the actual producers of the fake bills with independent gangs of “shovers” in Illinois. Counterfeiting had long been a major cottage industry. In 1865, when the Secret Service was organized “to restore public confidence in the money,” fully half the bills circulating were believed to be phony.

Ben Boyd, regarded by crooks and cops alike as the very finest of engravers, was a prime source of unauthorized money. One of his five-dollar plates was so perfect that over three hundred thousand bills were known to have been printed from it and passed without mishap by one gang alone. And the Treasury of the United States finally paid him its ultimate tribute: it recalled its genuine fives from circulation.

But in 1875 Ben Boyd was arrested, and his subsequent sentencing to ten years in the Illinois State Penitentiary left Big Jim Kinelly and his network of printers, wholesalers, and passers virtually jobless: the prime Midwestern wholesaler of all those perfect counterfeit bills now had nothing to sell.

Somehow Ben Boyd had to be sprung. As a contemporary lawman saw it: “They knew that money could not get him out. It had all been talked up, the money could have been gotten, but it was impossible.” So what to do? Kinelly thought he had the perfect solution: he (or rather his hirelings) would steal Lincoln’s body, then offer to exchange it for the freedom of Ben Boyd—plus a big cash bonus.

It is not surprising that Kinelly should have hit upon body snatching. It was endemic in rural America, with local resurrectionists digging up recently interred bodies for surreptitious sale to medical schools. The bereaved frequently stood guard at the graveside for weeks after a burial.

In fact, Kinelly was not the first man to plot to steal Lincoln’s corpse. Only months after the President’s body was returned to Springfield in 1865, a local lawyer (his name now forgotten) apparently had tried to round up accomplices for such a scheme. He found no takers and forgot about it.

Kinelly himself got off to a bad start. Early in 1876 he assembled one of his counterfeit-passing rings at the highly disreputable tavern of Ben Sheridan, Kinelly’s agent in nearby Lincoln, Illinois. He told the gang members that he wanted them to take Lincoln’s body from the tomb, hide it in a “brick beer cave” south of Lincoln, and hold it until ransom was paid and Boyd was released from prison.

He dispatched Ben Sheridan and four of his passers to Springfield, where at Kinelly’s expense they fitted up a saloon in a rented downtown store. Sheridan was bartender and ostensible owner; his four charter customers spent much of their time leaning against the bar. They planned to move on the night of July 3, but then, with just two weeks to go, Sheridan—described by the Lincoln Memorial’s custodian as “a man of more intelligence than either [sic] of the other four, or all of them combined, but of exceedingly depraved morals”—succumbed to temptation. Touring Springfield’s brothels, he confided to one of his hostesses that his little band was going to “steal old Lincoln’s bones,” collect a ransom, and spend the proceeds in the lady’s establishment. She told the sheriff. Next morning, through a monumental hangover, Sheridan learned of his indiscretion. Kinelly washed his hands of the gang. Ben Sheridan, professionally disgraced, went back to being a local nuisance.