Behind the Book: A story so bizarre, kids can't believe it's true
by Steve Sheinkin
On the heels of his multiple-award-winning 2012 release, Bomb: The Race to Build—And Steal—The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, author Steve Sheinkin returns with another thrilling true-life story pulled from the pages of history. In Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, the former history textbook writer unravels the details of a 19th-century plot to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body from the grave and hold it for ransom. Sheinkin—who won the Sibert Medal, a Newbery Honor, a YALSA Award and a spot as a National Book Award finalist for Bomb—explains here why his latest true story of cops and robbers, counterfeiters, body-snatchers and the Secret Service is sure to catch the attention of young readers.
One of my recent school visits was not going well. The students hadn’t heard of me, hadn’t read my books, weren’t buying my whole “history is cool,” premise. I was losing them. So naturally I started talking about cannibalism.
One of my books tells the tale of the Donner Party. I read the section and asked kids to imagine themselves stuck high in the snowy Sierra Nevada, facing starvation, with no hope of rescue. Would they kill one of their fellow pioneers for food? If one died of cold and hunger, would they roast and eat the flesh to keep themselves alive?
They all had opinions (most along the lines of “No way!). Best of all, I had their attention. And the experience gave me a great idea for testing potential subjects for future books. I picture myself standing in front of a room full of students. They’re staring at me. They’re waiting to see if I’m going to be boring. I imagine myself telling them the story in my book, and watch their reaction. Are they intrigued? Most of them, at least? If so, the idea has a chance.
As soon as I started researching the story behind my new book, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, I knew it had a good shot to pass the test. Basically, it’s a true crime thriller about a bunch of Midwest counterfeiters who decide it would be a good idea to steal Abraham Lincoln’s corpse. This was 1876, eleven years after Lincoln’s death, and the gang was desperate to get their best engraver out of the state pen. Their plan: bust into the Lincoln Monument in Springfield, steal the body, stash it under a bridge, and refuse to give it back unless the government lets their partner out of jail. And the most amazing thing of all is how close this crazy-sounding scheme came to working.
It’s so bizarre, kids accuse me of having made it up. But on top of the priceless plot, what makes this story great from a nonfiction writer’s point of view is that the sources are so rich. The main lawman in the story, Secret Service agent Patrick Tyrrell, took extensive notes on all his cases. He was busy chasing counterfeiters (that’s what the Secret Service was formed to do) when he stumbled onto the Lincoln plot. You can almost see the plot unfolding as you read his detailed daily notes.
And there’s John Carroll Power, the 57-year-old custodian of the Lincoln Monument. He was hired to keep the place neat, but the man was obsessed with Lincoln, and created his own mini
Lincoln museum for tourists (his prized possession: a bloody strip of fabric from the dress of an actress who cradled Lincoln’s head moments after he was shot at Ford’s Theater). Protecting Lincoln was more than a job to Power, it was a calling. He was there night of the break-in, saw everything, and, wrote a whole book about it.
Many of the main characters (including the body snatchers) gave interviews to the newspapers, and, incredibly, there was even a Chicago Tribune reporter lurking around the monument the night of the attempted theft. He’d been tipped off that something big was going to happen, and was able to write an eyewitness account of the showdown between cops and robbers.
I should add, for anyone interested in recreating the robbery, Lincoln is no longer in the monument. After the 1876 attempt, his body was placed in a deep hole beside the monument and covered in concrete. But first—in another detail kids seem to love—his friends decided they’d better open the casket just to make sure he was still in there. They hired a Springfield plumber to carefully cut open the lead casket and peel back the soft metal. And there, inside, was the 16th president, looking, friends said, just “like a statue of himself.” Turns out the embalmers at the White House had done such an amazing job, the body was still perfectly preserved all those years later.
Okay, this whole Lincoln grave-robbing thing may not appear on any standardized test; it’s not something kids need to know. But it was a fun story to research and write, and I hope it’ll be fun to read. And besides, when school visits get tough, it’s good to be able to talk about stealing corpses.