Big Jim Kennally ran an organization that made counterfeit money in the 1870s. He had a big problem: His best counterfeiter, Ben Boyd, was in prison. Boyd made metal plates that would stamp the image of money on paper. And it was almost impossible to tell Boyd’s fake money from the real stuff.
The Secret Service, which now protects the president but got its start investigating counterfeiting, eventually caught Boyd and sent him to prison. As a result, Big Jim couldn’t make fake money. He had to come up with a plan to set his guy free.
What would you do if your friend were in jail? Would you try to help him escape? Would you pay a guard to ignore a breakout?
Or would you steal the body of a dead president?
That’s the plan Big Jim came up with. His scheme is the subject of an exciting new book for kids age 10 and older: “Lincoln’s Grave Robbers,” written by Steve Sheinkin. Here’s the best part: The book isn’t fiction. It’s history. Sheinkin is an author of several history books for kids, including “Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.”
Abraham Lincoln was killed in April 1865 while watching a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. His body was taken to his home town of Springfield, Ill. Friends of Lincoln’s eventually built a needle-shaped monument to hold Lincoln’s body.
Big Jim decided to hire a group of men to break into Lincoln’s tomb, steal the coffin and dump it into a nearby river. Big Jim’s plan: After a few days, as news of Lincoln’s disappearance spread, he would leave his home in Missouri and go fishing at the river in Illinois. He would find the coffin (conveniently!), hide it and request Ben Boyd’s release and $200,000 for the coffin’s safe return. And Big Jim wouldn’t get in trouble because he was in St. Louis when the break-in happened.
Now isn’t that a devilish scheme?
“He figured if he had an alibi, that that would cover it,” Sheinkin said. “I think they really thought they would be considered almost heroes for finding the body.”
Big Jim hired three criminals to break into the tomb on Nov. 7, 1876, which was Election Day. He figured people would be so busy voting, they wouldn’t notice three guys stealing Lincoln’s body, which wasn’t protected very well. The tomb had just one guard, a wooden door and a metal gate with a lock.
On election night, the three men broke into the tomb. They took off the marble covering and cracked through a layer of concrete poured over Lincoln’s coffin. Then they got the coffin and pulled it out. The coffin of a president lay on the floor! They were so close.
Did the plan to kidnap the president’s body succeed? The story has even more bizarre twists, including one of the thieves perhaps ratting out his partners and gunshots being fired in the night. Read Sheinkin’s book to find out how the story ends. We’ll tell you this much: Lincoln’s body is back in the monument, today (the one in Illinois, not the one you may be familiar with in Washington) — and much better protected than it was 137 years ago.