Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Grave Robbing, Abraham Lincoln, and Polygamy (Utah history)

Grave Robbing, Abraham Lincoln, and Polygamy (Utah history)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 31, 2009

Recent news accounts of the disgusting acts of employees of another Illinois cemetery bring to mind this story of disturbing the dead, this one published in the Tribune just before Presidents’ Day, 2008.)

The Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, should have been the quietest place on earth on November 7, 1876. Springfield’s living were busy with Election Day excitements, and Springfield’s dead – well, the dead don’t usually attract nighttime visitors. Even Abraham Lincoln’s mausoleum, object of many daylight pilgrimages, was locked tight.

But that night three men jumped the fence and approached the back of the Lincoln monument. They sawed at the mausoleum’s padlock with a hacksaw. After half an hour’s labor, the lock broke and the three men opened the door to the tomb. One raised an ax to swing at the marble sarcophagus holding Lincoln’s casket, but another stopped him: “If we can get the lid off, we can put it on again and it won’t be known that the coffin is gone.” The men lifted the heavy lid, then went to work on the end panel preparatory to pulling the casket from its resting place.

As if the presence of three grave robbers wasn’t enough to disturb the peace of the dead, seven more men – detectives, Secret Service agents, the caretaker of Lincoln’s tomb, and a Chicago journalist – huddled in the visitors’ gallery a few feet away, barefooted to avoid the sharp sound of boot heels against the marble floor. The lawmen waited until they knew the thieves had succeeded in pulling Lincoln’s heavy lead-lined casket partway out of the sarcophagus, then dashed around the monument, still in their stocking feet.

Before they reached the tomb, though, one of the detectives accidently fired his pistol, giving the grave robbers the few seconds they needed to escape into the darkness.

Two of the vandals were soon arrested and brought to court – the third was an informant responsible for alerting the Secret Service to the planned break-in. The pair were found guilty of attempted larceny of the body and its coffin, and sentenced to the state prison at Joliet. The trial disclosed their motive: they had been hired by the leader of a counterfeiting ring, whose best “artist” was then in prison. They hoped to hold Lincoln’s body hostage and demand the counterfeiter’s freedom.

And what does this quirky footnote to presidential history have to do with Utah?

Presiding over the grave robbers’ trial was Charles Shuster Zane, who had taken Lincoln’s place in his law partnership when Lincoln went to Washington. Zane later became the law partner of Shelby Cullom, a senator whose proposed anti-polygamy bill, while targeting the Mormons specifically, could have been used equally well to destroy any unpopular religious group. In 1884 Zane accepted appointment from President Chester A. Arthur to serve as chief justice of the supreme court of Utah Territory.

Zane was merciless in trials of accused polygamists. Those arrested could seldom afford Zane’s exorbitant bail; those convicted were usually sentenced to the maximum in both fines and prison terms. Zane endorsed the practice of “segregating” polygamy charges, punishing a man multiple times for a single illegal marriage by charging him separately for each six months of unlawful cohabitation.

Because of this, Zane is often remembered with fury and scorn, and there is no doubt that his name was linked with grief and suffering in the recollections of many Utah families. His inflexibility toward polygamy is not his full judicial record in Utah, however. He awarded significant sums to victims of industrial accidents, justice not often found in an era when courts routinely sided with industry. He ruled that non-Mormon plaintiffs must pay school taxes after they failed to prove their claim that Mormon doctrines were taught in the public schools. And after statehood, Zane was elected by popular vote to serve on the state supreme court.

Zane died in 1915 in Salt Lake City. His body was returned to Springfield, Illinois, where he lies in Oak Ridge Cemetery, not far from the grave that – fortunately – still holds the remains of Abraham Lincoln.

Happy Presidents’ Day.



  1. It would be interesting to learn how various segments of Utah society voted for or against Zane to serve on the Utah Supreme Court.

    Comment by S. Taylor — July 31, 2009 @ 10:13 am

  2. What a great article! I’m glad to know about this infamous Judge Zane. (And I liked how you rounded out his reputation a little with the inclusion of his more charitable acts on the bench, too.)

    Thanks for this.

    Comment by Hunter — July 31, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  3. From the title I thought this would be a Clive Cussler novel tie-in.

    Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — July 31, 2009 @ 10:44 am

  4. “The Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, should have been the quietest place on earth on November 7, 1876. Springfield’s living were busy with Election Day excitements, and Springfield’s dead – well, the dead don’t usually attract nighttime visitors.”

    You forget that in Illinois the dead are often quite busy voting on Election Day.

    Comment by Ken — July 31, 2009 @ 11:46 am

  5. I find Judge Zane to be a fascinating character, so I’m surprised more hasn’t been written about him. I’ve been researching him this last year. Just a couple of days ago I wrote about his arrival in Utah on August 23, 1884–just a few days after the Cane Creek Massacre. I’m writing family history and he was an important part of the story. Thanks for this, Ardis.

    Comment by Phoebe — July 31, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

  6. It is kind of fun to play “guess the content of Ardis’ posts” based on their titles. I was thinking there would be some previously overlooked connection between John Baptiste and Lincoln. Though I was wrong, I was nonetheless not disappointed. Very interesting stuff.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 31, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

  7. I had the same notion as J.–that the story would somehow involve Baptiste. I did a story on him on my radio show. Maybe I should post it on the blog.

    Also, I don’t how I missed the fact that Zane and Shelby Cullom were law partners. Thanks for pointing it out, Ardis.

    Comment by Brandon — July 31, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

  8. Yes, Brandon, you should definitely post your Baptiste story — with a gruesome title to draw attention to it!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 31, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

  9. Thanks for all these positive comments, friends. I’m sorry for being mostly absent this week as I race a deadline.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 31, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

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