Fenton Lecture Explores Life Of Former Secret Service Agent

Michelle Henry, Chautauqua County historian and records manager, exploring the consequential — and checkered — life of Patrick Tyrrell during the Fenton History Center’s latest Brown Bag Lecture. P-J photo by A.J. Rao

Patrick Tyrrell may not be a well-known figure in history. But over 100 years ago, the Chautauquan became one of the country’s first Secret Service agents, and as such, helped protect the body of one of the nation’s most celebrated presidents.

On Wednesday, Michelle Henry, Chautauqua County historian and records manager, explored the consequential — and checkered — life of Tyrrell during the Fenton History Center’s latest Brown Bag Lecture.

Tyrrell was first brought to Henry’s attention when one of his descendents contacted her and requested if she could dig up more information about her ancestor, who apparently had a sterling reputation busting counterfeiters in 1870s Chicago.

While researching, Henry was surprised to find Tyrrell’s name popping up more for his legal troubles than anything else.

“I could only find court actions against him at that time period,” Henry said. “So (his descendent) is either going to be tickled that I found anything or she’s going to be disappointed that her ancestor may not have been the character she thought he was.”

Tyrrell, an Irish immigrant turned Sheriff’s deputy in Dunkirk, apparently used his role as a law enforcement officer to con and steal from members of the public. He also had marital problems that led to a separation from his wife and seven children.

Tyrrell would reappear in Illinois in the 1870s; strangely, he was now married to his eldest son’s widow. The drama was indeed an unlikely backstory to what would arguably become Tyrrell’s greatest achievement.

In 1871, Tyrrell was hired by the newly-formed Secret Service, which sought to root out the rampant use of counterfeit money in the country. When Tyrrell nabbed Benjamin Boyd, a notorious engraver of counterfeit bills, the engraver’s gang hatched a plot to ensure his release.

“The gang decided the only way to maintain their business was to get Boyd out of jail,” Henry said. “So they hatched a plan to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body, take it to some sand dunes in Indiana and bury it … and demand a ransom of $250,000 and the release of Boyd.”

The scheme would take place on Election Night 1876, when people would not be paying attention to Lincoln’s monument, the gang thought. Unfortunately for them, one of Tyrrell’s men learned of the plot and a trap was set.

As two gang members broke into the monument and struggled to lift Lincoln’s lead casket, they heard a noise from one of Tyrrell’s men and fled the scene. They were captured 10 days later.

Lincoln’s son, Robert, was so pleased by the result that he presented Tyrrell with a framed portrait of his father. Incidentally, Robert Lincoln, an attorney, once represented Brocton native George Pullman, who developed the Pullman railroad sleeping car. The body of President Lincoln would later be buried in the same manner as Pullman, who requested his body be buried in an enormous grave with iron bars and filled with cement.

Henry called Tyrrell an interesting and far more complex character than history books claim.

“He’s a fun character because I think he really was good at his job … and a lot of published histories paint him in a very favorable light, which is fine,” she said. “But people have two sides. Maybe in his personal life, he just wasn’t that easy to live with. You can decide how you feel about him.”