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NWI and the plot to steal Lincoln's body
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NWI and the plot to steal Lincoln's body

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CROWN POINT | The arrival of the replica of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train is a reminder to Joe Farmer of a little-known episodes involving the martyred president: The plot to steal Lincoln's body.

Farmer, a Crown Point resident, is the great-great-great-grandson of William F. Bickes.

Bickes' name does not appear in the history books but he helped foil a plot to hold Lincoln's body until a man was released from prison.

The group of counterfeiters wanted to bury Lincoln's body in the Indiana Dunes until the release of their master counterfeiter cohort.

Farmer said his interest in his family's unusual connection to Lincoln started when he was in the fifth or sixth grade.

"Every time I had to do a report for school, I'd do it on Lincoln," he said. "It was something embedded in me. I felt I had something in common with Abraham Lincoln."

He attributed his interest in Lincoln to his mother, who passed on the stories from her mother and grandmother.

Farmer said Bickes was "big in Springfield politics" and, according to family history, was commissioned a fire marshal during the Civil War.

Bickes marched in the funeral procession when Lincoln's body arrived in Springfield for burial. Lincoln was entombed at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.

James Cornelius, curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, directories of the 1870s list Bickes as the sexton at the cemetery -- a step down from superintendent.

And that's where Bickes intersects with the body snatching plot.

With its chief engraver serving a 10-year prison term, the gang of funny money makers were running low on the bogus bills. They hatched the ill-conceived plot to kidnap Lincoln's body. They planned to cart it 200 miles to the dunes to bury it.

Fortunately, the Pinkertons, a detective agency, had infiltrated the gang and were aware of its plans.

According to Bickes' daughter, Clara Nail, Bickes was working with the Pinkertons and was at the cemetery the night the heist was to take place on Nov. 7, 1876.

It was Election Night, and the gang figured everyone's attention would be on the tightly contested race between Benjamin Harrison and Samuel Tilden.

The Pinkertons' infiltrator was supposed to give the high sign when the gang was in the tomb, but things didn't go quite as planned. Instead, according to an article in the Waukegan News Sun in 1952 about Nail, a cemetery worker heard the gang and notified Bickes.

The Pinkertons hid behind Lincoln statues, but, before they could move in on the plotters, one of the Pinkertons "accidentally snapped the cap on his pistol," according to the article, which alerted the gang.

Cornelius said one of the officers shot at what he thought was a gang member but was actually another officer approaching on the dark, moonless night.

The shot alerted the gang, which fled without the body, although they had managed to remove the cover from Lincoln's crypt and lift out the iron casket.

The gang was captured within 10 days, but the laws of the day meant they were charged only with what amounted to the theft of government property. They served a year in jail.

Bickes family lived on the grounds or nearby. One of their duties was to toll the cemetery's bell for funeral processions. Nail and her siblings tolled the bell for Mary Todd Lincoln's funeral procession in 1882.

Farmer said the Robert Lincoln, the couple's son, appreciative enough that he allowed Nail to take any item from his mother's belongings that she wanted as a souvenir. The family chose a glass inkwell, which remains in their possession today. 

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