Stealing Abraham Lincoln
The Myths & Mysteries Haunting Lincoln's Tomb by John Winterbauer

If the reports are to be believed, Abraham Lincoln must be the most well traveled ghost in history. The martyred president is said to haunt the White House, his home in Springfield, the old capital in Vandalia, Illinois, Ford's Theatre and just about anywhere else he ever visited-even his phantom funeral train has been sighted from time to time! My favorite stories have always been those of hauntings at the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield's Oak Ridge Cemetery.

I spent a number of years as a volunteer at the tomb in the late 1980's. During that time I began to hear stories of ghostly activity in the monument, not from the staff mind you, sadly we never saw or heard anything odd, but from visitors who claimed to have experienced something otherworldly in the building. Of course, none of these stories were related to us directly but I'd hear them often when I mentioned I was working at the tomb.

Many of the reports mention muffled, disembodied voices or the sounds of footsteps echoing thru the corridors of the quiet tomb. For the most part I side with those who argue the acoustics of the marble structure rather than spirits are to blame for these sounds.

Over the years I have collected ghost stories concerning Mr. Lincoln. While I cannot attest to the truth of all of them, I do find them fascinating. The earliest stories of hauntings in the tomb date to the period between 1865 and 1871, when the remains of President Lincoln and his sons rested in a temporary tomb while awaiting completion of the permanent tomb. This second tomb no longer exists; it sat on the hillside north of the modern monument.

It is said that on quiet evenings the shade of Honest Abe was often seen wandering between the two monuments, as if checking the progress of the work. While I've been unable to find a single contemporary account of this ghostly stroll, it is a legend that has long been a favorite of Springfield storytellers.

If the Lincoln Tomb is haunted, I believe it is mainly the direct result of one specific event. That is the attempted theft of Lincoln's body in 1876. As a result of this botched fiasco, Lincoln spent years being moved from place to place within the tomb before finally finding peace in 1901, thirty-six years after his death.

Many ghost researchers agree that cemeteries are not necessarily the place to find ghosts. Popular theory suggests that a cemetery haunting may result if a grave is disturbed. If this theory holds true the reported hauntings of the Lincoln Tomb may have their beginnings in 1875 and the arrest of Ben Boyd…

The Attempted Theft of Abraham Lincoln

Benjamin F. Boyd had led a life of petty crime but by 1875 he had established himself as one of the most skillful engravers of counterfeiting plates in the country. A relentless agent from the Chicago District of the Secret Service named Captain Patrick D. Tyrrell had doggedly pursued Boyd thru five states, over eight months before finally catching up to him in Fulton, Illinois. On October 20 Tyrrell raided the house where Boyd and his wife were staying and finally arrested his prey. Following his trial in Chicago, Boyd was sentenced to ten years in Joliet Penitentiary and fined $100.00. Tyrrell must have been relieved but the arrest of Ben Boyd was just the beginning of one of the strangest chapters in Illinois history.

Central Illinois at the time was home to one of the most elaborate and successful counterfeiting rings in the country. This empire was ruled over by a shrewd Irishman named James "Big Jim" Kinealy and the secret to "Big Jim's" success was Ben Boyd's ability to create the bogus cash. Boyd's arrest left Kinealy in a serious position. As money, real and fake, began to run out "Big Jim" realized something drastic needed to be done or he'd be ruined. He seized on a plan to steal the corpse of Abraham Lincoln from the tomb in Springfield and hold the remains for ransom-Boyd's release and a hefty sum of money!

The thought that someone may steal Lincoln's body was not new to Springfield. Rumors circulated frequently and at least one enterprising body thief had made serious plans as far back as 1867 but gave up the venture when he couldn't find other interested parties. For this daring venture, Kinealy needed good men and he found them thru his network of counterfeiting operatives. Lincoln, Illinois was a notorious center for bad money. It is said that at one point half the cash in Logan County was counterfeit, "Big Jim" Kinealy controlled most of this. It's not surprising he came to Logan County to recruit his team.

Thomas J. Sharp was the editor of Lincoln, Illinois' Sharp's Daily Statesman and a member of the Logan County branch of Kinealy's ring. Sharp was entrusted to assemble the team and lead the operation. A plan was cobbled together in Robert Splain's saloon in Lincoln. Sharp, Splain and a group of handpicked confederates would go to Springfield and open a saloon to front their continued counterfeiting schemes. The bar would also serve as a place to meet while the group furthered their plans to pilfer the Lincoln Tomb. Kinealy returned to St. Louis and a livery stable he operated there. This gave him a foolproof alibi in the event the theft went awry. His fellow conspirators headed to Springfield.

Once in the capital city the men rented a building on Jefferson Street (two doors west of Fifth, now the site of an abandoned adult bookstore), in the town's infamous Levee District, a lawless little section of town where all manner of vice could be bought or sold. Sharp opened the saloon with a dance hall on the upper story. Splain served drinks and the rest of the gang hung out as customers. The group met frequently in the back to discuss their plans for grave robbing. They each made frequent visits to the Lincoln Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery where they found the custodian, John Carroll Power, more than happy to share information about the building and answer their many questions. On one occasion Power innocently revealed the fact that there was no guard at the tomb at night.

The final plan called for the gang to steal the body and spirit it away to a bridge two miles north of town where it would be buried beside the Sangamon River. Afterward they would scatter and wait for Kinealy to negotiate the reward. They chose the night of July 3, 1876 for their attempt.

It was now early June and the gang now had little to do but wait and drink at Sharp's Springfield saloon. One fixture in the Levee District were a number of brothels and one evening an intoxicated Sharp paid a visit to one of these "parlor houses". He whispered to the madam that the upcoming Fourth of July would hold a little more excitement than in previous years. When pressed he told the woman about the plan to kidnap Lincoln's corpse. He revealed the whole plan to the astonished woman who, later that night passed it along to several local men including, in an ironic twist, the Chief of Police Abner Wilkinson.

Sharp left town the next day on business and upon his return a few days later found the town abuzz with rumors of the gangs plan. Sharp and company fled town as the undeterred Kinealy began to fish around for more competent partners for his venture. Chief Wilkinson reported the plot to Power at the tomb who, in turn, put it before officers of the Monument Association.

The men found the idea of anyone stealing the presidential corpse preposterous and failed to issue any safeguards. A frustrated Power returned to his post and continued his lovingly crafted tours of the monument. From that point on, though, the thought of grave robbers was never far from his mind.

The Hub at 294 W. Madison Street in Chicago was a favorite watering hole of blue collar working men of the city. Unbeknownst to many, it was also a secret rendezvous for those with more sinister purposes. A bust of the martyred Abraham Lincoln stood above the bar in the spacious front room where Terrance Mullen dispensed spirits to thirsty patrons while a wide variety of questionable business was conducted in the back. Terrance Mullen, according to a Secret Service file, was a dangerous man. He was always armed, the report said, and he would open fire at a man without "a very extraordinary amount of provocation". To the customers, he was an amicable, if not slightly bland, barkeep. He was also a fence for Kinealy's bogus monies and a gracious host to the shady characters that frequented the bar.

Following the initial botched grave-robbing attempt Kinealy sold his livery stable in St. Louis and moved to Chicago where he bought into Mullen's bar under the alias "Cornelius". In keeping with his practice of staying out of the spotlight, he seldom visited the bar so it came as a surprise to Mullen when one evening his silent partner called a special meeting in the back room of the Hub. There Kinealy informed Mullen and a well-known Chicago teamster who also served as a counterfeiting fence for "Big Jim", Herbert Nelson, of his plans to steal Lincoln and gain Boyd's release.

Nelson had a public reputation to protect and suggested they bring in a third man, John "Jack" Hughes, a lazy drunk who often worked as a "shover" of the counterfeit bills produced by the gang. The others agreed and got to work crafting a new plan. Including Jack Hughes in the venture was a decision that would come back to haunt the men.

Terence Mullen
(Illinois State Historical Library)

Jack Hughes
(Illinois State Historical Library)

As the plan started to form the Hub became the favorite watering hole of a new regular, a likeable fellow by the name of Jim Morrissey ."Morrissey" was  actually an operative in the employ of Captain Tyrrell named Lewis C. Swegles. Swegles had a minor criminal background and had served prison time for attempting to sell a stolen horse to a judge. In prison he had learned the lingo of the criminal world and Tyrrell thought this would make him an excellent roper for the Secret Service.

Tyrrell told Swegles to locate and tail Jack Hughes and report back on his activities. Swegles quickly learned of the Hub and made his way to the bar. His natural wit and experience in prison, mixed with some modest bragging about his criminal past, quickly endeared "Morrissey" to Hughes who, soon, introduced him to Mullen.

Mullen eyed this "Morrissey" with suspicion, he was wary of any newcomer. Swegles knew "the Boss" would not be as easily duped as Hughes and may have felt a twinge of panic when Mullen asked just what it was he did. In what must be the biggest coincidence of his life, Swegles seized on the first thing that popped into his mind and he told Mullen, "I'm the boss body snatcher of Chicago!"

The boast was reasonable as grave robbing was a common way for medical schools to obtain bodies for study in 1876. The practice was so prevalent that families would often form armed patrols in the cemeteries after a loved one had died. This ghoulish activity, while repugnant, was not expressly illegal, as Illinois had no law on its books outlawing theft of a corpse.

Swegles remarkably lucky boast was enough for Mullen to grant him a measure of trust. Mullen laid their remarkable plan before their new confidant. They would travel to Springfield on November 6 and scout the tomb. The following day was Election Day and Mullen believed the town's focus would be on the vote tallies, not worrying about whether "Old Abe" was safe in his crypt. Under cover of darkness they would remove Lincoln's remains and hide them in the shifting sands of the dunes along Lake Michigan in Indiana. Mullen, borrowing an element of Kinealy's early scheme and placing himself in "Big Jim's" role, would pose as an innocent bystander forced into the role of negotiator. He would notify the governor of Illinois that the gang had given their assurance that Lincoln's body would be returned for the sum of $200,000 and the release of Ben Boyd from prison. Mullen would then be hailed as a public benefactor. The governor would know Mullen was legitimate because during the robbery the thieves would leave a fragment of a newspaper in Lincoln's sarcophagus; when approaching the governor Mullen would present the page it was torn from thus establishing himself as the go-between for the gang.

Swegles reported the plans to Tyrrell who instructed his plant to return to the Hub and make himself available for anything Mullen required of him. Before leaving Chicago on November 6, Swegles purchased a London newspaper and tore a piece out and stuffed the rest into the bust of Lincoln behind Mullen's bar then he and his accomplices boarded the Chicago and Alton railroad to Springfield

November 7, 1876 - Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, IL

The night was dark and moonless as the conspirators made their way to Oak Ridge to enact their carefully developed scheme. Almost immediately, things began to go wrong for the ghouls. At the Lincoln tomb they found the door locked with a thick padlock and, in his haste to open the door, Mullen broke the saw blade he was using to cut the lock. The men settled in as Mullen resorted to the long, tedious task of filing the lock away.

Meanwhile, as the nefarious work proceeded in the back, Captain Patrick Tyrrell and a group of trusted agents were hiding in the front hall of the tomb. Swegles had informed his boss that his role was to drive the wagon. While the others were inside working he was to stand watch. This was ideal for Tyrrell who arranged for Swegles to strike a match at the front door when the time to arrest the body snatchers came. Now Tyrrell and his men stood in the dark, listening to the sounds of the men at work in the rear of the tomb. They anxiously awaited the flare of Swegles' match.

At the north side of the tomb, Mullen had finally managed to file thru the heavy lock and open the door to the burial chamber. There before the men was the white, marble sarcophagus that held the remains of President Lincoln. Now all they had to do was remove the coffin and flee the scene. This, to their dismay, proved slightly more difficult than they had planned.

Lincoln's sarcophagus was topped with a heavy marble lid that, in the dark of the tomb, the men found difficult to remove. Mullen handed Swegles a lantern and instructed him to hold it to light the proceedings. Swegles, left with no other option, complied but secretly wondered if he'd be able to give the signal to the waiting agents.

Finally the men pried the lid off the sarcophagus and exposed Lincoln's coffin. Mullen finally dispatched Swegles to bring up the wagon that had been left in a ravine to the east. Swegles quickly doubled back to the front of the building where he finally lit his match at the front door and, by some accounts, whispered the prearranged codeword, "Wash".

Tyrrell and his men quietly, their shoes removed for silence, crept around the building to the rear of the tomb. At the door Tyrrell ordered the thieves to surrender themselves and come out. From within the tomb-silence. Peering into the darkened room Tyrrell saw the dismantled sarcophagus with the unopened coffin pulled partway out. There was no sign of Mullen, Hughes or any of the rest of the gang.

While Swegles had gone to bring up the wagon, the thieves had moved a ways down the hill to get some air. Now from their vantage point in the shadow of an oak tree they watched in fear as the dim figures of the Secret Service agents spread out around the tomb to search for them. One account reports that as Tyrrell rushed to the upper terrace of the tomb he caught a glimpse of someone staring at him from behind a group of statuary. He unloaded both pistols at them and, instantly, his target was firing back. It turned out to be his own man and eventually ordered was restored with neither agent injured. Meanwhile though, in the ensuing confusion, the grave robbers slipped away into the night. Assuming Swegles had been caught, the thieves quickly made their way out of the cemetery, back to Chicago and the safety of the Hub. They knew that if "Morrissey" talked they were done for and they prayed he had avoided capture.

Upon their arrival at the Hub they were elated to find Swegles waiting for them. He had returned with the horses and found the gang gone, he said. Not knowing what else to do, he had returned to Chicago to await further word. The rest of the night was spent in drunken celebration of their good fortunes.

On November 8 Swegles was back in Tyrrell's office where plans where made to arrest the conspirators later that night. Returning to the Hub "Morrissey" continued his charade with his partners. At eleven that night members of the Chicago Police Department, led by Captain Tyrrell, raided the Hub and arrested Mullen and Hughes who offered no resistance.

On November 20, 1876 a special Grand Jury was convened in Springfield and returned a true bill against Terrance Mullen and Jack Hughes. They were charged with attempted larceny and conspiracy because, as pointed out earlier, no more serious charges could be brought against the men due to inadequacies in Illinois' statutes.

In the end, despite Robert Lincoln hiring some of the best lawyers in Illinois to prosecute the case, the ghouls were sentenced to a year in Joliet Penitentiary for conspiring to steal the coffin valued at $75. Kinealy and Nelson were also arrested and posted bail. They had airtight alibis as to their whereabouts on November 7 and were never formally charged in the conspiracy. On June 22, 1877 Hughes and Mullen joined their associate, Ben Boyd, in Joliet and Abraham Lincoln was left to sleep peacefully in his grave…at least temporarily.

Fearing further attempts on Lincoln's corpse, the Lincoln Monument Association secretly placed the coffin in a relatively inaccessible part of the tomb and let the public believe the marble sarcophagus still held Lincoln's remains. For years pilgrims journeyed to Springfield to pay their respects to an empty sepulture!

Lincoln, for a variety of reasons, has been moved seventeen times since his assassination. His post-mortem journeys finally came to an end on September 26, 1901 when his remains were placed in a special vault designed by Robert Lincoln. Lincoln's coffin now rests ten feet below the floor of the tomb encased in a steel cage and covered with tons of concrete and dirt. It would take dynamite to remove him from the crypt today.

Before the coffin was lowered into the ground it was opened for several friends and associates to identify the remains and give assurances that Lincoln was, indeed, still safely in his coffin. His face, they testified, was as recognizable as it was in life and his clothes were covered with mold. Even the familiar beard was intake. There was no doubt that the man in the coffin was Abraham Lincoln.

A group gathers for Lincoln’s final burial in 1901

Fleetwood Lindley was a boy in 1901 and his father had brought him to the tomb to observe the ceremony. In the south hall of the tomb, young Lindley was one of the witnesses to swear it was Lincoln in the coffin. Shortly before his death in 1963 Lindley remembered the day, "his face was chalky white. His clothes were mildewed. And I was allowed to hold one of the leather straps as we lowered the casket for the concrete to be poured."

The elderly Lindley recalled, "I was not scared at the time but I slept with Lincoln for the next six months." George Cashman, another youth present that day would later become the curator of the Lincoln Tomb and would often regale visitors with his recollections of that day in 1901. Cashman passed away in 1979 as is credited with being the last person to have viewed the remains of Abraham Lincoln.

Despite the positive identification of the body of Lincoln a rumor, persistent to this day, began that Lincoln wasn't truly buried in Oak Ridge. While I've maintained for years that Lincoln is resting quietly in the grave, many more have disagreed.

Ghosts in Lincoln's Tomb?

A common occurrence during my tenure, one which continues to this day, went something like this…a local, usually an older gentleman, would accompany some visiting family or friends to the tomb. The group would listen quietly, politely to whatever we had to say. Upon the conclusion of our presentation the man would turn to his guests and say, "You know, he's not really buried here." I've seen it countless times. Well, despite what the old-timers say, Lincoln is buried in the Lincoln Tomb and his spectral form is not wandering the grounds.

What of the stories then? If Lincoln doesn't haunt his tomb then who does? The answer is, I believe, no one. While this assessment may come as a shock to some readers (and maybe a relief to the staff of the tomb!) I believe it is a reasonable conclusion. But (and there's always a "but" to a good ghost story) something may be happening at the Lincoln Tomb-something a little subtler than your traditional ghost. Something that I believe began as a result of the attempt to steal Lincoln's corpse and the subsequent movements of the coffin all over the grounds.

During my time at the tomb and because of an obsession with Lincoln, I've spent countless hours in the building under all kinds of conditions (the most exciting was during an raging blizzard when we lost power) and can honestly say I've never encountered anything I believe to be paranormal in nature. But others have. Consider this email account from the fall of 2001. "My boyfriend and I recently visited the Lincoln Tomb…" wrote Jennifer, a college student from Bloomington, "we had an experience there you might be interested in." Jennifer and Tom, an art student at Illinois State University in Normal, were videotaping the tomb and discussing the various statues placed along the hallways of the building. Nothing odd was noted at the time but when they got home and watched the tape for the first time…

"We were taping these statues they have and Tom had just commented on one and a voice on the tape says, 'Put it down!' It's a man and it's very clear on the tape." Could it be a voice from beyond the grave or just the echo of another visitor resounding thru the tomb? According to Jennifer, she and Tom were the only people there aside from the staff member in the front hall.

Another bizarre tale comes from a woman who identified herself as "Bonnie" in her initial contact with me. I've since met "Bonnie" and was surprised to learn she was actually a fairly well known (former) newsperson in Springfield. Her encounter with the supernatural at the Lincoln Tomb occurred on February 12, 2002 -- the 193d anniversary of Lincoln's birth. "Bonnie" was there with another man. As they stood before the great marble stone that marks Lincoln's grave, "I just got very sad all of a sudden. It was like a wave of grief just washed over me. I don't really care at all about Lincoln but suddenly it was like I was so sad over his death or something."

She turned to her friend to find him staring at the south wall where the remains of Mary Lincoln and three of the Lincoln sons are entombed, "He had tears rolling down his cheeks," she told me, "He felt the same way I did and he couldn't explain it either. I only go there for the job or I feel obligated to take visitors, not because of any particular interest in Lincoln so I can't imagine why I'd care at all; and especially "Bill", who knew even less than me about Lincoln."

The pair left the tomb and felt fine once they got outside, "I've been in there dozens of times before and since but have never felt that way marble halls. Perhaps on some quiet afternoon at the Lincoln Tomb you'll hear it too…let me know.

Is the Tomb Haunted... Or Not?

Perhaps the grief of millions of pilgrims still resonates? Anniversaries of specific events are often marked by hauntings. Lincoln's birthday is, perhaps, the busiest day each year at the tomb. Maybe a lingering energy releases itself somehow that manifests itself as profound sadness? Personally I've been at the tomb many times on Lincoln's birthday and have never felt a thing nor have I been told any other staff member has reported anything odd. I maintain my psychic abilities rival those of Miss Cleo (in that I have none), maybe Bonnie and Bill were simply more attune to the residual vibrations resonating thru the building?

The question must be raised as to the reliability of these witnesses to be sure. Assume they're telling the truth and did indeed experience something unusual. Residual hauntings are the most common type of haunting. While not a ghost in the truest sense, a residual haunting has many of the same characteristics of the more traditional (i.e. interactive) ghost.

Often events literally "burn" themselves into the site where a residual haunting occurs. These events then replay themselves like video, or more commonly audio, tape when conditions are right. The haunting of the Lincoln Tomb may be just such a manifestation. Consider the number of visitors that have passed thru the tomb from 1871 to the present day. Grief stricken friends of the Lincoln's attended funerals here as well as the drama of countless openings and re-openings of the family graves and emotions running the gamut from sadness to worshipfulness have permeated the air here for nearly a century and a half. If energy is truly indestructible (and who am I to argue with Einstein?) then the tomb must be charged like a giant super-conductor!

I believe the attempted robbery has left as big an impression as any single event in the tomb's history. The fear and excitement of the emotionally charged evening may have etched themselves into the very marble of the magnificent monument as deeply as any sculpture's chisel could have.

Although it's not likely to happen -- it would be interesting to spend the night at the Lincoln Tomb some November 7. Would one hear the residual hammers of grave robbers long dead? Maybe, as the investigator stood in the front hall, a flash of light and a barely heard whisper, "wash" may be noted. Then again, there is no hard evidence to support the idea that a residual haunting would follow any strict guidelines. The anniversary may have nothing to do with it at all. The paranormal investigator must be willing to accept that much of what we do is speculative at best!

Our research tells us that hauntings are often manifested thru odd sounds, odors or overwhelming emotional feelings. Bonnie's experience is a classic example of this type of phenomena which, when placed alongside other reports of "oddness", support a residual haunting at Lincoln's tomb. Because of past vandalism, the tomb area is heavily patrolled at night. Trespassers will be rightfully arrested and prosecuted. The staff is tightlipped about the ghost stories of the Lincoln Tomb and that's just as well. The edifice is a solemn place and, perhaps, not the place to search for ghosts.

So, does Abraham Lincoln haunt his final resting place? Probably not, nor does any other individual spirit, "reside" in the tomb. What lingers is the residual energy of the ages-the grief of his family and friends, the awe of millions of visitors, the fear, excitement and paranoia of grave robbers and those sworn to protect the martyr's remains. All have mixed together here and all can still be felt.

"Put it down," said the voice on Jennifer's tape. Maybe that command lingers from that long ago night in 1876? Perhaps even today the magnitude of that event reverberates thru the years.


Copyright 2007 by John Winterbauer. All Rights Reserved.