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Published: Saturday, 2/14/2009

'Stealing Lincoln's Body' explores bizarre plot

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

Stealing Lincoln's Body, which airs at 9 p.m. Monday, details a macabre yet fascinating footnote of history, a plot by Chicago counterfeiters to steal the president's body years after his assassination and hold it for ransom. The grave robbers actually broke into Lincoln's tomb in Springfield, Ill., and if not for their bungling, they probably would have succeeded in their outrageous scheme.

In publicizing the program, the History channel has made much of the "virtual motion pictures" that are featured in it. Computers were used to digitally add movement to historical pictures of Lincoln, and the eerie result shows a president who seems to be moving and walking.

Truthfully, though, the digital imagery is not all that impressive, especially to anyone who has seen Lincoln animatronics at Disney theme parks or elsewhere. And besides, the technique is used sparingly, and like most History channel presentations, this one relies primarily on hundreds of archival pictures interspersed with a relentless parade of talking heads.

That's not to say that it isn't interesting. There are lots of historical tidbits and forensic details surrounding Lincoln's death that few but the most fervid presidential scholar probably would know. Among them:

•A doctor who rushed to Lincoln's side right after the shooting at Ford's Theatre stuck his finger into the bullet hole at the back of the President's head and pulled out a blood clot, temporarily reviving the mortally wounded Lincoln.

•When Lincoln finally died some nine hours later in a house across the street from the theater, he was surrounded by senior aides, but his wife was missing. She had been ordered out of the room by Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, because her hysterics were considered a distraction.

•During the autopsy, Lincoln's brain was weighed to see if it was heavier than average, which some thought might account for his great intelligence. (It was no heavier.) In the process, the bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth fell out of the president's brain.

•After lying in state at the White House and the Capitol, Lincoln's body was carried by train in a grand funeral procession through several states, its final destination the town where he grew up, Springfield, Ill. Along the way, the train stopped in a dozen cities, and in each the coffin would be unloaded, opened, and driven through the streets so people could get a glimpse. An estimated 7 million people - about a fifth of the nation's population at the time - were able to see the coffin roll by.

•In one remarkable photograph, the coffin is shown on the streets of New York City, passing by a house owned by businessman Cornelius Roosevelt. When the camera zooms in on a second-floor window of the house, two young boys can be seen looking down on the procession. A narrator identifies them as Roosevelt's grandsons, Elliott and his brother Teddy - the latter a future president catching a glimpse of a past president.

It's not until the program reaches its midpoint that it finally gets around to the body-snatching plot, suggesting that the show's sensational title is perhaps a bit misleading.

The plot takes shape in 1876, 11 years after Lincoln's death, when Irish counterfeiters in Chicago hatch a bold plan to spring their best engraver from prison. They intend to grab the president's remains from the unguarded tomb in Springfield, bury them among sand dunes in northern Indiana at the base of Lake Michigan, then propose to swap them for their jailed compatriot plus $200,000 in ransom money.

The tomb raiders planned their strike for election night of 1876, when they supposed most people would be wrapped up following the presidential election results. After sawing through a padlock (none of the "master thieves" could pick a lock), they struggled mightily with the sarcophagus and the heavy, lead-lined coffin that was wedged into it.

Despite their ineptitude, the hapless crooks probably would have gotten away with their prize if they hadn't been interrupted by gun-toting members of the newly formed Secret Service - which, ironically, had been created by Lincoln just before his death to battle counterfeiters, not protect U.S. presidents.

The attempted grave robbery led to several years of trying to relocate and protect Lincoln's body, and it wasn't until 1901 - a full 36 years after the president's death - that his son, Robert Todd Lincoln, finally had the body interred in a massive concrete vault, where it remains today.

Despite its tabloid approach, and the fact that it drags on a little too long, Stealing Lincoln's Body is an interesting look at a little-known and decidedly odd chapter of American history.


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