President Lincoln is remembered as one of the key historical figures in American History. Perhaps it is partially due to his assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth that he is remembered as a great president despite being in office through the entirety of a terrible Civil War. But in 1870 a second plot was hatched against him, long after his death. This time he was the target of petty criminals who aspired to undertake the greatest heist in American history – the theft of Lincoln’s body from his tomb.
The conspiratorial group was comprised of a group of counterfeiters in Illinois who were coming out of the end of a long string of bad investments. The counterfeiters had recently burned through their supply of counterfeit money and were struck with a terrible bout of macabre inspiration. Their plan was to take the president’s body and then ransom it for $200,000 in gold bars – along with a demand that would make them far easier to identify: the release of a friend of their by the name of Ben Boyd. Some say their plan was destined to fail long before it was hatched for this reason. The stealing of a president’s remains was not something any era would take in stride, but in 1870 it would have surely been seen as one of the most horrid things a person could do. For this reason, they were confident the money would be turned over.
But the plan was nowhere near the perfect heist they had planned. Long before they even reached the tomb, rumors started circulating of the heist. They were infuriated when they learned that one of their co-conspirators had broken his vow of silence to his fellow grave robbers. As a result, word spread, and they were forced to wonder if it would be traced back to them specifically. The fact that they already had a history of counterfeiting certainly didn’t help matters either. Fleeing Springfield, they soon found themselves wandering the streets of Chicago ready to plot their next move. Rather than abandon their scheme, however, they decided to try once again.
The news eventually reached the Secret Service, and an agent by the name of Swegles was dispatched to investigate the matter. Going undercover, he joined the group posing as a fellow conspirator. Swegles conveyed to the Secret Service the plans of the men’s’ journey from Illinois to Indiana and their means of carrying the President – and the fact that they were quite serious about the plot.
Luckily for the sanctity of Lincoln’s tomb, before the plot could be carried out the robbers were scared off by agents and apprehended days later. But the strangest part of the story came when the judge sentenced the men. For a conspiracy to dig up the remains of Abraham Lincoln and sell it for ransom, no one in the gang was given a sentence of more than one year in prison. Shortly after the plot the law was changed to make the maximum sentence for grave robbing ten years in an effort to avoid a repeat of the event.
Lincoln remained entombed, and at peace, but the public was clearly rattled.