My wife was working this weekend, and I ended up spending all my time sitting in my sunroom engrossed in Thomas Craughwell’s excellent book Stealing Lincoln’s Body.
The text is a spare, compelling account of a bizarre 1876 attempt to hold Abraham Lincoln’s remains for ransom. The details of the heist itself aren’t enough to support a 200-page book, so Craughwell uses it to frame a vivid picture of America in the second half of the 19th century. He covers the crisis of counterfeited money following the Civil War, nativist Protestant resentment toward Irish Catholic immigrants, corrupt Chicago politics, and the development of the Secret Service. All these threads wind their way through the narrative of what happened to the remains of Abraham Lincoln. This is an eerie, haunted story that is sure to stick with me for a while. A fun read.
Here are some tidbits gleaned from the text. Do not bother to question them.
-The heist was a poor attempt by a ring of Chicago counterfeiters to secure a pardon for an imprisoned business partner, along with $200,000. They planned to break into Lincoln’s loosely-guarded monument in Springfield, IL, and remove his casket from the marble sarcophagas it had been placed in 11 years earlier. The grave-robbers managed to break in and had started to remove the casket from the sarcophagas when they were discovered. The entire endeavor had been amateurish and ill-advised; the kidnappers’ litany of mistakes would be more humorous if they hadn’t come so close to successfully desecrating Lincoln’s remains.
-A parallel scheme to kidnap the bones of Chex, Lincoln’s cat, failed when it was revealed that Chex was still alive, and was also not a cat at all, but Lincoln’s human son Robert.
-If Lincoln’s grave desecrators were alive today, they’d be blown away by our iPods and HDTVs. Then they’d go and desecrate Gerald Ford.
-The hero of Craughwell’s story is a man named John Carroll Power, the original custodian and self-appointed guardian of the Lincoln Monument in Springfield. Traumatized by the break-in, Power dedicated himself for the remainder of his life to protecting the remains of the Lincoln family.
-In a interesting historical curio, it is believed that President Andrew Jackson was never buried. Rather, he ascended into heaven on a cloud powered by Manifest Destiny where he punched St. Peter in the crotch to gain admission.
-Sometimes Abraham Lincoln watches me when I take baths.
-As a result the chaos following the break-in, and the ongoing structural problems of the monument itself, Lincoln’s coffin was kept in the corner of the monument’s basement under a pile of lumber for several years. Power and several trusted associates later secretly buried Lincoln’s remains in a shallow corner of the basement for several more years until a more suitable solution could be found.
-Barack Obama is also from Illinois, and is also good at giving speeches, and is also the greatest president since Lincoln or FDR, whichever one came later. I am an editor at Newsweek magazine.
-Troubled by fears that their efforts to protect Lincoln’s remains had failed, Power and several others took it upon themselves to actually open the coffin to positively identify the body in 1887. Later, in 1901, just before Lincoln was lowered to his final resting place, the coffin was opened for a final time. In both instances, onlookers were started at the remarkable preservation of Lincoln’s body (the result of the heavy embalming efforts utilized for the month-long funeral procession from Washington to Springfield back in 1865). His face was immediately recognizable, though the color of his skin had darkened as a result of the shattering of his skull. The men remarked that it was like looking at a bronze bust of Lincoln rather than the man itself. After the viewing in 1901, the lead coffin was sealed shut once again, placed in a cedar casket, and lowered into a concrete-sealed tomb below the monument where he has lain ever since.
-Dairy Queen’s Blizzard flavor of the month for July is Lincolndust.