Tuesday, April 21, 2015


On a moonlit night, November 7, 1876, a band of counterfeiters men slipped unnoticed into a cemetery outside Springfield, Illinois, and made their way to a towering white marble sarcophagus on a bizarre mission to steal the body of President Abraham Lincoln. 

Since it was election night, the gang of grave robbers figured Oak Ridge Cemetery would be deserted. Irish crime boss James “Big Jim” Kennally (or Kinealy), who devised the caper, also knew that no night watchman ever patrolled the area. 

Big Jim’s grand plan involved stealing Lincoln’s corpse and holding it for a ransom of $200,000 in gold (about $4 million in today’s dollars) and forcing the release of Benjamin Boyd, the gang’s master engraver of counterfeiting plates. 

With the gang’s supply of bogus loot nearly exhausted, it was important to put Boyd back to work producing a new batch of the funny money.

“Ben Boyd was probably worth his weight in gold to the counterfeiters,” writes historian David R. Johnson in his book, Illegal Tender. “He may have been the best engraver of counterfeit notes in the 19th century.” 

Gang members had trouble picking the padlock on the iron door of Lincoln’s above-ground tomb, so they sawed it off. They managed, with great effort, in removing the marble lid sealing the container. But the wooden coffin proved heavy and unwieldy. 

In the weeks before the raid, a man by the name of Lewis G. Swegles began patronizing a Chicago saloon that Kennally owned. The small-time crime boss befriended Swegles and ended up inviting him to join the counterfeiting gang. 

Swegles, however, was on undercover mission for the Secret Service. Some accounts identify him at a Secret Service agent. Others label him as a roper—a paid informer. 

Whatever his role, Swegles kept Patrick D. Tyrrell, who headed up the Chicago district office of the Secret Service, apprised of the plan to steal the president’s corpse.  

While Big Jim and the others tried to figure a way to maneuver the 500-pound cedar-and-lead coffin out of the cemetery, the eight agents Tyrell assigned to the case, which included Pinkerton operatives, emerged from hiding, guns drawn. Because of the darkness, gang members succeeded in escaping. 

Several days, however, Tyrrell’s men tracked them down. Eight months later, the case came to trial. Each of the men involved were found guilty and sentenced to one year in Joliet State Prison.  

Ironically, on the day President Lincoln was assassinated - on April 14, 1865 - he gave Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch the go-ahead to form the Secret Service. 

The agency’s sole mission was to catch counterfeiters. It was only later—in 1901 after the assassination of President McKinley—it assumed the responsibility of presidential security.

Counterfeiting played havoc with the nation’s money supply in the 19th century. In the first half of the century, state charter banks issued their own brand of notes. 

Reports say more than ten-thousand different kinds of paper currency were in circulation, fluctuating in value and continually changing hands. 

In his book, Johnson singled out a 1862 New York Times article suggesting six-thousand varieties of counterfeit bank notes were in circulation, branding the situation a “National evil demanding a national remedy.”

In February 1862, Lincoln signed the Legal Tender Act, assigning a new national currency as “legal tender for all debts public and private.”

Most efforts to bring counterfeiting under control were ineffective but the crime became a riskier proposition because of the new legislation. 

High quality printing that used green ink on back of bills designated them as greenbacks

Stephen Mihm of the University of Georgia, author, A Nation of Counterfeiters, wrote “if you were counterfeiting the notes of the Merchants Bank of Virginia, you were attacking” that particular institution. “If you were counterfeiting greenbacks you were attacking the Union.”

During the Civil War, the Confederacy encountered its own problems. 

The government tried to produce so-called graybacks. The quality of the currency was so poor that counterfeiters found them easy to produce—including several Northern printers who forged large quantities of the bills. Union authorities also banned any printer in the North from helping produce Confederate currency. 

Although the South commissioned nine different printers to produce the graybacks, the operation itself got bogged down in bureaucracy. The Confederacy required each note be signed individually by one of the 262 treasury clerks.

The greenback, by law, was accepted as legal national currency. The South, however, declined to follow the same strategy. Confederate states resisted any attempt to power to a central government agency. 

William P. Wood served as the first-ever chief of the Secret Service.

Wood, former superintendent of Washington’s Old Capital Prison, recruited many agents with criminal backgrounds. The strategy seemed to pay off, however.

Many of the recruits were well-connected with the underworld and were street savvy and conducted a series of questionable sting operations. 

When he left the agency in 1869, the Secret Service continued relying on confidential informants and undercover operatives—as demonstrated in the agency’s foiling of the plot to steal Lincoln’s body.

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  1. Tom,

    As always, fascinating and enlightening.

  2. Thanks, Charlie, for dropping by.

  3. Great blog, Tom. I guess you're saying that I can no longer use my Confederate bills...

  4. Little known history brought to light. Interesting stuff Tom.

    1. Jerry, thanks for visiting. So many fascinating facts associated with Lincoln.

  5. Vonn--I do think you're going to have an issue spending those. However, you could consider wallpapering your writing area for inspiration.

  6. Wonderful story. I remember hearing some of it as a child, I'm from Illinois, but you added some lost details. Thank you. Doris