Last week, I told you the story of the failed attempt to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body from it’s final resting place at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois. The attempt took place on November 7, 1876; Presidential election night in America. The covert-cadaver-caper was concocted by a group of bumbling Chicago Irish counterfeiters tuned grave robbers. The body snatchers succeeded in breaking into the sacred tomb of our sixteenth President and partially removing the 500-lb. coffin from it’s protective sarcophagus before being discovered by a group of U.S. Secret Service agents. These Federal agents were tipped off by an informant within the gang and were secretly hiding in another part of the tomb waiting for the right moment to catch the thieves red-handed. The lawmen burst into the burial chamber only to discover that the pair of body bandits had escaped. Of course, it didn’t help that one of the agents’ guns accidentally discharged upon exiting the hiding place in the memorial hall area of the tomb.
What should have been an easy collar now turned into an adrenaline charged terrifying pursuit through a darkened graveyard. The agents had no idea where the bandits might be hiding, so they fanned out in an attempt to find the ghouls. Part of the search took place atop the observation platform above the burial chamber itself. At one point, the agents believed they had cornered the bandits and a frantic gunfight ensued. The pistol shots and “surrender” shouts rang out from column to column atop the sacred monument until agents finally realized they were firing at each other.
It was soon discovered that the grave robbers had indeed heard that first shot and skedaddled like scared rabbits into the protective grasp of the boneyard’s inky darkness. They scurried back over the same fence they had most recently climbed over to get to the tomb and were now running for their lives. Have no fear, true to form, it wasn’t much of a getaway. The gang headed straight back to their saloon in Chicago where they were rounded up and arrested on November 16, 1876.
Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert hired a group of lawyers to prosecute the gang of grave robbers. The case didn’t come to trial for eight months. Finally, the trial began, and the grave robbers were convicted and sentenced to one year in Joliet State Penitentiary. The crime? Stealing Abraham Lincoln’s body? No, there were no state laws against grave robbing at that time in Illinois, so the robbers were only convicted of the theft of the coffin itself. On June 22, 1877, a train took the convicted tomb robbers to the prison to begin their terms. Three years later, the Illinois legislature revised its statute on robbing graves with a penalty of up to 10 years in the state prison. The gang members were released from prison and soon disappeared from the pages of history
The original group of arresting officers were accompanied by the tomb’s first Custodian, John Carroll Power. After the failed robbery, Power was haunted by a recurring nightmare of grave robbers spiriting away the body of Lincoln. After many sleepless nights, Power decided to remove the President’s body from the public crypt and hide it in another area of the tomb. From that moment on, the thought of protecting Lincoln’s body from grave robbers became the driving force of Power’s life. He formed a vigilance group of Springfield citizens, known as the “Lincoln Guard of Honor”, whose job was to protect the hallowed remains of Abraham Lincoln. The group included a railroad ticket agent, an innkeeper, and a bank clerk, none of whom had known Lincoln in life.
In his book Stealing Lincoln’s Body historian Thomas J. Craughwell described the hiding place as the “basement” or “cellar” of the tomb. The only problem with that statement is that the Lincoln tomb does not have a basement. In reality, the area where Mr. Power hid the President’s body is on the same level as the crypt. Power buried the railsplitter’s body in a utility area in a back room of the tomb. He covered it with lumber, tarps and paint cans to further disguise it. The only people that knew Mr. Lincoln’s remains were secreted there were the members of the Lincoln Guard of Honor.
Here the President’s corpse remained for decades as untold numbers of visitors to the tomb gazed upon Lincoln’s empty sarcophagus unaware it was no longer there. Today the one-time hiding place is a jumble of broken bricks and shards of mortar left over from the many tomb renovations made by succeeding generations over the years.
In the years following the reburial, the Lincoln Guard of Honor kept their secret faithfully. The group disbanded in 1901, when Robert, the president’s only surviving child, decided to have his father’s body permanently entombed in a steel cage, lowered into a 10-foot-waterproof vault, and buried under tons of wet concrete. Mr. Lincoln remains there today.
Perhaps the one entity that benefited most from the failed crime was the United States Secret Service. Their protection of Mr. Lincoln’s body eventually led to protecting the office of the presidency itself. Not to mention, the primary purpose of the Secret Service remains the arrest and prosecution of counterfeiters.
Having visited Oak Ridge cemetery every year for the past decade or so, I have often wondered what the tomb’s surroundings looked like on the night of that failed body snatching. The November 8, 1876 Chicago Tribune newspaper described the scene as: “About 6:30 five men went out to Oakwood and concealed themselves in Memorial Hall, inside the monument, to await developments. One man was posted in the labyrinth in the rear, so called because of the walls running in different directions and making numerous passage ways, these walls supporting the terrace…No traces of the thieves being discovered, the party returned to the catacomb. The body is inclosed in a lead casket. This is surrounded by a cedar case, and the receptacle of these is a marble sarcophagus. The latter had a double lid, the upper one not being as large as the other. Both had been pried of with a chisel or an ax, and somewhat chipped in the operation. The under lid was laid crosswise on the casket, the head-piece on the floor, and the upper lid standing against the wall. The casket itself was pulled about a foot from the body of the sarcophagus, and a small piece had been taken off the floor, where an ax with the edge full of marble-dust, and ordinary chisel, and a pair of nippers were. The other tools had evidently ben taken away since the lock on the iron-grated door had been sawed off. It should be stated that the sarcophagus was in the catacomb and not in the crypt, being thus placed in order that visitors might see it. The damage done is comparatively little. Only one motive can be attributed to these despoilers of the grave, and that is the hope of reward for the restoration of the remains. If they had succeeded in carrying them off, it certainly could not have been their intention to take away the casket, for it must weigh from five hundred to six hundred pounds, and half a dozen men could not have carried it to the fence to transfer to a wagon on the road. It is more than likely that they intended to cut open the casket, and gather up the bones and dust of the martyred President and carry them away.”
The idea of stealing the body of Abraham Lincoln, spiriting it away to the sand dunes of northern Indiana and hiding it there until a ransom was paid and a criminal released from jail, seems absurdly preposterous to our modern sensibilities. But it really happened and even though there isn’t much left at the Lincoln tomb to corroborate the events of that night, should you ever find yourself visiting Oak Ridge cemetery, proof is just a short walk away. Located in section 25 on a hilltop overlooking the final resting place of his former charge is the grave marker of custodian John Carroll Power. Power’s epitaph, chiseled in stone, reads: “Custodian of the National Lincoln Monument from Oct.1874 to January 11, 1894. Was on duty the night of Nov. 7, 1876 when ghouls attempted to steal the body of President Lincoln.” Power died on duty (January 12,1894) while standing on the corner waiting for the streetcar to take him to the tomb. And there he remains ever faithful on the lookout for grave robbers for all eternity.
Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis” and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest book is “Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View.” Contact Al directly at Huntvault@aol.com or become a friend on facebook.