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. William

    Lou the people that brought the slaves over were Northern "Yankee" ship owners.

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

    Everyone in this story is dead, their close relatives are dead, the issue is dead. Maybe we can find out 'who killed' the 'pinky girl' whose bone was just unearthed in Siberia. The fact that money is being spent on something whose final result will change NOTHING, when it could be spent on distancing ourselves from that very difficult and painful chapter in America's history and focus on building a society not based upon who murdered whom and upon whose ancestors were mistreated, but upon what we can do to effect the future of our culture and make it better for those to come instead of scratching open the oldest wounds and making sure they fester. Yats, guys, let's move forward, not backwards. You can only chew the same mouthful for so long.

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

      Best post yet by far. Concise and to the point, relevant to the topic.

      December 24, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • T-Ray

      The "pinky girl" wasn't just unearthed. It has been set away since 2008.

      December 24, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • myklds

      Some(thing) lessons must be learned from the past.

      December 24, 2010 at 8:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Suzannah

      Thank you, Dudley. I was beginning to lose faith. You brightened my evening.

      December 24, 2010 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
  3. ***dude***

    Mr. Brieske: What happen to you when you were young? Did mom drop you on your head little baby?

    December 24, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. jerry p

    the same thing happens today you stand up for rightousness and your character is assaninated

    December 24, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. keevan d. morgan

    i think ulric dahlgren got mixed up and shot lincoln. let's investigate THAT. hey, anything's possible. we will need to exhume alger hiss's body to confirm this theory, however.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dudley4637289

    Rewriting history, thinking that we now have a much better view from over 1.5 centuries and several generations away, is like suggesting that we can better anticipate the actions of an enemy the further away from them we get, or perhaps that the scent of a rotten meal is palatible the farther from it we get, therefore rendering it pleasant. While the latter may be in effect true, it became more palatible because it had been diluted with scents unrelated. Revisionist history is a load.

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

      I disagree. If, through more study and better sources we find a better understanding of an historical event, then history should be revised. As a child in school, I was taught that Columbus "discovered" that the world was round. That, as we know is simply untrue. Better to teach the truth, even if it debunks some of our most revered myths.

      December 25, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  7. PSAGuy

    The mob did it. The guy was up on the grassy knoll.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. keevan d. morgan

    in thinking about this, i have yet another "side" theory to the main story of lincoln/j.w. booth. remember, dr. mudd was arrested and jailed for treating booth. is it possible–even if only slightly so–that harcourt fenton mudd convinced james t. kirk to break warp speed, hurtle back to the assassination time, and let harcourt pose as a maryland country doctor BUT he did not know how to properly use leonard mccoy's tricorder and only screwed up booth even worse than he had been? just who was this dr. mudd in reality? hmmmmm.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. patchone

    I DID IT.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Adrian

      I knew it was you. You've had the guilty look on your face the whole time!

      December 24, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Suzannah

      Good Lord – now they'll be after your DNA – all the pharmaceutical companies will want to manufacture Patchone potions for longevity. I want to invest in your initial stock offering. But I'm not taking the potion – wouldn't want to further endure the company of those who think they've just GOT to live longer than 100 years, complaining the whole time about how they don't look 17 any more.

      December 24, 2010 at 9:21 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Adrian

    I watched a very interesting History Channel account of the assassinatin attempt. which apparently was a much more elaborate plot that k-12 history teaches us. Booth and his cronies were actually pulling a "Tea Party": attempting to destroy the government. One person on Lincoln's admin got sliced up. The story is actually very interesting; between the supporters of Booth (of which there were many), and the government cover up of his actual death at the time to attempt to prevent mass panic. History really is cool.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Aaron

    "Greatest President"? Lincoln was a bigoted tyrant who killed 600,000 Americans to preserve Wall Street's economic supremacy.

    Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson are far better candidates for "Greatest President".

    December 24, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      Depends on how dark your skin is!

      December 25, 2010 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Nichole

    Um....I have a question, who is paying for this DNA testing? We are living in a country that is in debt up to our grandchildren's eyeballs, and now a bunch of historians want to make sure JWB died? Guess what it's been 145 years, I'm gonna say he's dead. If not maybe he killed JFK and attempted to kill Regan. Guess he lost George W.'s address.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  13. banasy

    lou was referring to who first SOLD them into slavery, not who first TRANSPORTED them here.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. m

    Who cares? It really doesn't change the fact that Lincoln is dead. Whoever did it is also long since dead.

    Let the man rest in peace.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  15. RichP, Easton, Pa

    Lincoln as our greatest president, sorry, don't think so, Washington was our greatest, it's been downhill ever since.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
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