By Jennifer Young

More than 15,000 books have been written on President Lincoln, and the tally keeps rising as new authors examine yet another aspect of this individual’s life: his statesmanship, his childhood, his family, his depression, and his poetry. While it might seem that every aspect of Lincoln’s life has been covered extensively, few people know of the near-theft of his body from its resting place in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery.

After Lincoln’s assassination and subsequent death on April 15, 1965, his funerary train passed through 180 cities from Washington D.C. to Oak Ridge Cemetery, just two miles from the center of Springfield, Illinois. Accompanying the deceased president for this final journey was the coffin of his beloved 11-year-old son Willie, who had died of typhoid fever just three years before.


The funeral train arrived in Springfield on May 3rd, and Lincoln’s body lay in state in the capital for the night. After the funeral and burial services of the following morning, Lincoln’s coffin was placed in a vault and later removed to another temporary vault while his memorial structure was being completed. Most people who have been to Oak Ridge Cemetery to witness Lincoln’s Tomb, a spectacular granite edifice, will likely remember its four balustraded stairs, the numerous statues of the president, and the 117-foot obelisk, but that memorial took several years to complete; in fact, its construction did not take place until 1868 and was not finished until 1874.

A pair of 19th century thieves planned to steal the president’s body itself, then stash the body at the nearby Indiana Dunes, ransoming it for a large sum just two years after Lincoln was placed in the recently completed tomb. Unfortunately, the president’s body was vulnerable to theft as it was interred in a marble sarcophagus and locked in a burial room with nothing more than a steel gate and padlock for protection.


The main grave robber was actually a Chicago counterfeiter named James Kennedy, also known to his associates as ‘Big Jim.’ Big Jim wanted to ransom Lincoln’s body for roughly $200,000 and a pardon for a fellow associate and engraver who was imprisoned at the Illinois State Penitentiary. The plot might have been successful, but during Big Jim’s recruiting efforts, he accidentally shared his plan with government informants. He and his accomplice were later caught in the act.

After that, the protection of the grave and the president’s body was taken more seriously and officials took care to safeguard it. More threats to the security of Lincoln’s body arrived by mail and eventually the president was moved to a brick vault located just below the burial room. Even this would not be his final resting place. In 1895, the Lincoln Tomb was renovated and the president’s body was moved yet again.


Today, Lincoln’s body is located in a concrete vault that is 10 feet below the Oak Ridge Memorial. It was moved to this final location within the memorial upon the request of Lincoln’s last surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln. The Lincoln Tomb is a National Historic Landmark and is located on a 12-acre plot of land within the cemetery. Lincoln’s coffin is enclosed in a steel cage that’s embedded in the concrete tomb.


Stealing Lincoln’s Body from Harvard University Press