Danahey on the Loose with playwright Will Dunne

WillDunnePlaywright Will Dunne can’t remember exactly when he heard what quite possibly is the quintessential Chicago-Irish screwball crime caper, but the tale stuck with him well enough that he wrote a play about it.

“The Roper” has its world premiere in March at The Den Theater Mainstage, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

The action takes place in 1876, when counterfeit currency was a serious threat to the national economy – so much so that the Secret Service was formed to battle it.

They nabbed Irishman Benjamin Boyd, one of the best funny-moneymakers in the Chicago area, who was sentenced to do 10 years in the state pen in Joliet. Boyd worked for Big Jim Kennally, a crime boss of Irish descent who operated out of a saloon at 294 W. Madison called The Hub, Dunne said.

In a plan that would only make sense to a criminal, Kennally decided to recruit two of his  Irish gang – barkeep Terence Mullen and shover of counterfeit money Jack Hughes –  to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body, which was and is entombed at the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. Somehow, Kennally thought the corpse would be worth $200,000 in ransom and a pardon for Boyd from the governor.

According to Dunne, Kennally actually tried to hatch a plot like this using a crew from outside Chicago, but one of them bragged about it to a madame at a whorehouse, who told his story to one of her other client’s – Springfield’s police chief.

Still, Kennally knew that Lincoln’s tomb was only secured by a padlock, so he found new lackeys. But his henchmen weren’t exactly the crew from “Mission Impossible: The Really Early Years”, and were clueless about graverobbing.

So they took on a guy with a brogue who billed himself as a graverobber. Only thing is, Lewis Swegles wasn’t even Irish, but of German descent, and had happened onto hearing about the plan.

Swegles had been a horse thief, the least-regarded in the criminal hierarchy, according to Dunne. And he wound up becoming a “roper,” that is, a paid informant working for Irish-American Secret Service Agent Pat Tyrrell.

Dunne said his idea was to take a sympathetic look as to why any of these crooks would do this crime.

“What struck me was their lack of opportunity,” Dunne said. “They were all little men with big ideas.”

As review in The Guardian of the 2007 book “Stealing Lincoln’s Body,” by Thomas Craughwell  put it, “Not all Irish immigrants were, however, content with the limited horizons and inward-looking culture of poor communities, and Craughwell adroitly places the attempt to steal Lincoln’s body in the circumstances of ‘tension between the Irish criminal underclass and the striving Irish middle class played out between the counterfeiters and would-be grave robbers.’…But their nemesis was a very different type of Irish immigrant, the Secret Serviceman Patrick D. Tyrell, hard-working and socially ambitious.”

Dunne said he used Craughwell’s book as one of his sources while researching for his play. There’s also a 2009 History Channel special on the topic – one surprisingly free of space aliens, lumberjacks, pawn stars or swamp people. But Dunne said that came out after he had begun polishing a draft of his work.

Dunne – a resident playwright and instructor with Chicago Dramatists –  thought his opus might focus on greed and how far people will go for money. But the further he got into the writing, the more it became a tale of legacy, with Swegles the focus.

“He stumbled onto the plot, and protecting Lincoln became a way for him to leave a mark on the world. I see the play as part of his legacy, that he did something important that won’t be forgotten,” Dunne said of Swegles.

As such, Kennally – the brains behind the boneheaded plan – is never seen on stage in Dunne’s play, in which the first act takes place in the aforementioned saloon and the second at the Springfield area graveyard.

What the attempted grave robbery didn’t do was get a lot of attention back when it happened, Dunne said. There was a contentious presidential election that November when the crime happened. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden, but wound up with winning the Electoral College in a compromise over 20 southern electoral votes which led to the end of Reconstruction.

I won’t reveal the comedy of errors that ensues in Act II. And it wouldn’t require a spoiler alert to say that in 1901, under orders from Lincoln’s son Robert, the assassinated president’s corpse finally was put in a vault at Oak Ridge deep in the earth, under tons of concrete.

While a drama, how could it a play like this not have moments of dark comedy – given how Illinois, Chicago, and national politics and culture pretty much have always been? Plus, Dunne’s Chicago-Irish.

Stories like this are in our genes.

“The Roper” will hold preview performances Monday, March 3 at 7:30 p.m. and Tuesday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m. The regular run is set for Friday, March 7 though Sunday, April 13.

Curtain Times:  Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m.

Tickets:  $25 ($15 previews). For more information, see www.thedentheatre.com.