On Election Day in 1876, a gang of grave robbers almost stole our greatest president’s body. This is the story of how one secret service agent saved President Abraham Lincoln’s body.
For those passing through Springfield, IL, there’s no more hallowed ground than the Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery. The final resting place of our 16th president and arguably America’s very best president, the Lincoln Tomb is also the site of the greatest attempted robbery in Election Day History.
In 1876, President Lincoln’s memorial and tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery had been completed for a couple years, and the president’s remains rested in a large marble sarcophagus, a tomb intended to be the great president’s final resting place.
Unfortunately, a gang of central-Illinois counterfeiters had other plans.
To raise money and free a jailed member of the gang, the criminals’ leader, “Big Jim” Kinealy, hatched a plan to steal Lincoln’s body and hold it ransom. Kinealy’s twisted plot spread around Springfield, however, thanks to a drunken gang member bragging to a woman. The gang was forced to relocate to Chicago.
Once in the Windy City, Kinealy again began plotting to steal the 16th president’s body while he also operated a saloon frequented by a patron by the name of Lewis G. Swegles. Kinealy liked Swegles so much he invited him into the gang and into the plot to steal Lincoln’s remains.
But Lewis G. Swegles wasn’t really a fellow criminal. He was an undercover Secret Service agent.
The plan to steal Lincoln’s body
Kinealy’s plan was simple… Lincoln’s body would be taken out of his coffin and placed in a large sack. The body would then be wagoned to northern Indiana and buried in the dunes along Lake Michigan while the gang made their ransom demands known.
The date for the robbery would be November 7, 1876- an election day. Kinealy assumed the town would be too focused on the election to notice his band of grave robbers.
The actual attempted grave robbing
The gang entered the cemetery on the night of November 7 and sawed off the padlock to the tomb and slipped off the massive marble top of Lincoln’s sarcophagus. As the gang was attempting to hoist the large wooden coffin from the tomb, Swegles was sent to fetch the wagon.
Of course, Swegles had other plans. Instead, he signaled the detectives hiding near the tomb into action. The 8 detectives swarmed to the tomb with their revolvers drawn, but the grave robbers escaped.
Their escape was short-lived, though. Kinealy’s gang was captured in Chicago just 10 days later and all were sentenced to a year in the Joliet State Prison (the same prison the Blues Brothers break free from).
The 1-year prison sentence seemed light for attempting to steal the president’s body, and Illinois passed a law 3 years later to make grave robbing punishable by up to 10 years in a state penitentiary.
Visiting the Lincoln Tomb today
Today, Lincoln’s Tomb is a breathtaking memorial- hallowed ground sure to leave an impression with its vast displays of marble, granite, and bronze.
His actual remains are now buried deep below the memorial with lots of reinforced concrete to ensure its safety.
Statues of Lincoln at various ages as well as a reproduction of a famous Gutzon Borglum (same guy who designed Mt. Rushmore) sculpture of Lincoln adorn the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, and 3 of his 4 sons are also interred at the memorial.
For more information on visiting the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site, including hours, visit the Lincoln Monument Association’s website.
Oak Ridge Cemetery
1441 Monument Ave, Springfield, IL 62702