02/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Little Known Abe Lincoln Story: In 1876, Graverobbers Tried to Steal the Dead President's Body

I'd forgotten that it took Abraham Lincoln all night to die. I never knew that his body was turned over to the same undertakers who'd performed those intimate services just three years earlier for Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie. Or that the big shots in Springfield, Illinois planned to override Mary's wishes and bury the President's body right in the center of town.

All this and more is in the prologue of Stealing Lincoln's Body. It's fascinating stuff -- and a great introduction to a book about post-death Lincoln.

But why, if the book's about Lincoln, is Chapter 1 called "The World of the Counterfeiter", and why does the author present a brief, vivid history of counterfeiting in America, 1647-1875?

Because one of the best of that criminal breed, Benjamin Boyd, was arrested and jailed in 1875. And his pals decided that the best way to free him was to steal Lincoln's body from its Illinois tomb and refuse to give it back until Boyd walked free and they had collected a ransom of $200,000.

Crazy idea. And yet there were clowns addled enough, on Election Night of 1876, to try and steal Abraham Lincoln from his sarcophagus in the Lincoln Monument at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

It gets crazier. The Chicago police learned of the plot. And the chief leaked it to a young reporter. Who then hid out at the Monument with the cops, waiting for the robbers. Who screwed up royally --- this was a gang that couldn't keep a secret or break a lock, much less steal a dead President.

But the attempted grave robbery and its aftermath --- solid drama in their own right --- are just part of this goofy chronicle. There's an eye-opening section on the Hayes-Tilden Presidential election, which is another tale of treachery and fraud. And great tidbits abound. Lincoln's estate? $85,000 (a fortune in 1865 money). And then his trustee, in two years, turned it into $110,000. (My reaction --- and yours, no doubt: How?)

The end of this saga? Well, which time? 1901? Or 1930? It turns out it's a heap of work to protect a dead man. Not that you should worry about Lincoln. Abe and Mary are now safely buried, protected by the weight of history --- and by a casing of lead, a cage of steel and tons of cement.

If you like your history brisk, narrative and irreverent, this book's a delight.

[cross-posted from]