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The Plot To Steal Lincoln’s Body

July 2024
15min read

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.


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.

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.

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.”

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.

Hughes and Mullen were sentenced to Illinois State Penitentiary for “one year each, one day of which is to be in solitary confinement, and the balance at hard labor.” Prison records show that each served his full sentence, after which Hughes disappeared without a trace.

Mullen, however, surfaced again. On April 21, 1888, he was found guilty in Dona Ana County, New Mexico, of conspiracy in a land fraud case and given three years in the New Mexico State Penitentiary and a fine of one thousand dollars. He served that sentence, too, in full.

The mastermind behind the plot, Big Jim Kinelly, fell on hard times and in 1880 he evidently broke his own rule against getting within touching distance of counterfeit money; he was arrested in St. Louis for dealing in and being in possession of bogus ten-dollar U.S. Treasury notes. After much legal delay, he was sentenced to serve one year in the Illinois State Penitentiary—still the home of his old friend Ben Boyd.


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