- Historic Sites
The Plot To Steal Lincoln’s Body
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
Thus, at nine o’clock on election eve, November 6, 1876, two groups of men boarded the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis Railroad’s night train for Springfield. Agent Tyrrell and the Pinkerton detectives, McGinn and Hay, climbed aboard the last car. Washburn, English, and McDonald planned to follow the next morning. Up front, in the first passenger car, were Hughes, Mullen, Swegles, and a new recruit, one “Billy Brown,” whose real name was Bill Nealy and whom Swegles had supposedly hired to drive the getaway wagon. A friend of Swegles, Nealy was actually “straight” but “could talk crooked,” having “learned all the slang” of the underworld while working as a hack driver in nearby Waukegan.
Mullen carried a carpetbag containing “a can of (blasting) powder, a fathom of fuse, a hammer, steel punch drills, a steel saw, a file” and other necessities.
Billy Brown, his brief role ended, quietly dropped off the train as it rolled slowly through the switching yards south of Chicago, while Swegles counted the fifteen dollars that Tyrrell had slipped him at the depot. (This is the only specific reference to Swegles’ payment in existing documents, but presumably he earned far more.)
The train arrived at Springfield at 6:00 A.M. on election day, and Tyrrell and his aides checked into the St. Nicholas Hotel. At 8:30 Swegles showed up to inform Tyrrell that Mullen and Hughes were registered at the nearby St. Charles Hotel and had left a call for 10:30 A.M.
While the plotters slept, the detectives reconnoitered the monument, accompanied by the president of the Lincoln Monument Association and the monument custodian, J. C. Power.
In midafternoon Swegles and Jack Hughes also inspected the tomb and worked out last-minute details of the coming night’s work. Mullen had worried that it might be impossible to break into the heavy sarcophagus, but Hughes came away bubbling with optimism: “Why, I could kick it open. I could fall against it and open it.” The dour Mullen was less confident: “We might as well have [an] axe,” he said, “because we may have to open the inside”—then he went out and stole one.
About 4:45 P.M. Swegles managed once again to slip away to bring Tyrrell up to date on the counterfeiters’ activities. Fifteen minutes later, Washburn, McDonald, and English arrived, and joined the council of war in Tyrrell’s crowded hotel room. At six o’clock Swegles left to meet his fellow grave robbers and to assure them that he’d just seen Billy Brown and that the driver would be at the cemetery with the getaway wagon.
The law-and-order forces got to the tomb not long after nightfall and took their assigned places about 6:40 P.M.
Built atop a ridge amid a twelve-acre park liberally studded with towering oaks, the tomb is essentially a massive, rectangular, one-story granite base supporting four cylindrical piers and a 117-foot granite obelisk. The roof of the base serves as a railed terrace, sixteen feet above ground level, which is reached by a stairway at each of its four corners. Inside the base, right-angled corridors running between unexpected corners and alcoves formed by the interior supporting walls form a puzzling maze, save for two large rooms. The burial chamber, where the bodies of Lincoln and two of his sons lay, is a semicircular room at the north end of the monument; the President’s body rested within a massive marble sarcophagus in the center of the room; Memorial Hall, an oval rotunda filled with statuary and mementos, curves out from the south end of the monument’s base.
The custodian met the officers at the door of Memorial Hall and led them in line, hands joined, through the darkness until they reached a point inside the tomb where no glimmer of light could be seen from the outside.
Putting a match to a lamp, Tyrrell led his men the length of the interior maze to the wall between it and the burial chamber. There he stationed John English. Though the wall was two feet thick, Tyrrell had established earlier that the slightest noise made in the burial chamber could be heard through it; English was told to notify Tyrrell the moment he detected the sounds of the villains at work.
Tyrrell then led Washburn and the three detectives back to Memorial Hall, where they put out their light, took off their shoes, and settled down for a long wait.
Some two hours later, at about nine o’clock, a hooded lantern was thrust inside the double shutters covering the door to Memorial Hall, and a hand reached through to shake the locked door. Swegles’ voice came through clearly: “It’s all right.” The light disappeared and footsteps could be heard heading away toward the burial chamber at the other end of the monument. Tyrrell then unlocked the door, ready for action.
Hughes and Mullen began to cut through the padlock on the door to the burial chamber. They’d brought a professional burglar’s saw, but the inexpert Mullen broke it almost at once, so he had to wear away the lock with a small file.