The story behind the 1901 exhumation of the body of Abraham Lincoln, felled by a bullet from the gun of assassin John Wilkes Booth in 1865, began nearly three decades earlier with the actions of a bumbling counterfeiting ring in central Illinois. The ring's master engraver, one Ben Boyd, was imprisoned, and the gang was running out of counterfeit bills. The gang's leader, "Big Jim" Kinealy, came up with a plan that would restore the gang's fortunes: stealing Lincoln's body and holding it until the government paid a $200,000 ransom and freed Ben Boyd. Initially, the plot was thwarted when one of Kinealy's conspirators had too much to drink and revealed the plot to a woman, who in turn revealed it to a number of acquaintances. Soon, the plot was known throughout Springfield, Illinois, and gang had to beat a hasty retreat from the city.
Kinealy, however, did not give up. In Chicago, he opened a saloon, where one of his regular customers was a man named Lewis G. Swegles. In time Kinealy admitted Swegles to the gang, not knowing that Swegles was a Secret Service agent on the trail of the counterfeiters. In concert with Swegles and other members of the gang, the plot to steal Lincoln's body was hatched anew and scheduled for execution on the night of November 7, 1876, election day, when the conspirators figured that Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield would be deserted because people would be preoccupied with the outcome of the election. The plan was to place the body in a sack, transport it by horse-drawn wagon to northern Indiana, and hide it amid the sand dunes there until the national furor over the theft died down, ransom demands could be made, and the ransom was paid and Boyd was released.
Accordingly, that night the gang went to the cemetery, cut the lock off of the door of Lincoln's tomb, raised the marble lid of the sarcophagus, and were in the process of lifting the casket out when Swegles, whose job was to have driven the wagon into position, alerted eight detectives in hiding. The detectives rushed to the tomb, weapons drawn, but the grave robbers escaped. After their capture ten days later, Lincoln's son Robert hired prominent attorneys to prosecute them. At a trial eight months later, two men, Terrence Mullen and John Hughes, were found guilty and sentenced to a year in Joliet State Prison, where they began serving their sentences on June 22, 1877.
By 1900, the monument at Lincoln's tomb was in need of major reconstruction. Over the fifteen months during which it was being rebuilt, Lincoln's pine coffin was laid in a temporary grave nearby. Finally, in August 1901, the monument was complete and the coffin was reinterred. But in September, Robert Lincoln visited the tomb and decided that the project was not complete. Remembering the 1876 incident, he wanted to ensure that no one would ever be able to disturb the resting place of his father. So he ordered that the coffin be placed in a cage some ten feet below ground and encased in concrete. He got the idea from the burial of George M. Pullman, inventor of the Pullman sleeping railroad car.
On September 26, 1901, the new tomb was ready. When it was time to transfer the coffin into the tomb, discussion arose about whether the coffin should be opened, for there were persistent rumors that Lincoln's body was not in the coffin, and this would be the last opportunity to put those rumors to rest. Some observers thought that opening the coffin would be disrespectful, while other believed that the remains should be identified. The decision was reached to open the coffin.
Accordingly, Leon P. Hopkins and his nephew, Charles L. Willey, both plumbers, carved a piece out of the top of the lead-lined coffin, exposing the fallen president's head and shoulders. Each of the twenty-three people present said that a choking smell emerged from the coffin. Then each passed before the coffin and looked down. All agreed that the features of the body in the coffin were clearly those of Abraham Lincoln. Still visible were the whiskers on his chin, a wart on his cheek, and his coarse black hair, although his eyebrows had vanished. Also clearly visible was his black suit, the same suit he had worn to his second inauguration, although it was covered by a yellow mold.
Afterwards, the section of the coffin that had been removed was soldered back into place, the coffin was lowered into the cage, and the whole was covered with two tons of cement. Lincoln's body had been moved seventeen times since his death, but it would be removed no more.
In 1928, one of the witnesses who viewed the body, J. C. Thompson, said: "As I came up I saw that top-knot of Mr. Lincoln's, his hair was coarse and thick, like a horse's, he used to say, and it stood up high in front. When I saw that, I knew that it was Mr. Lincoln. Anyone who had ever seen his pictures would have known it was him. His features had not decayed. He looked just like a statue of himself lying there." Another witness, Fleetwood Lindley, who was just thirteen when he saw the body, was the last of the twenty-three witnesses to pass away. Just before his death in 1963, he said in an interview: "Yes, 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. I was not scared at the time, but I slept with Lincoln for the next six months."
Credit for the condition of Lincoln's body must go to undertaker Dr. Charles D. Brown, of the firm Brown and Alexander. Assisted by Harry P. Cattell, Brown embalmed the president's body, first draining Lincoln's blood through his jugular vein. Then, an incision was made in his thigh and the embalming fluids were pumped in, hardening the body like marble. Brown and Cattell then shaved the president's face, leaving behind a tuft on the chin. They set the mouth in a slight smile and arched his eyebrows. They then dressed the president in his suit. The condition of Lincoln's body supported the claims made in a Brown and Alexander advertising flyer, which touted the benefits of their patented embalming procedure over other methods of preserving bodies: ". . .the mortal remains will be kept in the most perfect and natural preservation, and that cherished countenance looked at once more, by those who may be led to remember and repeat these holy words of consolation: 'He is not dead but sleepeth,' until we meet again in a better world."
In a letter to his mother, Army Assistant Surgeon Edward Curtis, one of two doctors who performed the autopsy on President Lincoln, described to her what happened when he found the bullet that had killed the president: "There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger—dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world's history as we may perhaps never realize. . .silently, in one corner of the room, I prepared the brain for weighing. As I looked at the mass of soft gray and white substance that I was carefully washing, it was impossible to realize that it was that mere clay upon whose workings, but the day before, rested the hopes of the nation. I felt more profoundly impressed than ever with the mystery of that unknown something which may be named vital spark as well as anything else, whose absence or presence makes all the immeasurable difference between an inert mass of matter owning obedience to no laws but those covering the physical and chemical forces of the universe, and on the other hand, a living brain by whose silent, subtle machinery a world may be ruled." Lincoln's autopsy, burial, and reburial site in Springfield, Illinois, attracts over one million visitors a year.
see also Exhumation.