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. Wzrd1

    Next week, they'll do DNA analysis on the remains in Grant's tomb...

    December 24, 2010 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Justin

    OJ did it.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
  3. wjk

    If the family is willing, then why not? If the family was opposed then respect their wishes. If history is wrong, long past time to correct it. If it was right all along, what does it hurt to cast some modern science that did not exist prior upon a conspiracy theory?

    December 24, 2010 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
  4. janel


    December 24, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  5. BW

    I say let them do it if for no other reason than to answer the questions.

    Prince Phillip gave DNA to the testing of the lady who claimed to be Anastasia, she wasn't.

    Sort of reminds me of the old Catholic joke, priest rushes into the Pope's quarters before Easter and says, "call it off, they found the bi\ones."

    In the day of Wikki Leaks and Facebook, let's let it all hang out.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
  6. VonDanich

    The Sky People are coming for your beautiful earth women!!!

    December 24, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
  7. sam kohen


    It was a hoax.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  8. don savant

    It would not hurt to do the exam. Why not?

    December 24, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
  9. JB Pruitt

    I thought it was settled years ago, he was killed by a card-carrying male model.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
  10. VonDanich

    Lincoln handled all the logistical planning for the North. He utilized the telegraph and the railroads to revolutionize the way wars would be fought. Lee was not very organized when compared with Lincoln.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Eric Nicolas

    Actually, how do we know Lincoln didn't survive the attempt on his life? Perhaps that isn't him in his grave – maybe it's bag of rocks. Maybe Lincoln moved to Northern California and started a goat farm – a claim that many in the area have made over the years.

    December 24, 2010 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  12. cleareye1

    Dig 'em up!

    December 24, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
  13. harold

    He escaped and went to Australia. One of Boothe's girlfriends was a lady named Louise Wooster. The character of Belle Watling in Gone With The Wind was based on her and for several decades she would regularly go there to visit him. She made no secret of this and no one doubted her. She was a fascinating character, for more info google her name.

    December 24, 2010 at 8:30 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Peter

    End WHAT questions?

    No one with an ounce of intelligence or historical knowledge doubts that JWB was killed by Union troops and buried.

    Geeze – the stupidity of some people is beyond comprehension.

    December 24, 2010 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. banasy


    Well, obviously the family of JWB and Edwin Booth have some questions, otherwise they would not want to exhume Edwin's body for a DNA comparison with what they say is JWB's vertebrae.

    Why would you want to label JWB's own family as stupid? Did you even read the whole post?

    December 24, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |
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