12. "I Could Have Stopped This Scheme with Little Trouble"
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190 12 “I Could Have Stopped This Scheme with Little Trouble” By late October 1876, thirty-three-year-old Robert Lincoln’s life was returning to normal after an eventful and not entirely pleasant year. His travails with his mother had recently ended, and she had only weeks before sailed for Europe; his twenty-four-year-old brother-in-law, Willie Harlan, had died, and the Lincoln family had traveled to Mount Pleasant for the funeral (Mary and the children stayed for two weeks); Robert had only days before finished campaigning for the Republican presidential candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, in the upcoming national elections; and with the birth of his third child, Jessie, in November 1875, his wife was preparing for the girl’s approaching first birthday. A strange incident had occurred that summer as well. Robert heard that a group of men in Lincoln, Illinois, supposedly planned to steal his father’s body from the Lincoln tomb on the night of July 4, hide the casket underwater in the Sangamon River, and demand a ransom for its return. As rumors of the plot began to circulate around Logan and Sangamon Counties, Springfield Police Chief Abner Wilkinson informed the Lincoln Monument Association of the possible threat, urged them to place guards at the tomb, and then began an official investigation. The plotters quickly abandoned the area and the scheme.1 The rumors caused little excitement at the time, seeming too depraved and bizarre to be true. The local and regional newspapers ignored the story. Even members of the Lincoln Monument Association—the men tasked to preserve and protect the Lincoln tomb—did not believe it and so did nothing for added security. Robert Lincoln, however, when he found out about it, had no time to worry or take action, if he even believed it. It was more than one month chapter twelve 191 before a Chicago newspaper stated the Logan County Plot—as it has come to be called—was “quietly followed up” but was “possibly a sensation.”2 Nearly four months later, on the morning of October 27, a U.S. Secret Service agent visited Robert Lincoln at his Chicago law office. The agent, a thickset, square-jawed, steely-eyed Irishman, introduced himself as Chief Operative Captain Patrick D. Tyrrell and said he had uncovered a verified plot by a gang of counterfeiters to steal the remains of Abraham Lincoln from the Springfield tomb and hold it for ransom. He was there not only to inform Robert of the discovery but also to ask his permission to let the plot proceed so he could catch the crooks red-handed. Robert was incredulous. “It’s impossible,” he supposedly told Tyrrell. “I simply can’t believe such a vile plot could come from the mind of a man, no matter how vicious.”3 Body snatching, however, certainly was not a new idea in 1876. Grave robbers , or, as they were called in the nineteenth century, ghouls or resurrectionists , commonly prowled America’s graveyards in search of the freshest bodies. Typically, the corpses were taken to the nearest medical school and sold as cadavers for experiment and dissection, but sometimes the ghouls were out for robbery. The practice was so prevalent, in fact, that families of the dead often kept vigilant watch in the graveyard for days until the body was old enough to be out of danger.4 One of the most sensational grave-robbing cases in nineteenth-century America occurred in 1830 when a fired gardener at George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, tried to steal the first president’s skull but ended up with the bones of a distant relative instead.5 The Lincoln tomb plot was nothing so simple or pedestrian, Tyrrell explained. During the Civil War, the rise of a national paper currency, commonly called greenbacks, led to a simultaneous rise in counterfeiting. By 1865, the problem was so pervasive and injurious to the Union war effort that Treasury Secretary Hugh McCullough, with the assent of President Lincoln, created the U.S. Secret Service, whose sole job was to find and arrest counterfeiters. The irrepressible William P. Wood was appointed the Service’s first chief, and within one year more than two hundred counterfeiters had been arrested and sent to prison.6 Although the new effort certainly hindered the counterfeiting business, it did not stop it; by the early 1870s, fake money was again flourishing. It was estimated that half of all national paper currency in the...


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Subject Headings

  • Lawyers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Lincoln, Robert Todd, 1843-1926.
  • Children of presidents -- United States -- Biography.
  • Ambassadors -- United States -- Biography.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1865-1933.
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