The Plot To Steal Lincoln’s Body

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Kinelly was determined to try again, and later that same summer he began commuting between St. Louis and Chicago, where he presided over discussions in the back room of his Chicago branch office, a bar at 294 West Madison Street called The Hub. Dank, dusty, and sleazy, it differed from a thousand other saloons in only two respects: its bust of Abraham Lincoln above the bar and its club room for counterfeiters. Its bartender and nominal owner was twenty-seven-year-old Terrence Mullen; and one of his steadiest customers was the deft passer Jack Hughes, now out on bail.

Here, in the autumn of 1876, Mullen, Hughes, and Kinelly developed their new plot: they would meet in Springfield, steal Lincoln’s body, load it onto a wagon, and, using relays of horses, speed it some two hundred miles to the sand dunes bordering the southern tip of Lake Michigan, just southeast of Chicago. There they would bury the body, carefully triangulating the site against permanent landmarks so they could find it again in the ever-shifting sands, and then wait for the government to meet their demands.

Behind them, inside the tomb, they would leave a piece torn from the front page of The Catholic Union and Times , published in England and purchased at Tom Mackin’s newsstand on Dearborn Street. This newspaper was so rare in Chicago that the police would surely file it away as a clue. The rest of the front page would be hidden inside the bust of Lincoln above the bar at The Hub. It would be used to identify Kinelly and Co. as the genuine kidnapers when the time came to announce their demands: two hundred thousand dollars in cash—the cost of the monument—and the release of Ben Boyd. Kinelly and Hughes were quite willing to settle for Boyd and the cash, but Mullen seemed almost obsessed with the notion that the body snatching would win the criminals “the respect of the American people into the bargain.”

Early in October the agent in charge of the Secret Service office at Indianapolis was tipped off by a young criminal for whom he’d done a favor three years before. He immediately informed the Chicago bureau chief, Patrick D. Tyrrell.

Tyrrell at once recruited Louis C. Swegles to infiltrate the gang, and it is to him—and to the night police reporter for the Chicago Tribune to whom he eventually told all he knew—that we owe our knowledge of the plot. Contemporary accounts vary widely, but Swegles apparently had been a seaman, then probably a petty crook. By 1876, however, he was well launched on a career as a professional informer, or “roper,” for the Secret Service.

Swegles started hanging out at The Hub. “I got myself up in their minds,” he recalled later, “not by praising myself but my friends—Frenchy the burglar, Bill Wray, and others. I had a letter from Frenchy, who is in Michigan City Penitentiary. They thought I was a first-class man, or I would not be known to such men.”

Swegles reported daily to Tyrrell, who passed on the information to the chief of the Secret Service. (Though someone at the U.S. National Records Center years ago saw fit to destroy the entire Secret Service file on the plot, a clerk fortunately had typed and preserved in 1938 a six-page resume of Tyrrell’s reports to his boss on the case, including some verbatim extracts.)

By November 5, Swegles was so much a part of the conspiracy that the gang had taken to meeting in his rooms, and Agent Tyrrell informed his boss that “there is no doubt about these parties being in earnest. … They feel confident of success, saying that if they do get caught it is only one year in jail, and if they succeed Ben will be liberated.”

The next day Tyrrell reported to Washington that Swegles had told him the attempt to steal the body would be made the following night, November 7, Election Day, “a damned elegant time to do it,” according to the thieves.

Agent Tyrrell then hurried to the law office of Robert Lincoln, the late President’s son, who already had been warned of the plot. There he conferred with Lincoln and Elmer Washburn, who had been chief of the Secret Service and Tyrrell’s boss until just nine days before—when he’d been summarily fired by President Ulysses S. Grant for what the President believed to be an act of political disloyalty.

All agreed that Tyrrell needed help in foiling the plot. So Tyrrell and Washburn called on Allan Pinkerton, head of the famed Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and hired two of his operatives, John C. McGinn and George Hay. During the afternoon they enlisted two more helpers, John McDonald, a detective from the Illinois Humane Society, and John English, who had been Washburn’s private secretary when he headed the Secret Service.