- Historic Sites
The Plot To Steal Lincoln’s Body
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
John English appeared from his listening post at the burial-chamber wall to report the sounds of filing and of muffled but heartfelt cursing.
Nevertheless, detectives in Memorial Hall waited twenty long minutes for the prearranged signal from Swegles that the thieves actually had broken into the sarcophagus—the moment when Tyrrell planned to arrest them.
Once inside, Swegles held the lantern, while his ostensible partners went to work on the sarcophagus. They lifted off the ornamental marble cover and gingerly leaned it against the crypt in the back wall, but the inner lid wouldn’t budge. Mullen snatched up a sledge hammer and was about to swing it when Swegles grabbed his arm, reminding him that the custodian might be about.
They discovered that the inner lid was secured by several copper dowels, which they quickly removed. Then they balanced it crosswise across the foot of the sarcophagus, removed the piece at its head, and slid Lincoln’s cedar-covered lead coffin part way out. Now it was time for Swegles to bring up the wagon that Mullen and Hughes still believed was waiting at the foot of the monument hill. As Swegles left the tomb, Mullen added a last-minute warning: “When you get back … give the whistle; otherwise you are liable to get hurt. We might fire at you, thinking it was somebody else. We are not going to let anyone come monkeying around here.”
Why hadn’t Swegles already given the sign for the fretful and impatient Tyrrell to lead his men into the tomb? The answer was simple: the signal, lighting a cigar, had required him to go outside, but Hughes and Mullen had kept him there holding the lantern while they worked.
At last Swegles could dash downhill toward the imaginary wagon, then slip back up to the other end of the monument. He gasped the password and told Tyrrell that now was the time to catch the body snatchers in the act.
Tyrrell and his shoeless men sprinted around the east side of the monument, pistols at the ready. Unfortunately, Detective McGinn’s old-fashioned cap-and-ball model somehow went off, shattering the silent darkness.
Afraid the noise had alerted the kidnapers, Tyrrell burst into the pitch-dark burial chamber alone and, revolver in hand, called for the thieves to surrender. No answer. He struck a match, saw the broken sarcophagus, but was dismayed to find that “no fiend was there.”
He dashed back to Memorial Hall and told the custodian to bring lanterns. Pausing only to put on his shoes, he ran to the southwest stairs of the terrace, thinking that the thieves might have gone up there to await the wagon.
The moon was about to rise, and, seeing the outlines of two men on the northwest corner of the terrace some seventy feet away, he opened fire. His targets fired back as they dashed to the northeast corner. Tyrrell ran to the southeast corner, where he and the two men again exchanged shots, then all three ran back to their original corners. Tyrrell shouted down to Washburn, “Chief, we have the devils up here!” and called for his men to come up. Only McDonald answered.
From across the dark terrace someone called, “Tyrrell, is that you?” Tyrrell ignored it, for he knew that Hughes knew his voice. The same man called again, “Tyrrell, for God’s sake, answer, is that you shooting at us?”
This time Tyrrell recognized the voice as McGinn’s; the three lawmen had been shooting at each other.
Hughes and Mullen, with the innate caution that keeps the professional criminal in business, had left the ready-made trap of the burial vault to wait for the wagon under a small oak tree a hundred feet away. When the detectives rounded the corner of the memorial on their way to the burial chamber, Hughes and Mullen started forward, thinking the dim figures were Swegles and Billy Brown. They got within thirty feet before they realized that they were looking not at two men but at a small crowd.
They overheard enough to convince them that the figures were lawmen, then turned and fled: they already had cleared the cemetery grounds and had almost reached the terminus of the street railway near the east entrance when the sound of shots reached them.
A conductor whose horsecar had just arrived at the end of the line heard the gunfire, someone shouting, “Damn you, you can’t shoot us, you’re not smart enough,” and the big voice of agent Tyrrell, a quarter of a mile away, bellowing orders.
It was a bad night for Tyrrell. Not only had the thieves escaped, but only great good fortune had kept his men from killing one another. As he reported to Secret Service headquarters, it was “one of the most unfortunate nights I have ever experienced, yet God protected us in doing right.”