Clay speculated in county

Famous senator, orator lent his name to Hunter township’s Clay’s Prairie


Henry Clay was born in 1777 in Virginia and during his school years he studied law under George Wythe. 

Wythe’s previous students included Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall. All three men – Clay, Jefferson and Marshall – played important parts in American history as respected political figures. 

When Clay was 20-years-old he moved to Lexington, Kentucky, and established a farm where he raised fine horses and was the first importer of Hereford cattle to the United States. He was known to be a gambler, a drinker and was popular with the people of his neighborhood. He became a lawyer and was considered a conservative member of the Jefferson Republicans and was later a national leader of the Whig party. 

By 1800 he was married, started a family and a wealthy landlord of what is now known as Ashland. He was elected to the Kentucky legislature in 1803 and by 1806 was serving an unexpired term as senator in Washington, D. C. 

He served multiple terms representing Kentucky in both houses of Congress and was Speaker of the House longer than anyone else during the 19th century. He ran for president several times and at one time was Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams. 

He was considered to be a war hawk in 1812, but he did speak for the rights of the Indians and was a spokesman for the western frontier. He was known as the great compromiser and was instrumental in forming the Missouri Compromise. 

Clay was more than a politician. His interests as a planter and livestock producer led him to purchase a 1,600-acre tract of Edgar County land in the 1830s. Clay’s Prairie remains a well-known locale in Hunter Township. 

As the farm holdings improved and were stocked with fine Kentucky livestock, which included excellent horses and cattle he sent to Edgar County, a two-story log home and stables for horses and cattle, Clay needed a good farm manager. His son Thomas, born in 1803 and one of Clay’s 11 children, was chosen for that job partly because the elder Clay wanted to break and wean the younger man from dissolute companions at Lexington. 

Tom Clay soon fell in with the free and easy life of frontier Illinois. He did set up a track for training Thoroughbred horses, but he was known to concentrate on other pursuits. There are still copies of letters Henry Clay sent to his son about his expectations in caring for the land, but they seem to have carried little weight.

The 1905 History of Edgar County includes this passage about Thomas Clay: “He was fond of whisky and poker, hospitable as a prince and prodigal in his dispensation of it. This outfit was luxurious for that time in Edgar County and his methods soon brought the

Hub and inform him of the habitue’s criminal activities.

As the would-be kidnappers honed their plan, Swegles told Tyrrell every detail. Tyrrell then told Lincoln’s oldest and only surviving son, Robert, a Chicago attorney. The detective asked Robert to let the plot proceed so he could catch the kidnappers in the act and increase their chance of conviction. Robert agreed.

Mullen and his boys selected Nov. 7 — election night — as the date. The presidential contest between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was heated — and once again — Springfield residents would be downtown celebrating and waiting for the results. No one would be near Oak Ridge Cemetery.

On Nov. 6, the counterfeiters caught a train to Springfield. In the back car, Tyrrell, other detectives and a Chicago Daily Tribune reporter were tailing them.

Once in Springfield, some of the gang procured tools, while the others visited the tomb, acting as tourists, to determine how to break in. They only had to break a door’s padlock to reach Lincoln’s white marble sarcophagus. Swegles later said — as reported in the Nov. 20, 1876, Illinois State Journal —while his cohorts were able counterfeiters, they had few skills for burglary — especially when it came to picking the right tools.

That night, Tyrrell and his detectives got to the tomb first. They hid inside and waited. Mullen and his gang snuck up to the monument and began sawing the metal padlock on the door to the catacomb. They’d brought a flimsy metal saw for the job, and it broke. So they used a three-sided metal file, which took half an hour, according to Craughwell.

Once inside, the kidnappers opened the sarcophagus lid with a crowbar and sawed through the container’s front to reach Lincoln’s coffin. They pulled it out about a foot, but it was too heavy. Mullen told Swegles to get help. Instead, the informant signaled the detectives that it was time to raid the operation.

The agents dashed from their hideout toward the catacomb at the other end of the tomb. In the excitement, one accidentally shot his gun. Frightened, the kidnappers fled. When the agents got to the sarcophagus, all that was left were the criminals’ misfit tools.

The agents spread out to catch the would-be thieves. Tyrrell ran to the tomb’s roof where he spied a couple of men and shot at them. They returned fire. When Tyrell called for backup, one figure called out: “Tyrrell, is that you?!” One of the Secret Service’s best detectives had been shooting at his own men.

Stupidly, the kidnappers ran right back to The Hub. Tyrrell arrested Mullen and Hughes there on Nov. 17. They were tried the following May. Since grave robbing wasn’t a crime, the worst the two could be charged with was petty theft, for trying to steal Lincoln’s $75 coffin. They were convicted and sent to Joliet, the same penitentiary from which they had tried to spring their engraver, Benjamin Boyd.

After their arrest, Charles Conant, the acting secretary of the U.S. Treasury, asked Robert Lincoln to pay for an attorney to prosecute charges against the counterfeiters, and to pay Swegles and another witness a per diem to make sure they stayed in the capital city until the trial. 

Lincoln agreed, but it appears he was stiffed. According to an article by Lincoln historian James Hickey in the Feb. 11-17, 1982, Illinois Times, despite Robert’s many attempts to get his money back, there are no records that the feds ever paid it.

When initial reports of the attempted kidnapping were printed, many people — even detectives and other newspaper editors — thought it was a hoax. The crime was too sacrilegious to be believed.

Once verified, it was blamed on lots of people other than the real culprits. Some thought Democrats did it, others blamed it on vengeful former Confederates. In Illinois, Chicagoans thought it was a ruse planned by one of the detectives to help him win election for chief of police.

A few days after the attempted theft, Power and some of Lincoln’s friends moved the president’s coffin to the tomb’s earthen-floored basement, for its safety. It was moved several more times until 1901. Then — per Robert’s request — it was buried 10 feet beneath the catacomb in an enclosure of concrete and steel.