For U.S. presidents, being dead doesn't necessarily mean being out of danger. Thank goodness for the Secret Service, which is always on the lookout for presidential perils. Even 140 years ago, back when the service was tasked not with protecting anyone but instead with fighting counterfeiters, it apparently couldn't let a presidential threat pass.
The year was 1876, and the Secret Service had been alerted by an undercover agent about a plot to steal Abraham Lincoln's body from his tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, and ransom it for $200,000. Chicago crime boss Big Jim Kennally and his gang made plans to rob the grave, but also made the mistake of recruiting Lewis Swegles, whom they thought was an old hand at stealing bodies but was really an informant. Already of interest to the Secret Service because of his counterfeiting operations, Kennally was suddenly a prime target.
As it turned out, he and his gang were less than adept at the heist. They fumbled with the tomb's lock, were unable to lift the 500-pound (227-kg) coffin, and even accidentally shot a gun while inside. They escaped back to Chicago, but it only took a couple of days for the Secret Service to track them down and arrest them. For its hard work, the Secret Service got the reward that has kept on giving: the role of presidential protector.
Inside the Secret Service:
- When it saved Lincoln's body, the Secret Service might have been thanking the former president: He established the agency in 1865, shortly before his assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.
- When the president travels, the Secret Service ensures that bags of blood matching his blood type are on hand in the presidential motorcade, in case a transfusion is suddenly required.
- To date, Leslie Coffelt is the only Secret Service agent to be killed while protecting a president. He successfully defended Harry S. Truman against an armed attack in 1950.