Quick quiz: Did you know that someone had tried to rob Lincoln’s grave? I didn’t until this book. You know a nonfiction book is good when you begin to annoy your family and everyone around you by starting every sentence with “Did you know…?”
The late 1800s were a bustling time for counterfeiters. One particularly gifted artist spent an entire year creating a copy of a twenty dollar bill, but then it paid off when the bills passed as genuine over and over. Coins were even easier: just make a mold of a real coin, fill it with cheap metal and paint on a very thin veneer of gold or silver, and there you are. There was an entire industry built around counterfeit currency, and at one time it was estimated that up to half of the money circulating in the U.S. was counterfeit! It was such a problem that the government created an entire department called the Secret Service just to catch counterfeiters. Yes, you read that right! Those guys in sunglasses originally tracked down fake money. It took three presidential assassinations in less than forty years for them to come up with the novel idea of assigning someone to watch over the president, and they chose the Secret Service for the job. I’m sure it was not because they had run out of counterfeit money.
What does the counterfeiting underground have to do with Abraham Lincoln, you’re asking? Here’s the connection: Billy Boyd, the talented engraver I mentioned above, had been captured and imprisoned, and the “coney men” missed him. The bills created by other artists were not passing as readily, and things were getting dicey. One small group of crooks decided to barter for Boyd’s release by planning to break into the Lincoln Monument in Springfield, Illinois, and steal Lincoln’s body, which they would then hide as ransom until the government met their conditions.
Naturally, there are always law officers watching the criminals, and there are also always weak men whose cooperation can be bought. I won’t tell you the details of the case, but it’s a tangled cat-and-mouse game with plenty of players on either side and a monument guard caught in the middle. Thankfully, Sheinkin provides a list of characters in the beginning of the book and helpful maps throughout. There are photographs and original documents—plus a bonus section on body-snatching— sprinkled through the book to help you remember that you’re reading a true story, not just an exciting crime novel.
Steve Sheinkin is one of the best narrative nonfiction writers out there for kids. Last year, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. The Newbery Committee liked it, too, and it won a Newbery Honor medal. This year, Sheinkin is in the running again with Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, and since the committee likes to have a nonfiction book in the mix, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up on the list. I have to admit that I enjoyed Bomb more than this one, and that the old-fashioned typewriter font distracted me from the story, although it coordinated nicely with the old photographs and documents. Still, boys (and girls) who love a good crime story or historical fiction will relish this page-turner that will open up a relatively unknown chapter in America’s past.
Recommended for ten and up.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.