Saturday, January 17, 2009

Title Thirteen: Stealing Lincoln's Body by Thomas J. Craughwell

Did you know that, in 1876, a small gang of thieves devised a plan to steal Abraham Lincoln's body from its tomb in the Oak Ridge Cemetery outside of Springfield, Illinois, and hold it for ransom? I never knew that, so it was with a certain amount of curiosity that I picked this book up from one of the non-fiction tables at Barnes & Noble. Craughwell has done an incredible job of researching his material (and when I say incredible, I mean it - the notes, bibliography, and index span nearly 40 pages at the end of the book) and he draws in all sorts of interesting and not-so-interesting information to create a tale that begins with Lincoln's shooting at Ford's theater and ends nearly a century later with the death of the final person involved in the entire situation - a plumber named Leon Hopkins who opened and sealed Lincoln's sarcophagus twice, and died in 1946 at the age of 94. (I told you the author took his research very seriously.)

To make a long story short, the whole plot arose out of a counterfeiting ring. When the Secret Service arrested Ben Boyd, something of a counterfeit genius operating out of Chicago, he was tried, found guilty, and summarily sent to the state pen. Jim Kennally, a saloon operator, political machinator, and all-around crook took a serious financial hit with the absence of Boyd and orchestrated a plan to steal the president's coffin and hold it for the ransom of Boyd's release. Thanks to a paid Secret Service informant, the plot was foiled, the culprits caught and sent to prison, the body saved, and this book written.

I picked up Stealing Lincoln's Body because I have a weird fascination with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and I thought this looked like an interesting read. The blurb on the back even notes: "The custodian of the tomb was so shaken by the incident that he willingly dedicated the rest of his life to protecting the president's corpse." In the bookstore, my mind conjured up a lone old man, with only a pipe and lantern for company, perched in a chair in a house next to the tomb until his dying day. (Apparently I have a very active imagination.) Instead, the book was far too long on detail and minutiae - while I understand that the counterfeiting angle was integral to the plot and the history, I didn't need the entire history of counterfeiting in the United States. Did I need to know that the Indians traded counterfeit wampum to the white man in the early 17th century? Do I feel like I'm going to stab a pen into my eye if I type the word "counterfeit" one more time? The answers are, respectively, no and yes. Lincoln family lore is thrown in haphazardly and far more attention is paid to the qualities of mortar, brick, and marble than I needed.

I'd recommend this book to history buffs, but be prepared for a dry read. The most interesting fact that I took away from Stealing Lincoln's Body is that there is photographic evidence (included in the pictorial section of the book) of future President Theodore Roosevelt and his brother watching Lincoln's funeral cortege make its way through New York City. Put that factoid in your brain and chew on it, kids.

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