Correction to This Article
An April 24 Book World review of "Stealing Lincoln's Body" incorrectly gave the impression that there had been a previous attempt to make off with the late president's remains. Such an attempt was made on the body of George Washington.

Digging Into Presidential History

By Harold Holzer,
author of "Lincoln at Cooper Union," which won a Lincoln Prize
Tuesday, April 24, 2007


By Thomas J. Craughwell

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 250 pp. $24.95

Grave-robbing is rather a lost art. It is hard to recall a single well-publicized instance since thieves snatched Charlie Chaplin's remains in Switzerland 30 years ago. Medical students seem to enjoy unfettered access to corpses these days, and kidnappers can earn bigger profits from living victims.

But Abraham Lincoln, the object of one kidnapping plot in life (Thomas J. Craughwell doesn't mention it, but John Wilkes Booth resorted to assassination only after abandoning his original plan to capture and ransom the president for imprisoned Confederate soldiers), proved an irresistible candidate for kidnapping in death. For one thing, his became perhaps the most venerated corpse in American history. Mourners in city after city thronged his multiple April 1865 public funerals. Easter and Passover sermons likened him to Jesus and Moses. Eulogists compared him favorably to George Washington. The president's widow spoke for many Americans when she wrote of his "sacred remains" in waging a battle to bury him in the rural cemetery outside their Springfield, Ill., home town, the dedication of which she and her husband had attended years before.

Ironically, had Springfield's city fathers prevailed and entombed the martyred president in the bustling heart of the town, the kidnappers would never have been emboldened to hatch their plan. Resting out in bucolic Oak Ridge Cemetery, the "sacred remains" were an easy target. And ghouls will be ghouls.

As Craughwell recalls in this spirited narrative, the town should never have let its guard down. An earlier plot to snatch the corpse had failed only because thieves made off with the wrong skull. And Craughwell shows that a Lincoln plot was afoot as early as 1867. Body snatchers finally violated Lincoln's tomb on election night 1876 -- such a contentious day that Republicans at first charged that the desecration was a Democratic plot. But politics played no role. The grave robbers were low-life counterfeiters who hoped only to make quick cash -- of the authentic kind -- by holding Lincoln's corpse for a $200,000 payoff. In the bargain, they would demand that a notoriously skillful bank-note forger be sprung from the penitentiary so he could rejoin their once-prosperous gang.

In the end, their caper turned into black comedy. The conspirators managed to disturb the tomb but lacked the strength to pull Lincoln's heavy casket from its sarcophagus. Caught in the act, they fled the scene so quickly that pursuers nearly shot each other in a vain attempt to capture them. Only later were the failed grave robbers arrested, tried and sent off to prison, serving brief sentences before disappearing from history.

Ordinarily, such a story might seem too thin for a book-length treatment. Indeed, at times "Stealing Lincoln's Body" does show padding. Craughwell devotes an entire chapter to the history of counterfeiting, going back to the age of phony wampum in early New England. On the other hand, a section offering readers everything we ever wanted to know about embalming proves both irresistibly readable and grotesquely relevant.

Craughwell brings off the entire enterprise by making readers feel, hear and smell the atmosphere of the fetid Chicago taverns where the crooks hatched their demonic plot -- not to mention the creepy interior of the shoddy Lincoln tomb, crumbling all around the family corpses as an aging guard of honor struggles both to conceal Lincoln's body in the dank cellar and to rescue the cheaply made temple for posterity.

The book ends hauntingly with the macabre "official" unsealing of Lincoln's coffin -- not once but twice -- before each of its subsequent interments. First uncovered for identification purposes in 1887, the remains seemed to witnesses "somewhat shrunken." Examined yet again in 1901, the corpse looked like a bronze statue -- though, 36 years after the assassination, there was no doubt it was Lincoln. Even his beard was intact. One of the invitees to that final exhumation had the audacity to summon his 13-year-old son from school to stand at his side when the coffin lid came off for the last time. When Fleetwood Lindley died in 1963, he was the last living soul to have looked upon Abraham Lincoln's face. (The coffin now lies under tons of impregnable cement.)

Summoning the raw spirit of crime novels and horror stories, as well as the forensic detail of a coroner's inquest, Thomas J. Craughwell has turned the eerie final chapter of the Lincoln story into a guilty pleasure.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company