Abraham Lincoln Goes Hollywood

Joel Fox likes to say he has a long rap sheet in California politics. For three decades he has been a taxpayer and small business advocate, served on numerous state commissions appointed by governors and assembly speakers from both major political parties, worked on many ballot issue campaigns, and advised numerous candidates, including Arnold Schwarzenegger in the historic gubernatorial recall election of 2003. He is an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.

Fox has authored hundreds of opinion pieces for many publications including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as his well-respected blog on California business and politics, Fox and Hounds Daily.

His non-fiction works include a book, The Legend of Proposition 13, about California’s most famous ballot measure, and a chapter in the book, What Baseball Means to Me, sanctioned by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 2008, Fox completed the Los Angeles FBI Citizens Academy program gaining a deeper understanding of the FBI and its mission.

Fox grew up in Massachusetts. He says he got his love for history breathing the air in the Boston area, often driving past the homes of the presidents Adams and visiting many historical sites.

Abraham Lincoln is no movie idol. Yet, our 16th president’s character and story are so compelling that he is the subject of many recent and coming high profile movies. This is of interest to me because my first mystery novel uses an incident in Lincoln’s life to propel my modern day mystery.

Well, I should not say Lincoln’s life, for the incident I refer to occurred after Lincoln’s death.

There was an attempt to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body eleven years after the assassination. Caretakers for his tomb were so concerned that another attempt would be made that they moved his coffin a number of times. While visitors to the tomb looked upon a sarcophagus believing Lincoln’s remains were contained within, his coffin was actually moved to other areas in the tomb and even opened twice to be sure the body was still there.

All this suggested to me a question that would serve as the basis for a mystery: is Abraham Lincoln in his tomb?

I traveled to Springfield, Illinois, the site of Lincoln’s tomb, to check out some of the historic sites and surrounding neighborhoods, searching for locales to place my mystery.

Walking the cemetery containing Lincoln’s tomb made me think of the bizarre incident on the same grounds in 1887 when a honeymoon couple, escaping the city, thought they were enjoying the privacy of the cemetery at night, when they came upon an extraordinary event. Officials opening Lincoln’s coffin the first time to see if his body was there.  Now there’s a honeymoon to remember!

The drama of Lincoln’s life certainly lends itself to cinematic storytelling. Even the drama associated with him in death gave me a great basis for a mystery.

In fact, Lincoln comes back again and again in books and films much like those ubiquitous vampires that are all around us these days. It is not so surprising really that one of the new films dealing with Lincoln also deals with those creatures: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

I think many authors dream that their books will become movies. For one thing, turning a book into a movie or a television show is sure to help book sales. Movies and television shows certainly make people aware of subjects they may know little or nothing about.

To prove my point, let me tell you another story that deals with a different president and his tomb.

Both presidents Adams are buried with their wives in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts in a crypt in the basement of the United First Parish Church.  Years ago, I visited the Adams burial site with my wife and in-laws.

We made our way to the crypt in the basement of the church. There were no other visitors. No caretakers. In fact as we approached the tomb, the door was open but the lights were off. I had to feel along the wall to find the light switch and flip on the lights. The four sarcophagi containing the remains of the two former presidents and the two former first ladies were in the room along with American and Massachusetts flags. After paying respects, we left and, yes, I turned off the lights.

Years later, John Adams became a “historical celebrity” with David McCullough’s book and the HBO’s John Adams miniseries starring Paul Giamatti. Now, there’s an official visitor center associated with all the Adams’ sites in Quincy to deal with the crowds and you have to arrange to be part of a tour to see the sites.

Movies are powerful tools. In fact, it was a movie that got me started on the path to writing my mystery.

The Abductors starred Victor McLaglen, an Oscar winning actor. Made in the 1950s, the story was about the Lincoln grave-robbing attempt. I saw it on late night television. I can’t say it’s a great movie and it was quickly lost to the memory of the movie world. But, the film captured my imagination and I never forgot the outrageous, devilish, irreverent plot to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body. It seemed a natural story to build a mystery around, especially when I learned years later what happened to Lincoln’s coffin over time – all an integral part of solving the mystery.

With a couple of Lincoln movies soon to be released, I wonder if there is room for one more? I have a suggestion. You see, it starts with the attempt to steal Lincoln’s body …


2 thoughts on “Abraham Lincoln Goes Hollywood

  1. I must read this!

    I’m also a Lincoln fan and created a fictional town, Lincoln Point, CA for a series of 6 (so far) mysteries. There’s no end to the fascinating aspects of Lincoln’s life and death.


  2. Spielberg will be filming his Lincoln movie here in Richmond this fall and there is much excitement about having him, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and Hal Holbrook in town for months.

    Joel, thanks for visiting today 😉


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