Monday, February 18, 2013

True Tale from the Crypt: Lincoln's Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin

The broken lock fell to the ground.

Mullen pushed the gate open and entered the small room. Hughes stepped in with the lantern, followed by Swegles.

Hughes pointed the light at the floor. There it was: the long, white marble sarcophagus. At one end, carved into the stone was the name: LINCOLN. In an arc above the name were the famous words of his second inaugural address: WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE, WITH CHARITY FOR ALL.

Despite the veneration that his nation has paid this revered president, Abraham Lincoln did not lead a charmed life. Indeed, bad fortune followed him even beyond the grave. 2013 Newbery-winning (for Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon (Newbery Honor Book), author Steve Sheinkin's newest, Lincoln's Grave Robbers (Scholastic, 2013), tells the little-known story of the nearly successful attempt to steal his body from its crypt in the Springfield Lincoln Monument.

The Secret Service was a new federal agency in 1875, conceived, not yet to guard the president, but to stop the rampant counterfeiting that threatened the credibility of legitimate Treasury currency. Its first success was the conviction of master engraver Ben Boyd. Without Boyd, the "coneymen" of the Midwest were deprived of their premier artist, the source of the highly realistic "coney" (counterfeit money) which had supplied a Mafia-like network of criminals. The remaining members of the chain knew that without Boyd to prepare the plates, there would be no easy funny money, no further fortunes for them. And so was born an bizarre and daring plan: to steal Lincoln's body from its unguarded crypt in its Springfield monument and ransom it for the release of Boyd from federal prison and $200,000 in cash.

Enter the hero of Sheinkin's narrative--early Secret Service agent Patrick Tyrell. Based in Chicago, Tyrell had cultivated a network of informers and gotten wind of an early attempt to steal Lincoln's body which was aborted when one of the conspirators bragged to an attractive female drinking companion of the coming heist of the Presidential coffin. In a sort of Law and Order story of careful detective work, Agent Tyrell shadowed the known counterfeiters in the plot, but in order to assure that the conspirators would be caught in the act and convicted, he needed inside information. Tyrell's objective was, of course, to keep Lincoln's body safe, but also to obtain the information to convict and put away "Big Jim" Kennally, the mastermind and paymaster of the conspirators. And for that he recruited the perfect mole, a double agent who could join the conspiracy and tip off the agents when the deal would actually go down.

That man was Lewis Swegles, horse thief, burglar, and ex-con, a man of steel nerves and, it appears, great acting ability who agreed, for a goodly sum, to infiltrate the gang and report their plans back to the small coterie of Secret Service agents assigned to the case. In a cloak-and-dagger case which involved months of shadowing, secret meetings and messages, at last the date of the caper was known--November 7, Election Day, when the entire town of Springfield would be consumed with the incredibly close presidential race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden.

The Lincoln Monument with its crypt, Lincoln's body inside a marble sarcophagus, was dark and apparently unguarded, as a small team of agents and a couple of hired Pinkerton detectives huddled inside the "labyrinth," a system of tunnels under the towering obelisk that separated the museum from the crypt. Everything was going according to Tyrell's plan--until one of the hired detectives, hearing Swegles' whispered code word, scrambled toward the opening to the crypt and accidentally set off his revolver. Leaving Lincoln's wooden casket half out of the its sarcophagus, the conspirators fled into nearby woods and into the night.

What followed was, for that time, an epic manhunt.  Sheinkin's narrative of this presidential grave-robbing thriller documents what followed in a cops-and-robbers story for the ages, right down to the secret opening of Lincoln's coffin to ensure that the body snatchers had not fled with his body itself during the heist. This is a true crime story, a historical nail biter of a tale, well-told by Sheinkin and just right for his young adult readers. Publishers Weekly calls it A sizzling tale of real-life historical intrigue."

For young historians who may have been inspired to investigate Lincoln lore by the excellent Academy Award nominated movie, LINCOLN (which I can strongly recommend to middle- and high-school viewers), Sheinkin's absorbing and well-researched (with ample appendix for young researchers) Lincoln's Grave Robbers offers an awesome historical read.

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