Did Abraham Lincoln's assassin get away? DNA could end questions
December 24th, 2010
12:45 PM ET

Did Abraham Lincoln's assassin get away? DNA could end questions

Inside a grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is DNA that could finally put to rest debate about whether Abraham Lincoln's killer escaped capture and lived for years before committing suicide.

What's that you say? Wasn't this all solved 145 years ago? That depends on who you ask.

The way it's written in history books, John Wilkes Booth was cornered 12 days after shooting President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre and killed in a tobacco barn before being laid to rest in a family plot. But there have been several historians over the years not entirely satisfied with this version.

"If the man who killed our greatest president got away and a giant hoax was perpetrated on the American people, then we should know about it," historian Nate Orlowek told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Descendants of Booth's have heard various stories about whether he was actually able to live another 38 years, traveling around the country and changing his name several times before killing himself, according to The Inquirer.

The theory has been debated before in published books, documentaries, TV shows and even Thursday night on the History Channel on Brad Meltzer’s "Decoded," which is examining compelling mysteries from the past.

Which brings us back to the present - and that grave in Cambridge. It contains the body of John Wilkes Booth's brother, Edwin Booth, who was a Shakespearean actor buried in 1893.

Descendants of the men have now agreed to exhume the body of Edwin Booth in an effort to put the family drama to rest.

“I just feel we have a right to know who’s buried there,’’ said Lois Trebisacci, 60, who told The Boston Globe she is Edwin Booth's great-great-great granddaughter.

In 1995, the family tried to exhume the body inside the family plot that contains the man shot in the barn, but a judge denied the request.

“The family was as much interested in disproving [the escape] theory as they were in proving it,’’ Mark Zaid, an attorney for Trebisacci, told the Globe.

So now, the family is going to try the route with Edwin Booth's body, family members told the media. Though an exhumation request has not been made yet, if and when it is, DNA from Edwin Booth's body could be tested against vertebrae of the man shot in the barn, which is currently in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., and the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

But not everyone is keen on doing that.

A spokesman told The Inquirer that the National Museum of Health and Medicine was concerned about damage to the precious piece of history, just for the sake of trying to debunk a myth. But Jan Herman, chief historian for the Navy Medical Department and special assistant to the Navy surgeon general in Washington, said since only a small drill would be used, the sample wouldn't be damaged.

It's very much a case of weighing what's worth it.

"If it compares favorably, that's the end of the controversy," Herman told the Inquirer. "That was Booth in the barn, end of case.

"If it doesn't match, you change American history."

soundoff (530 Responses)
  1. zork

    There is another option and that is that Lincoln would have survived the ball fired by Booth. What killed Lincoln was the bacteria laden fingers of Surgeon General Dr. Joseph K. Barnes who tried unsuccessfully to retrieve the ball from Lincolns open wound. So now "Who Killed Lincoln?" and Booth is a moot point.

    December 28, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve Davis

      Interesting point you raise about the survivability of Lincoln's head wound. Under today's technology he would likely been back in action, witness the Congresswoman from Arizona who had a terrible wound compared to Lincoln's. There what-ifs from history are what makes the stories so interesting in my opinion.

      September 26, 2011 at 9:19 am | Report abuse |
  2. Rambler

    Re. Vonnie. Lincoln's goal was preservation of the union. He said if he could set all the slaves free and preserve the union, that would be his preference, but if he needed to maintain the status quo, he would do that to preserve the union. I believe he also said that he would go along with expanding slavery into new states if it preserve the union. He was somewhat indifferent toward the slavery issue. The Proclamation of Emancipation was criticized as "freeing no one."

    December 29, 2010 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  3. Ana

    Though many years since i have been in school learning History like everyone else, I have read numerous books on the Lincoln family and History around this unfortuate event, but what i say is I think that what ever the outcome both men are still dead, and we can not change anything back then, but i do find it very interesting that there were co-conspirators and only half were hung and the other half were sent to jail, the Doctor that "set" Booths LEFT leg was pardoned by Johnson ( he help with the yellow fever in jail) whom swore all kinds of vengous on the south, was a time of great confusion no know knew what to do when a president was shot and there was no such thing as the FBI or CIA so lets all relax and see what the outcome maybe and go from there

    January 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  4. HRT Side effects

    I think you have produced some rather interesting points. Not as well many others would really think about this the direction you just did. I am really impressed that there is so much about this subject that has been unveiled and you made it so nicely, with so considerably class. Brilliant one, man! Genuinely special things right here.

    March 2, 2011 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
  5. debo big boy

    wat i think is thAT IM GLADE THIS IS OVER AND ITS BETTER IF WE FOUND HIM BUT o well and it would of been nice if lincoln was still alive today hes was a good man tobad i wasent born yet i wish it would be an oner to meet him if i did

    January 10, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Trailer Abraham Lincoln Vampirjäger

    Terrific work! That is the type of info that are supposed to be shared across the net. Disgrace on Google for not positioning this publish upper! Come on over and talk over with my web site . Thanks =)

    April 3, 2012 at 3:51 am | Report abuse |
  7. alyssa

    abb lincon was tall

    April 14, 2012 at 3:40 am | Report abuse |
  8. Eric

    President Johnson finally released Booth's remains...after 4 years, i imagine beyond recognition, the last of the cover up, i do believe Johnson was the top of the conspiracy and lies of him being a target was added by him

    October 18, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Fairplay99

    This one got past the CNN Censors.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
  10. LW

    it's not misspelled.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
  11. guy

    Considering you receive an automatic F in in Mass Communication 2010 (entry level Media Writing) for having a single misspelling, I think the poster would have a legitimate gripe if the word were misspelled. It's not too much to ask that major publications proofread.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Lou

    @What the?:

    "Are you guys hiring interns to do the work?"

    Yes, are you interested? You get a free subscription to Sports Illustrated and a weekend with Candy Crowely plus a great life experience as Wolf Blitzer's bag boy. Please leave resume below.

    Managing Editor/Senior Intern

    December 24, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Pete

    What's the big deel? So a litle werd got mispeled.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  14. VegasRage

    There is always 2 ăsses in assassin.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Paul

    It is spelled correctly you twit.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
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