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. JPB

    Lincoln was killed because he printed his own money, it had nothing to do with the civil war. Lincoln tried to break free from the Central Bank. The currency was called green backs and Lincoln had to print his own money to finance the war. They killed Lincoln for the same reason they killed Kennedy. JFK had signed an executive order to end the Federal Reserve and give the money back to the people. Progressives love revisionist history, they don't want you to know why these Presidents were really killed. Ron Paul doesn't really want to end the fed, because if he got close, they would surely kill him too. The one world currency is upon us and the dollar does not have much longer as the world reserve currency. Time to get your hedge and buy some silver or gold, don't be left holding only dollars.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
  2. Historocity

    History is often re-written in books. Most of the history we "know" and teach now isn't necessarily what actually happened. It's what we believe happened, what everyone as a whole has accepted happened. In many cases, it's what we want to believe happened. To some extent, this will always be the case.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
  3. Jack

    The "dig-him-up" group should put up a $5 million dollar bond. If the DNA proves that JWB is buried in his own grave then they forfeit their money. I bet they back down from their absurd claims in a hurry.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:04 am | Report abuse |
  4. Stanley

    The government will never allow this to see daylight. What is written in the books has to remain,you can't change american history.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
  5. Michel

    All of the assassin conspirators are dead and it's NOT only John Booth. But also Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler, and Mary Surratt (Mary Surratt was the first woman to be put to death) those are the ones that were caught. Many belive that Edwin M. Stanton who was the Secretary of War under Lincoln during the American Civil War was apart of his assassination because he was the last person to see Booth's diary before the missing pages went missing and he was heard saying "We can not afford this information getting out." and he took control of the investigation with his own list of suspects (later all were later cleared)

    But they are all dead now so It doesn't make any difference...

    December 27, 2010 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Stupid is as Stupid does

      apart=away from or individually

      December 27, 2010 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
    • not so stupid

      Easy there "Stupid is as Stupid does". Before you get high-and-mighty and attempt to make yourself feel smart because you can correctly tell the difference between "apart" and "part", you may want to lay off the condemnation and realize Michel (Or Michael?) was probably typing fast and didn't hit the space bar in between "a" and "part". I doubt you yourself have always escaped typos in your quest to belittle other posters.

      December 27, 2010 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Stupid

      incusive, huh...?

      December 27, 2010 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • jack h

      linclon was murdered because he want to close the rothschild's owned central bank and print debt free money to finance the war. these same peoples ancestors own the present federal reserve bank and will kill you if you become a threat. INTERNATIONAL BANKS ARE AND ALWAYS WERE THE BIGGEST THREATS TO WORLD PEACE AND ECONOMIC STABILITY. CLOSE THE FEDERAL RESERVE BANK NOW BEFORE THEY BANKRUPT OUR NATION.

      December 27, 2010 at 11:40 am | Report abuse |
  6. musings

    I have to laugh sometimes when commentators (not real journalists, but more accurately "newsreaders") declare something to this effect: "Conspiracy theories are not new. In fact the oldest one is about Booth shooting Lincoln." But in fact it was a conspiracy and several participants were hanged for it. Perhaps the question is whether Booth had even more accomplices and how he got them into it. I think he did have people who wanted to return to power (in Mexico as well as in the South), hoping that the killing of Lincoln would trigger a fall of the government, especially if the conspirators were able to succeed in decapitating the top people as planned.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      Bush did it!

      December 27, 2010 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
  7. stevenjaba

    So ridiculous. Usually the simplest explanation is the most likely one. However, humans tend to want to see something more elaborate and complicated under every rock... it's more interesting and romantic that way. Also, it provides the opportunity to to feel smarter than everyone else.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
    • musings

      I think you misunderstand the use of Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation is not always the right one, or else we'd still believe that the sun rising and setting means that it goes around the earth and not vice versa. Because Booth had some serious accomplices AFTER he killed Lincoln (Dr. Mudd seems to have been an associate long before he set Booth's leg, and to have met with him in DC "accidentally"), perhaps they succeeded in hiding him. I'd say, let the DNA evidence speak.

      December 27, 2010 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
    • musings

      PS I suppose you DO understand that the Lincoln/Seward assassination/assassination attempts were part of a conspiracy? You know – like that history thing, in which four co-conspirators were HANGED in Washington, and another three or four sentenced to life in the Dry Tortugas, some of them conspirators seemingly after the fact but also involved before?

      December 27, 2010 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
    • stevenjaba

      @musings – you are making tons of assumptions about what I am or am not saying.

      December 27, 2010 at 11:40 am | Report abuse |
    • tapu

      No, Steve, he has you spot on. The application and misuse of formulas and other trite responses to real questions has largely usurped critical reasoning. But blather on–you sound smart to an awful lot of people.

      December 27, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • stevenjaba

      Since that was an unnecessary attack, I can only assume you are a troll. I don't know why I bother to read or comment on these boards. Conversations are so unproductive and negative. New Year's resolution to quit!

      December 27, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Quirk


      Bravo, sir! That is trolling of a very high order. Using planetary motion, one of the most noted applications of Occam's Razor in scientific history, with the exceedingly complicated system of Ptolemaic epicycles being replaced by the very much simpler heliocentric system sponsored first by Copernicus and later by Kepler, in a claim casting doubt on Occam's Razor itself by suggesting that it would invariably come down on the side of epicycles – that's bold, hilarious, and daring. It's a subtly constructed piece of brilliant nonsense, a post that refutes itself but leaves a tantalising bait for others to waste time on it anyway.

      (I hesitate to consider the possibility that you were not being ironic, and that you do in reality misunderstand parsimony so terribly badly; if that's the case, Jesus wept).

      December 28, 2010 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
  8. Ryan

    Why is this still an issue?

    December 27, 2010 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
    • tapu

      Um... because it hasn't been definitively resolved? Is that what you're looking for with that question?

      December 27, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Christopher Hitchens

    If they exhume that body and find a giant monkey costume in ice, I'm leaving.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
  10. Becca

    What about Surrat and the presiding groups that backed the South then? Lincoln brought the nation through its greatest crisis and died for freedom.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
  11. Lady Red

    I'm sorry, but I don't understand the thinking of people who want to have misinformation masquerading as 'history'. How is finding out that Booth lived 38 years longer always looking over his shoulder instead of dying just after killing the President is going to change history? Unless the DNA can prove that it wasn't Booth who fired the shot, I don't see how it effects history... Lincoln is still dead, as is Booth, and the whole nation is still changed because of the event. Whether Booth died sooner or later is a moot point, You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to want to gain all the knowledge you can about the events of history... or any other subject, for that matter. Remember the old adage, 'Knowledge is power.'

    December 27, 2010 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
    • JackieInDallas

      I'm with Lady Red, on this. No, knowing will not change history, but it might change our interpretation of the events.

      December 27, 2010 at 11:14 am | Report abuse |
    • sandy

      the way it changes history is because history says that booth died in that barn , if it proves he didnt die then that does change history ... how couldnt it , history isnt just that he killed lincoln but how he was killed

      December 27, 2010 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
    • musings

      This won't change the fact that J W Booth killed Lincoln, but it might show that the story of his death soon afterwards was false. Nor will it prove he lived another 38 years. It might go some way to implicate his many co-conspirators in the South in shielding him, and may open up further speculation. Much of the public is happy with a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end, but people with a history bug like to trace the bigger connections (and there are plenty after the Civil War).

      December 27, 2010 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
    • darp0

      Are you saying there is no point to accurately recording history? I realize the events themselves won't change but if its in the books that is happened one way, and it actaully happened another way, why wouldn't historians want to make that correction?

      December 27, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • tapu

      Let's say we found out that Lincoln hadn't died then, but rather that he had lived secretly for 38 more years, pulling all the strings of govt without anyone knowing about it. Would that matter to you then, or would it just not be worth finding out about? By the way, you a history buff?

      December 27, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  12. BMOC

    People are so quick to condemn "history" What is important is the truth. That then becomes part of the history also.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
  13. Charlie in Maine

    Sounds interesting. Can't wait for the movie. Do you read these blogs Oliver Stone???

    December 27, 2010 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
  14. vonnie

    Decoded searched the background of two men who claimed to be John Wilkes Booth, after he supposedly escaped from the Barn. But one interesting thing that they did not mention on Decoded which bothered me, is that two men, at the same time, could not both be John Wilkes Booth. So one of them is lying, which means both of them could be lying, which means Booth could have died in the barn, as originally thought. Decoded also said that the Booth family never identified the body, but I don't believe the Booth family and JWB was actually getting along before the assasination. Booth was very outspoken about his hate for the north and Lincoln and I don't think his family wanted to bet mixed up in it. So why would they want to be attached to the President's assassin? The show did the research on what they wanted to discuss, but could have included more ideas about the "cover-up" as this is not a new idea that booth did not act alone or that he survived.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
    • John S

      Actually, Booth was a very close terms with his sister Asia Booth Clarke and wrote his mother a letter the day before the assassination apologizing for not writing more often. Many families were obviously split over the war-such as US Attorney General Bates, who had a son fighting for the Confederacy. But there's no strong evidence that John Wilkes Booth was estranged from his family at the time of the assassination.

      December 27, 2010 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
  15. Randall

    Why Americans are so afraid to find the truth?

    December 27, 2010 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
    • tapu

      Fear? Oh, I don't think it's fear. It's completely lazy apathy. If it doesn't affect the percentage off a tv at their favorite superstore, then who gives a flunk?

      December 27, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
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