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Not Just for Kids: Fun and thrills in 'Lincoln's Grave Robbers'

Steve Sheinkin's book on counterfeiters and a plot to steal the president's body is sure to capture children's gleefully ghoulish imaginations.

January 18, 2013|By Mary Macvean, Los Angeles Times
  • Author Steve Sheinkin and the cover of his new novel, "Lincoln's Grave Robbers".
Author Steve Sheinkin and the cover of his new novel, "Lincoln's… (Erica Miller / Scholastic )

Lincoln's Grave Robbers

Steve Sheinkin
Scholastic Press: 224 pp., $16.99, ages 10 and up

Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln" is not for every child, and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" is not even for every adult, but at a time when Abraham Lincoln's role in U.S. history is on the public mind again, there's a new book about the 16th president to capture children's gleefully ghoulish imagination.

"Lincoln's Grave Robbers" by Steve Sheinkin is terrific. It's history in context and full of fun and thrills: money real and phony, bumbling criminals, a beloved president, and lawmen who go to all lengths to protect his body in its resting place.

Sheinkin's book is aimed at children in grades 5 through 8, though it will likely appeal more to the younger end of that range. I recall as a child becoming obsessed with the making and counterfeiting of money. Anyone who shares that fascination will get lost in all the wonderful details of the life of "coney men" and the "shovers" who shoved fake fortunes into circulation.

What does counterfeiting have to do with stealing Lincoln's body? The plotters, organizing their scheme in a Chicago bar, hoped to free the Michelangelo of counterfeiters from prison, using the presidential remains as their bargaining tool. It's every bit as wacky as it sounds, though at the time body-snatching was not uncommon.

Although largely forgotten, the true story of the attempts to steal Lincoln's body from its Springfield, Ill., tomb on election night in 1876 and hold it for ransom has been told in previous books and films. It bears retelling, and Sheinkin — an award-winning writer whose book subjects have included Benedict Arnold and the atomic bomb ("Bomb" was a National Book Award finalist) — has found an intriguing path through it.

His tale includes a federal agent chasing would-be grave-robbers in his socks because he forgot to put on his boots; the total spent — $393.32 — in the effort to foil the plot; a counterfeiter's clever spouse; and a near nostalgia for old-time crime fighting.

At the center of the story is Patrick Tyrell, who heads the Chicago district of the Secret Service (another "teaching moment" — the agency was organized to fight counterfeiting, not protect presidents). He's honest and determined but not especially wiley. It takes every mistake the criminals make to help him out.

Around him swirls a terrific assortment of characters. Pete McCartney seems to be able to break out of jail with as much effort as it takes to break an egg. Ben Boyd, an extraordinarily talented engraver, nearly threatens the whole U.S. economy. And John Carroll Power, the custodian of the Lincoln grave and monument, dedicates his life to the job.

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