Judge Mike Rubino was hoping this would be more like Weekend at Abe's.
"…if you have the body of Abraham Lincoln, you might as well go for the whole enchilada."
Stealing the corpse of America's most beloved president must have seemed like a really good idea at the time. For a couple of counterfeiters, it was a surefire get-rich-quick scheme that played out more haphazardly than the Bay of Pigs. This dramatic History Channel documentary chronicles the ridiculous attempt to steal Lincoln's body, and the 25 years of paranoia that would follow.
One of President Lincoln's many accomplishments was the establishment of a national currency. Prior to the "dollar," each state issued its own bank notes—making eBay a real pain in the butt. It also meant that counterfeiters could run amok with little consequence; now, they would have to contend with a stronger national dollar, and the newly-formed Secret Service (which at the time only dealt with counterfeiters). After Lincoln died, a small group of disgruntled counterfeiters from Illinois saw his body as the perfect hostage. Their poorly conceived plan to steal his body and ransom it off for their incarcerated engraver's freedom and $200,000 not only failed, it sent the country into a panic. Everyone instantly assumed that the body of Lincoln was a high value target. His body was moved around, buried in the dirt, covered in concrete, and generally messed with for a quarter of a century—all in the name of keeping it safe. The poor guy saved the country and freed the slaves, but he sure as heck wasn't going to escape the arcane and macabre practices of the 19th Century.
Stealing Lincoln's Body plays out like a movie, with every cliffhanger and plot twist milked for maximum effect. It's an outrageous true story defined by Murphy's Law—at one point the people of Illinois even have to dismantle Lincoln's tomb and build it elsewhere. The documentary is made all the more interesting thanks to the colorful assortment of Lincoln experts appearing on camera. They're all well-humored intellectuals who really know how to build tension going into commercial breaks. The only aspect of the show that doesn't work, surprisingly, is the overly frequent use of inter-titles. A new segment title fills the screen like every three minutes with classy names like "Stealing Lincoln's Body Again." It's minor, but annoying.
Usually when I watch a History Channel special, I have to concentrate very hard in order to stop my eyes from rolling every time they cut to a "dramatic re-enactment." That's not the case with Stealing Lincoln's Body; the dramatizations aren't cheesy or over the top and the actors generally look like their historic counterparts. The real show-stopper, however, is Lincoln's reanimated body. Then again, when isn't it?
The digital illustration company Studio Macbeth created a CGI Lincoln based on plaster molds of his head, and then mapped it on to an actor's body. The result is a frighteningly realistic approximation of what our 16th president must have been like. Even more effective is the way the animation is used: Lincoln is walking down the street, sitting in a chair, descending a staircase, and sitting in a balcony enjoying a play. The footage is subtle, eerie, and absolutely worth the price of admission.
If you didn't get a chance to catch Stealing Lincoln's Body when it first aired, you certainly can't go wrong with the DVD. The video and sound quality are as pristine as the original broadcast. Sadly, the release itself is completely barren in the special features department. History Channel should have included a making-of featurette about the Lincoln animation; after all, Digital Macbeth did spend over a year working on the project.
For all the harebrained, cringe-inducing, completely asinine schemes in American history, this is one for the ages.
Guilty of the unforgivable crime of Lincoln-snatching.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
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