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. MattSky.com

    How someone would not be in favor of figuring out what actually what happened is totally ridiculous.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • caddiemurray

      I completely agree. I understand wanting to protect an artifact from a very important part of our nation's history, but I think finding out the truth of what happened should trump that. And it's a moot point, anyway, since apparently they don't need much of the vertebral material to extract the DNA.

      December 24, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michael In Phoenix

      They know what happened. It is not necessary to take steps to disprove every ridiculous myth for which there is no evidence. He was identified after being killed – and since he had arguably one of the most recognizable faces in the country at the time (VERY famous actor, often considered the handsomest man in the country) misidentification by several people is unlikely. His picture was then printed in every paper in the country, making him even more famous.

      When he was shot to death, David Herold was also captured – and there are numerous witnesses that they were travelling together and had been co-conspirators. So basically, the Booth survived people claim that somebody who looked uncannily like the most famous actor in the country happened to be with someone we know associated with Booth and took part in the conspiracy. They claim that everybody at the time recognized Booth. They claim that nobody recognized Booth for years afterwards. They claim that Booth was so stupid that despite being famous, despite his picture being published everywhere, he chose to stay in the US rather than flee the country to places where his face wasn't famous. Pretty absurd.

      December 24, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • MojoHotep

      It was already proven 145 years ago, this would be to satisfy conspiracy theorists.

      December 24, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • smike200

      I strongly agree that using technology to answer questions is great. However didn't the media demonize Hugo Chavez the Socialist dictator from Venezuela for doing the same thing in his country? We are like rats who blindly follow an internet laden media trail to a box of poison.

      December 24, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • CBruce

      I believe that John Wilkes Booth is actually a vampire, and not only assasinated Lincoln, but also JFK, Elvis, and the Loch Ness monster.

      By failing to disprove my theory, you only prove that it is correct! HAH!

      December 24, 2010 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      History's full of cover-ups! Ask Pat Tillman's family!

      December 24, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. jdog

    yup don't do anything...it's better to live with false and misleading myths and legends after all, I mean what could you possibly base your one sided histories on without them

    December 24, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carter Sherline

      Even when faced with facts people believe in contrary legends and myths so will it really make a difference?

      December 24, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • asimpleguy

      I don't know, but I am sure Republicans can explain how they do that...

      December 24, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mark

    this is not new news though its been a theory for years that John Wilkes Booth never died in that barn and it was one of the other conspirators

    December 24, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Eduardo Babricko

    I remembering hearing a story about this doing my graduate studies. That the guy who supposedly was Booth committed suicide in Tulsa and then his body was bought and the back of his head cut off and put in a displayand you could actually see through the eyes of the man that killed Lincoln.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  5. MS

    The History channel? Oh you must mean the pseudo history channel. I find it extremely unlikely that Booth escaped. Everybody knew what he looked like as he was famous before he shot Lincoln. Imagine if Brad Pitt assassinated President Obama. He couldn't get away because everybody knows what he looks like.And this was1865 before plastic surgery could change your look or contact lenses that change your eye color.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lou

      Everybody knows what bin Laden looks like. How's that search working out?

      December 24, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • MS

      Bin Laden has allies. Booth didn't. Even Southern newspapers that had previously called Lincoln a tyrant called Booth a coward

      December 24, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dudley4637289

      The History Channel – you mean the "Aliens are Responsible for Everything Channel?" Clearly, the technology of the gun, the shoes, material, powder, and all but the medical attention Lincoln got was the result of aliens from outer space. They have a very highly developed sense of moral values, you see, and decided to assassinat maybe the most empathetic leader America ever produced. 'Yeah, that's the ticket...'

      December 24, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • wjk

      You mean the Hitler channel? Every sweeps week they drag up all the Hitler shows to get ratings. Good ol Hitler channel.

      December 24, 2010 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dave

    Dude, it's Christmas, why would anyone care about historical fact this time of year? (Hence the sarcasm....)

    December 24, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
  7. The_Mick

    John Wilkes Booth was a famous actor. He was well known by the people who supported and those who reported on him in Maryland as he tried to get away. It seems to me very unlikely he'd be mistaken for another since he was removed still alive from the burning barn and wasn't disfigured. The shooting paralyzed him and his last request was to have his hands raised up in front of his face. "Useless, useless," he moaned as he looked at them.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
  8. GrogInOhio

    Sigh... conspiracy theorists now reach back 145 years to come up with more nonsense...

    December 24, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
  9. flycatcher

    I have watched this decoded series from the beginning and I'm very disappointed. Not only are the topics not very interesting but no answers are produced just more questions, seems to me nothing has been "Decoded" The researchers go out and talk to people more or less accepting what ever they re told. It is just another show that in between commercials goes over the first 5 minutes of where they left off prior to the commercial. So to summarize, lousy uninteresting topics, with repeated so called facts being presented and no answers or Decoding done. Humbug!

    December 24, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  10. explainist

    I predict that a result of the investigation will be the discovery that the assassin is now dead, and likely to stay that way.

    you gotta wonder about all this digging up of the half dozen graves of Billy the kid, Jon Wilkes Booth, et cetera. what problem are you solving that is so pressing it requires disturbing a burial?

    December 24, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  11. RJ Middleton

    Who really killed Lincoln and why? If Booth had anything to do with it my guess he was a pawn for a bigger group. The one driving our country into the ground...

    December 24, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lou

      You mean Republicans?

      December 24, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Logan Deen

      No Lou, the Democraps

      December 24, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • MojoHotep

      Bush did it!

      December 24, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • tim

      Lincoln was a republican so why would the republicans shoot him, booth would have been a democrat. Though the parties are not the same as way back then, or may be so Lincoln did invade a soveriegn nation, like bush

      December 24, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • musings

      I wouldn't say Booth was exactly a pawn – too much of an ego for that. But I do think he had some ambitious supporters egging him on with their own agendas. Those people knew it was going down and few but Dr. Mudd were treated as part of the conspiracy. There were people who saw the plot as an opportunity to return to power – because it was meant to decapitate the executive branch, not just kill Lincoln.

      December 27, 2010 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  12. Juleslady

    even known conspiracies dont make it to the history books... cuban crisis ... hello?

    December 24, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Goober

    I certainly wouldn't go around admitting that I was the descendent of JW Booth.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Robert Haas

    John Wilkes Booth ? Edwin Booth? Junius Brutus Booth? Agnes Booth? Junius Booth, Senior? (and Junior! ?) Shirley Booth? Booth Tarkington? Telephone Booth? Of course! It can only be a conspiracy! The chain of evidence is clear! Let's dig up everyone.. there are still a lot of Booths awaiting.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      "Voting Booth..." now there's the REAL conspiracy!

      December 24, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  15. 2tired2care

    Let's hope that he burned a horrible death like he deserved.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • AshannaK

      Beware of what you look for. You just might get it. It really isn't a question of who's buried in what grave (we went through that with Lee Harvey Oswald) but the real reason why Booth shot Lincoln (if he really did). When you open
      a window you might let in a hurricane. Be sure that if history is changed that you will be able to live with the consequences of that change. What you don't know about Lincoln and the 'real' reason for the civil might shock you.
      It did me. But I can life with it. I'm an American Indian.

      December 24, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
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