Last week something usual — but not wholly unexpected — happened. None of our readers were able to figure out our Take a Guess photo featured in last week's Farmington Press. There were a few who tried their best to come up with the right answer, but ultimately no one correctly guessed the connection between President Abraham Lincoln and an axe that he never owned or even used.
The following brief story provides the answer to the riddle of the "Lincoln axe."
Few items are more closely associated with Abraham Lincoln, “The Railsplitter,” than an axe, however, the axe appearing in last week's Take a Guess was not Lincoln’s, but holds the dubious distinction of having been used to try to steal his body from it's resting place in a Springfield, Illinois, cemetery.
Terrence Mullen took the axe after leaving the Germania House tavern in Springfield on Nov. 7, 1876. He and his two accomplices, John Hughes and Lewis C. Swegles, brought it with them to Oak Ridge Cemetery that night to attempt their crime.
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Their goal was to ransom Lincoln’s body for $200,000 and the freedom of their former counterfeiting ringleader, Benjamin Boyd. Unbeknownst to Mullen and Hughes, Swegles had been co-opted by the Secret Service to help foil the heist.
Upon entering the tomb, Mullen raised this axe over his head to smash through Lincoln’s sarcophagus, but Swegles stopped him, noting that the lid was only held in place by plaster of Paris and could be chiseled loose. Agents eventually broke up the robbery, but Mullen and Hughes escaped. They were arrested in Chicago 10 days later.
One reason for the tomb robbers' boldness and perseverance with their plot was the knowledge that Illinois only punished convicted grave robbers with a year in the county jail. Three years after the attempted theft of Lincoln's remains, the Illinois legislature revised its statute on robbing graves with a penalty of up to 10 years in the state penitentiary.