In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Counterfeiters, grave robbers, and Abe Lincoln

Dear Annie,

We're in the final run-up to publication of Bob's book (for grown-ups) here: Tuesday's the big day.

So it seems an appropriate time to talk about another riveting historical book -- this one for kids. 

Lincoln's Grave Robbers

by Steve Sheinkin is the amazing story of an 1876 plot by a group of counterfeiters to steal Lincoln's body from its tomb in Springfield, Illinois.  Sheinkin describes a meeting where Terence Mullen, part of a counterfeiting ring, explains the plan to Lewis Swegles, whom he's recruiting to join them.  The other names are of other members of the ring.
   They were going to take a train to Springfield, bust into the Lincoln Monument, and steal the coffin holding Lincoln's corpse.  They'd load the box onto a wagon and drive it two hundred and twenty miles northeast to the sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan.  The beauty of the dunes was that wind would quickly blow sand over their wagon tracks.
   After the body was stashed in the Indiana sand, Big Jim Kennally would contact authorities.  The terms for the return of Lincoln's body would be simple: [imprisoned engraver] Boyd's freedom and $200,000 cash.
   Lincoln's monument had cost about $200,000 to build, Mullen cackled. "What is the use of the monument without the corpse!"
   Swegles was too stunned to respond.
Unbeknownst to Mullen, Swegles was an informant sent by a Secret Service agent to find out more about the distribution of counterfeit money.  Instead, they discovered a plot so strange -- trading a dead president's body for a live counterfeiter's pardon -- that the head of the Secret Service didn't believe it could be happening.

The agent, Patrick Tyrrell, wrote a series of letters to his boss as the plans were developed.  The letters, along with testimony from the trial that ultimately took place, provide fascinating detail which Sheinkin has turned into a spectacular book.  The characters come alive, the events are stunning.

Sheinkin, who has also written The Notorious Benedict Arnold and Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon gives the late 19th century context.  In addition to the suspenseful action surrounding the plot -- which got farther than anyone expected -- we learn about Lincoln's death, Lincoln's family, the evolution of money and counterfeiting, and the 1876 election between Hayes and Tilden. 

Toward the end of the book, there's a jaw-dropping description of Lincoln's re-interment in a renovated monument in Springfield in 1901 -- his coffin had rested in several temporary locations within the tomb following the attempted theft. 
As soon as [the group entrusted with the task] got there, the men began to argue -- should they have one last look in the coffin, just to make absolutely sure Lincoln was still in there? Robert [Lincoln] had specifically told them not to open the casket.  They decided to anyway.
One of the men involved in the project pulled his 13 year-old son, Fleetwood Lindley, out of school witness the moment.
He had only seen Lincoln in photographs, but when the casket was opened, he recognized the famous man immediately. "His face was chalky white," Fleetwood would never forget.  "His clothes were mildewed."
  "He looked just like a statue of himself lying there," said another witness.
The coffin was re-sealed, lowered into a locked steel cage in a hole, and covered completely with concrete.  "It's still there," writes Sheinkin.

This is an amazing book.



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