The 13th Floor

Big Jim Kennally And The Plot To Steal Lincoln’s Corpse

Shortly before 7:30AM on April the 15th of 1865, Abraham Lincoln took his final breath. Some ten hours earlier, the asshole John Wilkes Booth has put a single bullet into the back of the President’s head. Abraham Lincoln is remembered as one of the most important figures in American history, ending slavery and leading the country during its only civil war.

A lesser known story about Lincoln, one that tends to be skipped over in history books and documentaries, is when an Irish gangster came up with an amazingly idiotic plan to hold Lincoln’s body for ransom.

James Kennally, known to his friends as Big Jim, was the king of the Chicago counterfeit kingdom, though the real talent behind the scenes was Benjamin Boyd, the best counterfeiter in the world. Boyd’s piece-de-resistance was American cash – the guy’s plates were so good, so close to perfect, that experts often couldn’t tell the difference between Boyd’s homemade dollars and the ones released by the Treasury. Kennally and his gang were living high on the hog, all thanks to Boyd. Clearly, this didn’t last – if it did, there would be no story.

Tired of all the counterfeit cash rolling about, the feds tracked down Boyd and shut him down. Boyd was arrested on  October 20th, 1875, his counterfeit plates taken as evidence.

Kennally freaked. Without his artist, he had no cash flow, and Boyd wasn’t going to get released any time soon. He needed a way to get his pal back to work, but it wasn’t like the feds were just going to release Boyd, and Kennally sure didn’t have the manpower to try and stage a jailbreak. No, to get Boyd out of the hoosegow, Big Jim Kennally would need to think outside the box. He would need to come up with a plan. A big plan. A plan so ingenious, it couldn’t fail.

Unable to come up with an ingenious plan, Big Jim Kennally instead went with the worst idea possible.

3 Lincolns Corpse
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) 20th Century Fox

Now, to be fair, we have no idea how Kennally came up with his plan to steal Lincoln’s decade-old corpse. He may have based it on rumors of a Confederate loyalist trying to put together a gang to steal the body shortly after Lincoln’s death. Or maybe he had heard of the attempt to steal George Washington’s remains back in 1830. Grave robbing wasn’t new in 1875, but it had grown in popularity as medical schools needed more cadavers and were willing to pay good money. Any of these could be where the spark for Kennally’s plan started, but it takes a special kind of brain to let that spark become a full on fire.

Kennally’s plot was simple – he would put together a few of his guys, send them 200 miles to Springfield, Illinois, and have them dig up Lincoln and bring the body back. Then, Kennally would send a note to… someone… demanding a trade of Lincoln for Benjamin Boyd. For good measure, Kennally would also demand $200,000. With his “flawless” plan figured out, Kennally began to select his team, John Hughes, Terrence Mullen, Jim Morrissey, and Billy Brown.

Hughes was a big man, providing the muscle. Mullen, a close friend of Kennally, would be the on-site brains. Morrissey was brought in for his grave robbing knowledge, and he brought along Brown, a getaway driver.

To his credit, Kennally picked a perfect date for the grave robbing – November 8th – election day.  Kennally figured that the eyes of the nation, and specially the eyes of the people in Springfield, would be set on voting. No one would be at the cemetery. The race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden was tight. Real tight. In the end, Hayes would win by a single electoral vote, but lose the popular vote by 3%. Bush v. Gore was pretty much the remake of this election. So… it was close.

When the four henchmen arrived at the cemetery, they came across their first problem – Lincoln’s grave was way bigger than they thought it was. Getting in would take quite a bit more time than Terrence Mullen originally figured for. Adding to the problems, Mullen’s saw snapped in half as he tried to break through the first door. With more time added, Mullen finally got through.

Inside, Mullen, Hughes, and Morrissey found that Lincoln’s casket was inside a sarcophagus held shut with copper bolts. Hughes tried to force the sarcophagus open, but he wasn’t strong enough. Mullen joined in on the heavy lifting, but still the two men couldn’t do it. They brought in Morrissey, and the three men were finally able to get the lid of the sarcophagus open. Morrissey went to get Brown and the horse carriage, so it would be there, ready for Hughes and Mullen to bring the body of the Great Emancipator out. As Morrissey stepped out  of the tomb, he lit a cigarette. I like to think that he also said “Every day is like Sunday… every day is silent and gray”.

This is where, if we were watching a movie, something like RESERVOIR DOGS, we would flash back a few weeks.

5 Lincolns Corpse
RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) Miramax

See, Jim Morrissey didn’t exist. Jim Morrissey was, in reality, Lewis Swegles; a low level criminal who had been caught years before and, instead of serving time, became an informant for the Chicago police. For $5 a day, Swegles reported to the cops about the various movements and plots of the Chicago underworld. And Billy Brown? He was an informant too.

When Swegles was first approached about the plot to steal Lincoln’s body, it was Mullen who contacted him. In truth, Swegles never met Kennally, though Mullen had made it clear that the whole thing was Big Jim’s idea. Swegles reported back to the Chicago police, who called in the Secret Service.

And this would be BIG for the Secret Service. At this point, all the Secret Service handled was counterfeiting, but they were making a play to become the security detail for Presidents. In their estimation, had they been on the job in 1875, Lincoln would still be alive. Still, Congress wasn’t so sure – they needed some kind of proof that the Secret Service could protect a President. To the Secret Service, keeping Lincoln safe from another group of conspirators would be the perfect chance to show their chops.

Back to the night of the grave robbery.

The Secret Service hung out in the bushes surrounding Lincoln’s tomb. Captain Patrick Tyrrell was in charge, and he would give the signal when the time was right. He wanted to catch Mullen and Huges as they walked out carrying the coffin, this way, the two men couldn’t fight back.

So they waited.

And waited.

And waited.

When they finally got tired of waiting, Tyrrell gave the  signal and the Secret Service went in. As the officers slowly moved towards the tomb, with a reporter bringing up the rear, one of them either sneezed or tripped – various reports report it differently. Either way, when the agent sneezed/tripped, he fired his gun.

Everyone stopped cold. They waited once more, this time out in the open. After a moment, Tyrrell moved forward. He reached the broken down door of the Lincoln tomb and called in for Hughes and Mullen to come out with their hands up.


Tyrrell called again.

Still no answer.

He entered the tomb, finding only a still burning lamp and Lincoln’s sarcophagus open, the casket sticking halfway out. Hughes and Mullen were gone.

Tyrrell called out to the agents to search the area for the two thieves. As he exited the tomb, Tyrrell spotted a shadowed figure behind a tree. He opened fire, emptying his gun as he tried to take down the shadow. The shadow returned fire, so Tyrrell pulled out a second gun and once more emptied it. The figure stepped out of the shadows, hands raised – it was one of Tyrrell’s own men.

It would be another 24 hours before Mullen and Hughes would be found – the Chicago police would pick up the two men at a bar called The Hub. The same bar Big Jim Kennally first came up with his plan.

Now comes the fun of old laws. Hughes and Mullen were sentenced to one year in jail each. Turns out that in 1876, the penalty for grave robbing was less than a year, so the prosecutor went after a different charge – one with a slightly longer prison term: conspiracy to commit theft of an item valued in excess of $75.

Big Jim Kennally was never charged. Mullen and Hughes refused to squeal on him, and Swegles’ testimony that Mullen had told him Big Jim was the brains of the operation weren’t enough to go for a conviction.

Despite failing to do anything right, the Secret Service were still given the duty of protecting the President, though it wouldn’t happen until 1901 and the assassination of William McKinley.

Fearing more attempts, Robert Lincoln, first son of Abe, had his father’s body secretly moved from the tomb in Springfield. Over the course of the next 20 years, it would be moved 17 times. Abraham Lincoln’s body would come to it’s final resting place on September 26th, 1901 in a special tomb designed by Robert to keep the body secure. Lincoln rests ten feet below the floor of his tomb, a steel cage surrounding his casket, which itself is buried under tons of concrete.

Before being placed in his final home, and to ease the concerns of American citizens, twenty five people were brought in to positively identify Lincoln’s corpse. One of the last to see Abraham Lincoln was Fleetwood Lindley. Days before his death, Lindley was interviewed by Time Magazine where he described what Lincoln looked like, “his face was chalky white. His clothes were mildewed. And I was allowed to hold one of the leather straps as we lowered the casket for the concrete to be poured.”

George Cashman was the final person to see Lincoln. He claimed that “I was not scared at the time but I slept with Lincoln for the next six months.” The moment certainly had a lasting effect on Cashman – he would become the curator of Lincoln’s tomb from 1951 to 1975.


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