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. NamVet

    Ho-hum! Wake me when this version of the old story goes away.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Vicky

    Ummm assassin isn't misspelled. I don't see the harm in checking. The family wants to exhume Edwin Booth; and it won't hurt the bone that is in the museum...Why not? I do think its very odd that a judge denied the family's request to exhume JW Booth. They just wanted to see if it was him in the coffin, right? I'm curious as to that judge's rationale. Did the judge think that parts of JW were going to show up on Ebay?

    December 24, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. banasy

    Probably. Everything else shows up on Ebay!

    December 24, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  4. boohoohoo

    All historians believe MANY lies. It's the nature of his story..

    December 24, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Spudlabs

    Yes, Yes, and we never landed on the moon, satellite TV is a hoax and George Bush(who's really 163 years old) did it himself. I think someone missed their afternoon thorazine!

    December 24, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. GaHap

    Who really gives a rats behind. The lousiest president, except for carter, is dead. So what, who killed him is not very important now.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  7. William

    The DNA part is actually very fasinating. My great-great-great-grandfather died one week after Lincoln. If DNA can be extracted from the remains, for genealogy purposes, I would love to be able to open-up my ancestors grave. I believe I heard that there is DNA in the teeth, which usually remain.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Henry Miller

      Why do you want to test your putative great, great, great, grandfather's DNA? To find out if he was Lincoln? To find out if he really was your great-to-the-nth grandfather?

      December 24, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Suzannah

      Folks buried that long ago, if not embalmed, are now, for the most part, dirt. Which is as it should be.

      December 24, 2010 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Ben Gates

    I watched National Treasure 2, it was Ben Gates grandfather that helped plan the whole thing.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Bret

    It is funny that everyone along his escape route recognized Booth. The cavalry troops who ran him to ground recognized him after they shot him, even the old black man who took the body to Port Royal on the back of his horse drawn wagon knew it was booth. Why can't modern people understand that those who were there were right.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Fric

    One thing I'm learning over the year's is that everything I learned in school is turning out to be wrong.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Suzannah

      and so much of what is being "taught" in schools now is so heavily plasticized with political correctness that it is also not right either.

      December 24, 2010 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Henry Miller

    Not everyone would agree with the bit about "our greatest president." Lincoln was a megalomaniac who started a war that killed 600 thousand people–this doesn't seem to me to be the hallmark of "greatness."

    December 24, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim armstrong

      It seems the south fired the 1st shot

      December 24, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • asimpleguy

      Yes, and the South did fight the war for the right to have slaves....

      December 24, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • JiminNM

      The South fought the war for states rights, not slavery. Lincoln played the slave card to keep the French from helping the South.

      December 24, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • fred


      The South fought the war for states rights, not slavery. Lincoln played the slave card to keep the French from helping the South

      So you're saying that a state should have the right to decide that a persons skin color determines whether they are a person or property? I think you missed a couple of history classes.

      December 24, 2010 at 9:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tallulah

      The South fought the war for state's rights to propagate slavery into the territories. Please please READ.

      December 25, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • tensor

      Tallulah is on the right track. The south was expanding west into Texas and into what came to be the midwest/west, bringing slavery into those agricultural areas. It's also important to note which European countries also had economic interests in those regions and thus financially backed the opposing side.

      December 27, 2010 at 8:09 am | Report abuse |
  12. colonelingus

    These conspiracy theorists otherwise known as the " lunatic fringe" really make me laugh.
    Just dismiss them for the knuckle dragging buffoons that they are.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jeff

    More importantly, did *Abraham Lincoln* get away? Someone should exhume the remains in his tomb and find out who's buried there? I have heard that it is actually George Washington.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  14. banasy

    The Historian:
    You're killing me! Lol! I was just checking...did you read "Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies?" The truth will set you free, my brother!

    The "A" team, BTW!

    Jeff: LMAO!

    December 24, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  15. jim armstrong

    The usual stance of ANY govt is to stand by the historical record THEY made. To uncover any devation or outright LIE is to shake their belief system and their propoganda on what ever issue is there. Governments rely on their version of history, anyone else's is a lie/myth/speculation/etc It's their egos that are at stake here, not the truth. The missing pages from Booth's diary COULD have implicated members of congress in the plot, or members of Lincoln's government, Edwin Stanton comes to mind. Lincoln was a great wartime president, but probably would have been a lousy peacetime one (at least in the eyes of the radicals in congress). To them his time had come and they were the best source of reconstruction policies. If the body of edwin is exumed, don't be surprised is the part(s) of John suddenly go missing. nuff said.

    December 24, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
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