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Stealing Lincoln's Body.

Stealing Lincoln's Body. By Thomas J. Craughwell. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. Pp. ix, 250. $24.95.)

Biographies of Abraham Lincoln, such as David Donald's excellent account or Carl Sandburg's classic, end with Lincoln's last labored breath or his body's final trip to Springfield, Illinois. The arrival of Lincoln's corpse in his hometown in early May 1865, however, is really only the beginning of this bizarre and fast-paced story. Eleven years later, associates in a counterfeiting ring plotted the abduction of Lincoln's corpse. The attempt and the consequences are thoroughly explored here.

To make sense of this forgotten episode, Thomas J. Craughwell ties together information about counterfeiting, the development of the Irish communities in Chicago, the formation and early years of the Secret Service, the history of the Lincoln Memorial in Oak Ridge Cemetery, and even the labor troubles of the Pullman Car Company. The author examines closely the reaction of Robert Lincoln, the older surviving son, to these traumatic events and his relationship to his mother. Craughwell uses an 1890 account of the crime, but supplements it with descriptions of the criminals from Illinois prison records and the Secret Service's daily reports. All these disparate threads are woven to produce a well-written narrative that is difficult to put down.

At the insistence of Mary Lincoln, Springfield's town fathers reluctantly abandoned their initial plan to entomb Lincoln near the city center. Instead the memorial for the fallen president was constructed in Oak Ridge Cemetery, two miles north of downtown. In 1876 counterfeiters in Chicago planned to abduct the body and hold it until the state released one of their colleagues, a skilled engraver, from the state penitentiary in Joliet. The ghoulish plan was ultimately compromised by an informer of the Secret Service, whose original task was to eliminate the flood of bogus greenbacks from circulation. To protect the president from further attempts, the caretakers of the Lincoln tomb took steps that were almost as bizarre as the criminals' intentions. Between 1876 and 1901, the memorial underwent major repairs and outright reconstruction. The redesign of the memorial's interior, especially for the thousands of tourists, was practical, but, as Craughwell persuasively notes, in the case of "the reburial of Abraham Lincoln ... the motivation was fear" (210).

Readers might wonder about the significance of this story and whether the Lincoln bicentennial has evoked more than people truly wish to know. Nevertheless, all those interested in the sixteenth president will enjoy this neglected aspect of his life (or death) and will see how particular aspects of post-Civil War America--urban growth, criminal activity, the legal system, and economic growth--are intertwined in history. They should not, like Lincoln's body, be taken for granted.

M. Philip Lucas

Cornell College

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Author:Lucas, M. Philip
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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