The History Channel purports to be presenting “the last unknown story” of Abraham Lincoln in this special about a bizarre attempt to abscond with the late president’s body, but that’s a self-serving label for this weird point of entry into the U.S.’ 16th president. That isn’t to say the narrative doesn’t contain amusing facts and anecdotes, but it’s more of a freak-show approach at history — clearly pandering to those who wouldn’t sit through a musty documentary just because ol’ Abe freed the slaves and led the country through the Civil War.
The central plot is pretty fascinating: After Lincoln’s death, a group of counterfeiters got the strange idea to steal his body and ransom it off. The plot was thwarted, but Lincoln’s remains didn’t rest in concrete-enclosed peace until 1901 — 36 years after his death.
It’s a juicy tidbit, to be sure, but hardly seems worthy of becoming the focal point for two hours devoted to the Great Emancipator, especially given the current president’s fascination with his fellow public servant from Illinois. Yet that speaks to the general tone that has come to define the TV documentary, with the exception of a few havens like HBO, the assumption being that even an ode to Lincoln must be cloaked in tabloid trappings (Body snatching! Shocking plots! Embalming!) in order to make the sale.
Indeed, “Stealing Lincoln’s Body” also makes a rather peculiar claim regarding its display of “new digital visualizations of Lincoln that show him moving and walking for the first time.” Hmm, wonder what that animatronic thing in Disneyland is doing.
Balancing the pros and cons, this production’s highlights are finally overshadowed by its preoccupation with the macabre in order to justify the salacious title. So while I did learn a few things, all I could keep thinking over the duration of “Stealing Lincoln’s Body” was that there has to be a more dignified way for History Channel to pilfer a younger audience.