Stupid Question ™
April 10, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: A few weeks ago, you wrote about Lincoln’s tomb. Is it true Lincoln’s corpse was once stolen from there?
A: No, Abraham Lincoln’s corpse was not stolen—but not for lack of trying.
Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. In 1871, after several years in a holding vault, he was interred in the monumental Lincoln Tomb in Springfield, Illinois’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. It wasn’t until 1874 that he was put inside a fancy sarcophagus at the heart of the towering tomb.
In 1876, an Illinois criminal gang hatched an audacious plot to steal Lincoln’s corpse and hold it for a ransom of $200,000 in gold. In the meantime, Lincoln’s body would be buried in a sack in the wilds of northern Indiana.
On Nov. 7, 1876, the gang broke into the tomb, forced the lid off the sarcophagus and started lifting out Lincoln’s wooden casket.
Unfortunately for them, they had blabbed about their plot so freely that the Secret Service had heard about it. Police swarmed in.
The bizarre incident spawned a rumor that the thieves had been successful and the body lost. This was reinforced by cemetery officials’ refusal to discuss the crime. There may also have been leaks of the truth: Lincoln’s coffin was not returned to the sarcophagus, but instead was secretly buried by officials who feared copycat body-snatching.
The coffin spent about two years in a disused work tunnel within the tomb, first hidden under some lumber, then buried in the dirt floor.
In 1886, his body was reinterred in the sarcophagus. But the crypt began crumbling in 1899, necessitating another secret burial, this time out in the cemetery.
Crypt repairs were finished in 1901. Lincoln’s son, Robert, still paranoid about thieves, ordered that Lincoln be reburied 10 feet under the empty sarcophagus and covered with tons of concrete.
With each relocation, workers opened the casket, sometimes out of morbid curiosity, sometimes to make sure Lincoln was still in there. But the rumor that he isn’t still flies, with speculation that his concrete-covered final send-off was a decoy for secret reburial elsewhere.
The idea of sealing Lincoln’s coffin in concrete was borrowed from the 1897 burial of railroad kingpin George Pullman, who had treated his workers so badly that he feared they would steal his body for ransom.
Ironically, Pullman feared such a thing because the Lincoln corpse-theft plot became a much-copied innovation. In 1978, classic comedian Charlie Chaplin’s corpse was held for $600,000 in Switzerland. In 2001, Italian banking king Enrico Cuccia’s corpse was held for $3.5 million. In both cases, the culprits were arrested and the bodies recovered.