- Historic Sites
The Plot To Steal Lincoln’s Body
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
J. C. Power, the monument’s custodian, later wrote that in his view it all had turned out for the best: “If Tyrrell had found them in the burial chamber, entering the door as he did, they could and would have seen and shot him before he could have learned which one of the dark corners they were in.” Still, Tyrrell had to put up with some very painful abuse in the nation’s newspapers. Some suggested that the whole fiasco had been a phony drama enacted to get Washburn enough publicity to secure him the job of Chicago police chief, others presumed that the Pinkerton detective had set off his pistol to warn the thieves.
While Mullen and Hughes fled across the rolling Illinois farmland in the dead of night, the lawmen ignominiously trudged back to Springfield; the street-cars had stopped running at 10:00 P.M Washburn, who’d sprained an ankle during the sprint around the memorial, had to ride back in a borrowed spring wagon.
Tyrrell, Hay, and McDonald caught the midnight train back to Chicago, while Washburn and McGinn stayed in Springfield to search for clues the next morning. Custodian Power arranged to keep back the crowds and to have the coffin pushed back into place and the sarcophagus cemented shut.
Hughes and Mullen arrived with the dawn at a farmhouse about seven miles northeast of Springfield. They asked anxiously if any strange men had been noticed in the neighborhood. The farmer told them he’d seen no one and asked who they were looking for. “There was a row in Springfield last night,” Mullen explained, “and a white man was killed by some Negroes, and we are looking for the men who did it.” (The election-night affray had actually occurred, and a few days later Mullen and Hughes found the brick-throwing killers they allegedly were looking for—in cells near theirs in the Sangamon County Jail.)
The pair bought breakfast from the farmer, then went to the farm of Hughes’ father near Loda, Illinois, where Hughes stayed while Mullen returned to his familiar spot behind the bar at The Hub.
Telling a fabricated tale of his narrow escape from the detectives, Swegles resumed his accustomed place on the other side of the bar and kept an eye on Mullen until Hughes reappeared on November 17. A warrant was obtained and given to Officer Dennis Simms of the Chicago police, and he, Tyrrell, McGinn, and Washburn at last performed the satisfying task of arresting and handcuffing Hughes and Mullen and carting them off to Chicago’s central police station.
The next day they were taken to Springfield, where they were identified by several witnesses; two days after that, on November 20, 1876, Hughes and Mullen were indicted.
At that time there was no law in Illinois to cover grave robbing, so the charge was that they “did unlawfully and feloniously attempt to steal, take and carry away certain personal goods and property, to-wit: One casket, otherwise called a coffin … the personal goods and property of the National Lincoln Monument Association … against the peace and dignity of the People of the State of Illinois.” The value of the coffin: seventy-five dollars.
The November 20 indictment was followed by a great deal of legal wrangling, and it was not until five months later, on May 29, 1877, that the two defendants entered a plea of not guilty, claiming that the case against them was “all a put-up job by the secret service men” and promising startling revelations “when it comes our time to speak.”
Even the most optimistic defense attorney hardly could have expected an acquittal, for the local newspapers already had tried and convicted the defendants in columns of inflammatory prose. But when the prosecution read aloud two letters that had been intercepted when Mullen had tried to smuggle them out of his cell, there could be no doubt. Climaxing a lifetime of bad judgment, Mullen had set down detailed instructions to two prospective witnesses, outlining word by word the perjured testimony he expected them to deliver.
On New Year’s Eve of 1876 he had written Thomas J. Sharp, a former Lincoln, Illinois, newsman and now, unknown to Mullen, being held on a federal counterfeiting charge: ”… I will send you a statement what I want Mr. Curtes to say.… I want to prove by him that we missed the train and stayed at his house that night… have him … give me the location of his house and description of the house and how many in famley.” The detailed statement was enclosed.
And to William A. Birdsall of Springfield, Mullen had written: “If you can’t prove you took us towards Chesnut, get things fixed solid, so you can prove that we stayed with you all night; I think you can do it if you only use your head a little. Hughes has long thin whiskers, of a sandy color; is not very fleshy; about 5 foot 8 inches. Mullins is about 5 feet 7 inches, long mustache, and is rather fleshy. We will secure the money for you.”
The trial lasted just two days. On the evening of May 31 the jury returned a verdict of guilty.