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Family Resemblances

This review by John Corry appears in the April 2007 issue of The American Spectator. Click here to subscribe.

Stealing Lincoln’s Body
by Thomas J. Craughwell
(Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 234 pages, $24.95)

ACTUALLY THE GRAVE ROBBERS were never up to the job, and their caper was doomed from the start. Serious miscreants do not enlist police informers to help them. But Stealing Lincoln’s Body is as much about other things — the Secret Service, counterfeiters, embalming practices, ethnic Chicago, even the Pullman Strike of 1894 — as it is about bungling grave robbers and where they went wrong. Thomas J. Craughwell has given us a richly detailed, highly entertaining, and broad slice of our history.

Counterfeiting, it seems, is as American as mom’s apple pie. When the English colonists in Rhode Island and the Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam agreed to adopt Indian wampum as legal tender, the Algonquins began passing off ersatz wampum to the colonists and keeping the good stuff for themselves. And in no time at all, the colonists began counterfeiting, too. In 1682, William Penn complained that his “holy experiment” in Pennsylvania was failing; half the coinage there was fake. Even so, courts tended to treat counterfeiters leniently, although on occasion real annoyance set in: In 1720, one counterfeiter was hanged in Philadelphia, and in Newport, Rhode Island, another had his ears lopped off.

But counterfeiters adjusted and thrived, and on the eve of the Civil War nearly 4,000 kinds of counterfeit bills — or queer or coney — were in circulation. (Genuine bills were called rhino, nails, putty, or spondulics.) By 1864, about half the bills in the North were fake. Clearly something had to be done, and so Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase authorized William Wood, a hero of the Mexican-American War, to put counterfeiters out of business. The dodgy Wood, who would become the first chief of the Secret Service, then hired three assistants: a Chicago jailbird, a New Jersey counterfeiter, and a suspected five-time murderer.

Unconventional certainly, but also effective: Within a year Wood and his roughnecks had seized more than 200 counterfeiters and confiscated an enormous amount of queer. In 1869, Wood was succeeded as Secret Service chief by Hiram C. Whitely, and in 1874 honest Elmer Washburn, the former, and highly unpopular, police chief in Chicago, succeeded Whitely. Washburn’s great inspiration was to make the Secret Service truly secret; agents were told to keep their names out of the papers and operate in the dark.

Washburn also wanted his agents to forgo the cowboy tactics that Wood and, to a lesser extent, Whitely, had condoned. Washburn insisted on professional standards, and as Craughwell writes, Dublin-born Patrick D. Tyrrell, now a family man in Chicago, was just the kind of agent he wanted: Tyrrell was “honest, respectable, incorruptible,” and he kept written records.

(And yes, the editor in chief of the magazine you now hold in your hands is also named Tyrrell. Patrick D. Tyrrell was his great-great grandfather, and an old picture in Stealing Lincoln’s Body suggests a strong family resemblance.)

Tyrrell and his colleagues seriously undermined Midwestern counterfeiting when they broke up a big criminal ring in 1875; but an unintended consequence of this was the grave-robbery plot. Benjamin Boyd, one of the men they put in jail, was highly regarded by other counterfeiters for the excellence of his engravings, and his absence put a dent in their earnings. Consequently one Big Jim Kennally devised an improbable plan. He would get underlings to steal Lincoln’s body from its tomb in Springfield, Illinois, and keep it in hiding until the governor of Illinois released Boyd from jail. Then Boyd could get back to the lucrative business of engraving.

WE ARE NOW AT THE PART of Stealing Lincoln’s Body where susceptible readers may think they hear music: specifically, the evocative tinkling ragtime of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” as orchestrated for the Paul Newman-Robert Redford movie The Sting. Author Craughwell gives us a collection of con men, bunko artists and crooked pols, most of them Chicago Irish. For example, “Red Jimmy” Fitzgerald swindled Charles Francis Adams, a descendant of two U.S. presidents; “Hungry Joe” Lewis conned Oscar Wilde. Aldermen “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin threw parties to which the owners of brothels, saloons, and gambling parlors had to buy blocks of tickets.

And so on; Big Jim Kennally and his crew, though, were never in that league. They were not very good at strategic planning, either. Big Jim, who stayed home on the night in question, entrusted the actual operation to two pals, and they, in turn, enlisted not one, but two, police informers as assistants. When they all showed up at Lincoln’s tomb, Tyrrell and other detectives were waiting. When one of the detectives accidentally discharged his revolver, however, the two would-be grave robbers fled on foot. They limped back to their old Chicago hangout and immediately were arrested.

But the aborted grave robbery had an aftermath. Some upstanding citizens in Springfield, appalled by the notion that Abraham Lincoln’s burial site might once again be desecrated, formed the Lincoln Guard of Honor. It seemed to be no more than a symbolic, patriotic-fraternal order but it undertook a serious task. Fearful of another grave-robbery attempt, its members secretly reburied Lincoln’s coffin in the basement of the tomb. Indeed, America’s 16th president did not find his final resting place until 1901, when his coffin was enclosed in a steel cage, lowered into a vault, and covered with cement.

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