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Lincoln’s Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin

Well, this episode in history was news to me. At the same time, actually on election night, that Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was in a neck-in-neck election race with Democrat Samuel Tilden, a group of counterfeiters became would-be grave robbers. Their plan was to steal the body of America’s favorite and perhaps most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, and hold it for ransom.

Although the grave robbers come across in the book as incompetent at best, criminally idiotic at worst, the plot was real, as were the guns the criminals carried to Lincoln’s tomb on that election night in 1876. They were serious, and the Secret Service agents who were determined to catch them red-handed were just as deadly serious. Not only does the reader get to read about a little known historical crime, but also we get a vocabulary lesson in criminal and counterfeiting jargon of the late nineteenth century. How many of the following words can you define? (There’s a glossary in the back of the book to help those of us who are unfamiliar with criminal underworld vocabulary.)

Boodle game or boodle carrier
Coney or coney man
Shover
Cracksman
Hanging bee
Resurrectionist
Roper
Ghouls
To pipe (someone)
Bone orchard

And what would you think of reading the following sentence in your local newspaper about a group of escaped criminals?

“If human ingenuity can track them it will be done. It is earnestly hoped that the double-distilled perpetrators of this attempted robbery of the remains of America’s most loved President will soon be brought to justice.” ~reporter John English in The Chicago Tribune

Double-distilled perpetrators? My, how writing styles have changed!

I enjoyed Lincoln’s Grave Robbers mostly as look into history and the almost comical antics of both criminals and police in the post-Civil War time period. The politicians and journalists were somewhat hapless and disorganized as well. On the other hand, I hope that counterfeiters nowadays are not as successful as they back in the late 1800’s. Sheinkin notes that “by 1864 an astounding 50 percent of the paper money in circulation was fake.” And “the one and only task of the Secret Service was to stop the counterfeiters.”

What does all this fake money have to do with stealing poor Mr. Lincoln’s bones? Well, there’s a connection, and it’s rather surprising–and ridiculous. I don’t know how the grave robbers thought they were going to get away with such a plot. But try they did, and you can read all about it in Lincoln’s Grave Robbers.

Lincoln’s Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin has been nominated for the Cybils Award in the category of Young Adult Nonfiction. The thoughts in this review are my own and do not reflect the thoughts or evaluations of the Cybils panel or of any other Cybils judge.

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