Friday, February 27, 2015

"Stealing Lincoln's Body" - History Channel (2009)

I’d always heard about the attempted abduction of President Lincoln’s body in 1876, but I have never found a book; or a film; which told the story behind it. It was; in effect; relegated to the back of my memory with the rest of the trivia. Then I saw this film.

Abraham Lincoln was the first President who dealt with the problem of counterfeiting currency in a meaningful way. Before the War Between the States; which was anything but “civil”; paper money was a convenience and minted by banks. If you lived near one of those banks; say in the same city; it was no problem to authenticate the bills. But for travelers it was a nightmare. Lincoln set up the Secret Service to combat this crime. His was also the first Presidency to have the motto “In God We Trust” appears on American currency; hard coin or paper.

The reason I mention the counterfeiters is that it was a group of such men who set about; in 1876; to steal Lincoln’s body from its tomb in Springfield, Illinois. The film traces the journey of Lincoln’s body from the moment he is shot at Ford’s theater in 1865 until he was finally permanently entombed in Springfield in 1901.

You read that right. While John Brown’s body was a Moldering in its Grave, Lincolns was stuck in an odyssey which could never have been invented; for the antics of man are greater than any fiction.  James Brown’s body has been in limbo since his death in 2006; but even his 8 year ordeal pales in comparison to what happened with Lincoln. Not wishing to ruin the film for you I will just give you a brief outline of what the film covers, leaving out the best parts.

Mary Todd Lincoln was too grief stricken to make the journey to the President’s funeral. She was actually holed up in the White House for about a month after her husband’s death, unable to leave.

Meantime the largest funeral procession ever undertaken in perhaps the history of the world was unfolding, with the Presidents funeral train traveling from Washington to New York. From there it would take a long route back to Illinois through just about every major stop on the line.
Each town had its own funeral procession; requiring that the coffin be removed from the train and paraded through streets and even exhibited in City Halls. New York was one of those places, where the body lay in state indoors at City Hall for 8 hours as almost half a million people attempted to pay their respects. Some towns actually held the ceremonies outdoors to accommodate the crowds.  There were 25 such stops made before the train arrived in Springfield.

It almost didn’t make it that far. Mrs. Lincoln, back in Washington, heard that the plans were for her husband to be buried in town when it arrived in Springfield. She wanted him buried at Oak Lawn Cemetery and if that was unacceptable to the “committee” which had decided upon this, then she would have the President buried in Chicago. The President was buried at Oak Lawn.

That should have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. In 1876, amid the most contested election in the history of our country; 82% of Americans eligible to vote, did so. This was deemed by the conspirators as the perfect time to snatch the body; election night 1876. The hullabaloo surrounding the election results; which would not be resolved for weeks; pushed the story of the attempted abduction to the back pages of most newspapers; if they were reporting it at all.

One of the conspirators was an informer for the Secret Service and due to his presence in the gang the Service was alerted and arrived at the tomb earlier than the robbers themselves. They would wait for a signal from the informant before making the arrest. The local police were kept out of the affair altogether. When the signal was given there was a terrific gun fight and a chase through the woods, leading to the capture of some of the men. They were later tried for tampering with a body and sentenced to 1 year in prison. And that should have been the end of the story; but again, it wasn’t.

That was in 1876. For what happened over the next 25 years you will need to see the film or look it up. Suffice to say that Lincoln was disinterred 10 more times before he was finally allowed to sleep undisturbed. And when he was finally buried his pallbearers were 6 workmen, and the only witness present was a 13 year old boy.

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