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The Attempted Abduction of Abraham Lincoln's Body

From the state Register May 1, 1965 by George Cashman, Tomb Curator

Transcribed exclusively for Genealogy Trails by ©Barb Moksnes



One of the bizarre events in American history took place in 1876 with the abortive attempt to steal the body of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. This fantastic scheme was the brainchild of Terrence Mullins, a successful operator of a small but elusive counterfeiting ring. Mullins' bad money operations had recently suffered a serious setback with the arrest and incarceration in the penitentiary of Ben Boyd. Boyd was one of the country's most talented engravers of counterfeit plates. Running out of money, good and bad, Terrence Mullins and his closest cohort, Jack Hughes were faced with the necessity of finding a way to recoup their failing fortunes.

They conceived a plan to steal Lincoln's body and convey it to the sand dunes of Indiana, near Lake Michigan. Here they would bury it in the shifting sands where the winds would soon obliterate all traces of the burial. Natural landmarks would mark the exact spot for them and no difficulty would be obtained when the time came for them to retrieve the coffin. Mullins, posing as an innocent bystander forced into the role as negotiator, would notify the Governor of Illinois that he had been given the assurance that President Lincoln's remains would be returned upon the payment of $200,000, and the release of the engraver, Ben Boyd. Mullins confidently expected that when the body was returned to its place in the Lincoln Tomb, he would be hailed as a public benefactor.

Jack Hughes had, a short time before, been indicted for passing bogus money, but was free on bond. Patrick D. Tyrrell, Chief of the Secret Service in Chicago, who had apprehended and arrested Ben Boyd, assigned one of his operatives, Lewis Swegles, to keep Hughes under close surveillance, and to report upon his activities and associates. Learning that Hughes spent much time at the "Hub" a Madison Street saloon in Chicago, Swegles became a frequenter of the place and soon managed to ingratiate himself with Hughes. Swegles confided to Hughes that he had been recently released from prison in Nebraska, and was now looking for an opportunity to make some easy money. Hughes soon became satisfied that Swegles was on the level, and promised to introduce him to the "Boss" who might have something lucrative for him to do.

Mullins agrees to see Swegles, who soon convinced him that he would welcome the chance to join with him in any deal that held promise of ready money. Mullins outlined his plan to Swegles and told him he could have a part in it. Mullins' plan had been carefully prepared and was seemingly foolproof. They would go to Springfield on the night train on November 6th and on the following day would visit the tomb where they would make careful study of the structure and decide how best to accomplish their purpose. Swegkes reported to Tyrrell who was astonished at the daring of the plan. He instructed Swegles to return to the saloon and to agree to everything Mullins might require of him. Tyrrell would gather a few trusted friends and would conceal themselves in the tomb and await the coming of the conspirators. Swegles' part in Mullins' plan would be that of lookout, and after the removal of the coffin from its sarcophagus, he would drive the horse and wagon, which he would arrange to have waiting at the east gate of the cemetery. Tyrrell instructed Swegles to strike a match at the front door of the tomb as a signal that the time had arrived for the capture of the criminals.

At the appointed hour on the dark, moonless night of November 7, 1876, Tyrrell and his companions were hiding in the seemingly deserted hall of the building at the front or [far] end. Hearing the men working on the door of the burial chamber they momentarily expected to see the signal flare from Swegles' match. The signal did not come. Later they heard the hammering on the marble sarcophagus but the expected signal did not come. Meanwhile, Mullins, in his haste to make a fast job of opening the padlock, broke the saw blade and was forced to resort to the long and tedious task of filing the lock. With this finally accomplished and the door open, there occurred a completely unexpected development. Swgles' plan to remain outside as a lookout was foiled as Mullins pushed him into the room and thrust a dark lantern into his hands, and ordered him to direct its rays on the sarcophagus. Swegles obeyed as there was nothing he could do without arousing suspicion.

Mulins and Hughes, after great labor, opened the sarcophagus exposing the coffin, which they partially withdrew. Swegles was now dispatched to bring up the horse and wagon, and they would be well on their way to Indiana before the theft could be discovered. Swegles left immediately in the general direction of the east gate. But after moving down the bluff on which the tomb stands he circled around in front of the building where he lighted his match at the front door. In the meantime, Mullins and Hughes discreetly withdrew from the burial chamber and waited under an oak about a hundred feet away from the tomb.

Tyrrell and his men, on seeing Swegles' signal dashed around the tomb to the rear. At the door, Tyrrell ordered the thieves to come out and give themselves up. Receiving no response to his demand, Tyrrell entered the room and found it empty except for the dismantled sarcophagus and unopened coffin. From their vantage point, Mullins and Hughes saw the dim figures of their pursuers and assuming that Swegles had been caught, rapidly made their way out of the cemetery and avoided capture. They could not be sure of what had happened to Swegles and reasoned that if he had been caught and had talked, they would be in grave danger. Their future plans would depend on Swegles fate that night. Avoiding, as far as possible, any contact with people they made their way back to Chicago and the saloon.

On their arrival at the saloon they found Swegles waiting for them. He assured them that he had not been captured, and that no one knew of their part in the crime. Mullins and Hughes were now satisfied that they were not in any danger, and spent the night in celebration of their fortunate escape. Swegles was at Tyrrell's office the next morning and plans were made for arresting Mullins and Hughes that night. Swegles then returned to the saloon where he continued the deception for the remainder of the day. At eleven that night, Tyrell, with members of the Chicago police, entered the saloon and arrested the 2 men who offered no resistance.

A special grand jury was convened in Springfield and on November 20th, a true bill was entered charging them with attempted larceny and conspiracy. No more serious charge could be placed against them since, at that time there was no state law making grave robbing a felony. The trial opened on May 30, 1877 and on June 2, 1877 Mullins and Hughes were found guilty as charged and sentenced to serve a term of one year in the state penitentiary at Joliet.

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