Many do not know that in 1876, counterfeiters (turned grave robbers) attempted to steal Abraham Lincoln’s corpse from his unguarded tomb in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. The plan was to dump the body in the Sangamon River letting it settle to the sandy bottom- at a location known only to the robbers- and hold it for ransom. The thieves wanted money, of course. They also wanted one of their incarcerated partners released from prison. He was their primary counterfeiter operative. On the night of the theft, they actually opened Lincoln’s marble sarcophagus and managed to pull the wooden casket part way out. They apparently didn’t realize that the “prize” weighed nearly five hundred pounds! While in the very act, they dispatched one of the men to get help in carrying the load. What they also didn’t know is that the man they sent was a federal informer. The robbers were caught and the plot foiled.
Fast forward to 1997…Lincoln’s body stolen again! Well, not his body, but a Lincoln statue. The Alfonso Pelzer sculpted Lincoln statue at Detroit’s Skillman Public Library at 121 Gratiot Avenue was carried away by thieves on September 28, 1997. The statue had been placed at that location since 1958. According to an eyewitness, three men rocked the 6-foot 2-inch, 300 pound likeness of Lincoln off its base and loaded it in the backseat of a white Ford Escort. What were they thinking?
One can only guess. I can just see that Escort driving off from the scene weighted down in the rear end with the statue’s feet protruding out. Were they going to hold it for ransom like the would-be robbers of Lincoln’s corpse so long ago in 1876? Maybe they thought they could sell it to a scrap yard for instant cash. Who knows! Apparently the three criminals were not caught, unlike the counterfeiting grave robbers from yesteryear.
On September 30, 1997, Detroit Public Library staff retrieved the scraped and dented Lincoln statue from the city’s police fifth precinct. It had been stolen for about 48 hours…
Its head was gashed and a foot was badly damaged. The Lincoln statue had been dumped. Maybe the thieves realized that it’s really difficult to be inconspicuous when carting around an 82 year old metal statue of Abraham Lincoln. It was found lying face down in front of Detroit’s Clark Elementary School (a school I attended as a child, coincidentally). Funds for the restoration of the damaged statue were partially obtained through the efforts of then First Lady Hillary Rodham-Clinton. Today that Pelzer statue stands inside of the Burton Library in Detroit. The day I visited the Skillman Library site to see the copy of the Pelzer Lincoln statue, a library security officer came out to see that I was threatening no danger to the piece. I was glad to note that Mr. Lincoln (or his statue, anyway) is now so safeguarded!
- Lincoln Statue by Pelzer