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. banasy

    It's been 145 years, not all that long ago when it comes to human remains. You can extract DNA from skeletal remains, you know.

    December 24, 2010 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Ron

    Enough about the spelling errors-if you're interested in the article and an interesting one about it, click the following link:
    If it is the same one spoken briefly about in the article – I'm not sure.

    December 24, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
  3. tomCA

    Even if the DNA determines they are related it still wouldn't 100% prove that it was Booth. It just means they were related. Now, I believe the man killed in the tobacco barn was Booth. But conspiracy theorists will believe what they want to believe.

    December 24, 2010 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
  4. banasy

    Uh...Fibber, you are aware that the book "Sahara" is a work on fiction, aren't you?

    December 24, 2010 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. bob owl

    Who cares, wearing that stupid stove pipe hat at the theater will get you shot.

    December 24, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Thomas

    Doesn't matter either way really. Whatever the outcome of the test would be you'd still have nutjobs come along and claim the possibility that the DNA results were falsified somehow and the conspiracies would continue.

    December 24, 2010 at 11:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Firsttimer

    Assassin IS misspelled on the front page: "Did Lincoln's Assasin get away?" .. That being said, SO WHAT?? Even the people of CNN are human beings and thus make mistakes! No need to behave all high and mighty and tear their heads off for it.. or insult anyone. Honestly, it's just a spelling mistake!!! How would you feel if you were on the receiving end??

    December 24, 2010 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robrob

      "It's just a spelling mistake" from an article on a national new agency's website? Come on, spell checkers are easy to use and free.

      December 27, 2010 at 1:26 am | Report abuse |
  8. banasy

    Thomas: I agree!

    Roswell & the8s: LMAO! And, again, I agree!

    December 24, 2010 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
  9. WIldfire13

    So did the National Museum have permission from Booth or his family to take his spine out? If not they have no say.

    December 25, 2010 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
  10. Evan

    Why rouse the dead from their sleep?

    December 25, 2010 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
    • John , Barneveld,NY

      Why not make sure History is correct ?

      December 25, 2010 at 8:42 am | Report abuse |
    • SpaceElvis

      we need to rouse the dead because history needs to be respected. just because something is over doesnt mean that it doesnt need to be corrected if it is wrong. and, by the way, edwin will not actually be awoken for this. his body is an empty shell.

      December 25, 2010 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Timmy

      Evan – I really hope your comment wasn't meant to be serious.

      I believe they should take care of this. Test the theory and move on. To those who don't want their "precious" historical bones destroyed... how in the world are "your" bones more important than finding truth?

      December 25, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • tom

      in my opinion is the guy who claimed to be booth years after he was killed was just a glory hound trying to get his name in the history books. it worked.

      December 25, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wally

      The truth NEEDS to be known; our shcools are already full of revisionist history. There is a 3 volume report to congress, about the Lincoln assination (the 1860 version of the Warren Commission). Unfortuately, it does not read like the history books I remember. If the body is not John Wilkes Booth the history books will hve to be rewritten. However, we all know the government wouldn't lie to it's citizens. Would it??

      December 25, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • orlandorays

      Barnefeld: Because there were hundreds of witnesses to Lincoln's assassination.

      December 26, 2010 at 5:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Jane

      The person buried isn't asleep. They're dead.

      December 26, 2010 at 6:01 am | Report abuse |
    • leroy glasgow

      EVAN: Why don't you go back to rest, and leave this post for those of us who are awake. Gshhhhh

      December 26, 2010 at 10:01 am | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      Why not? Do you have a dog in this fight?

      December 26, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      Actually Wally, the government was caught telling a truth oine time but they quickly reacted with damage control and asserted that their remarks had been taken out of context.

      December 26, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      The truth is more important that making people uncomfortable.

      December 26, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Christy

      Evan – For the answer to your question, please read the article.

      December 26, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • agreed

      Yea, what's the difference? He's dead. It's not like you're going to bring Lincoln's killer to justice. Can't they find something better to waste our tax money on?

      December 26, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      I helped work for the "judge" in denying the exhumation of Booth's grave in Maryland. As detailed in the opinion, the evidence that Booth was not buried in the cemetary was overwhelming and these Booth descendants were glory hounds. As a society, we just don't dig up graves when there is no probative evidence to do so.

      December 26, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      he's slept long enough....wake the hell up

      December 26, 2010 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Boxes o bones, collections of matter, No need to get too respectful with 'em. Could provide answers of great import

      December 27, 2010 at 1:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      If we did not allow changes in science then then doctors would still be performing lobotomies. If we find new evidence and something is dis proven then it should be published. History should be respectable as well. Protecting a lie would be a joke and our history would lose its credibility.

      December 27, 2010 at 2:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Sic semper tyrannis

      December 27, 2010 at 7:14 am | Report abuse |
    • hello histroy!

      Great idea, we should always ask questions to answers, if not I think curiosity has died. Always question things and ask for the truth! Who cares why not? What have we got to loose nothing its the past! Who cares if we told the story wrong for years its fun to find out! Politics blah.........

      December 27, 2010 at 7:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Holly

      They probably won't wake up. Just sleep right through it.

      December 27, 2010 at 8:49 am | Report abuse |
    • socrateze

      Great, finally CNN starting to broadcast the real truth... maybe next they can tackle how 9/11 was a huge scam and how the government is a big fasad being ran by something bigger than most people know. Follow the rabbit down the rabbit hole and you'll realize this is all one big scam- call me a conspiracy theorist, I'll call you a blind follower. I am more cautious with my soul than you are. The system in place is a vampire. They didn't kill Lincoln for slavery, they killed him for his monetary policy. MONEY IS THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL. "for what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul" – Jesus The real Jesus, Not the White Roman Jesus glorified on the cross.

      December 27, 2010 at 9:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Hernan

      With that reasoning the earth is still flat, Columbus and Co. should never arrived to the "eastern" Indias, and probably we still believe that the universe rotates around the earth.
      Every discovery, scientific, medical, historical, had always faced with the opposition of the "status quo" who are relentless to move forward. Up to 1903 we couldn't believe that the man can fly, until 1957 that we (human beings) can put a satellite on orbit, until 1961, a man in orbit, until 1969 a man on the moon, so on, so on.
      Our nature takes us to investigate and challenge everything that we took as a "truth".
      This is another example, let them have the test done. if it's true, rewrite the History, otherwise, you close that infamous chapter of the American History.

      December 27, 2010 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
    • JPB

      The bankers shot Lincoln because he tried to break away from the Central and print his own money. They were called greenbacks. The progressives love revisionist history. Lincoln did not die for the civil war.

      December 27, 2010 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Hernan

      @ Socrateze:
      It took 145 years to find out if Lincoln's killer was the real one or not?.
      Sit tight and wait for about the same amount of time to see if 9/11 is what you said. And then you may ended up writing in the CNN (in 2155) that you were right in 2010.

      December 27, 2010 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
    • nheckt

      socrateze- It is people like you, why I read CNN. It makes me laugh start my day on a good mood, that I am not on drugs on a Monday morning. Good luck with your life and watch out I think I saw someone following you!!!!

      December 27, 2010 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Sybaris

      The dead don't care

      December 27, 2010 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
    • JWilkes Booth

      I agree. Our government has lied to us before and knowledge of the truth hasn't done us any good. We need to find new ways to hold our government accountable.

      December 27, 2010 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
  11. respect

    Let it be

    December 25, 2010 at 4:20 am | Report abuse |
  12. Mmmmm

    Isn't the confederate south is a bunch of unhung, pardoned treasoners?

    December 25, 2010 at 4:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Flippy1124

      Can't the British say the same thing about it's former colonies?

      December 25, 2010 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Burello

      Wow, Umar. We all know that Texas is more-or-less out of touch with reality, but to see you prove it so well is impressive!

      December 25, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • breeze68

      To Umar H: I wish the South would secede right NOW! Please take Texas and all the rest of the hillbillies with you, you certainly aren't going to get an argument out of me! Don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out!

      December 25, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Flippy1124

      Umar and people like him are the reason the rest of the civilized world laugh at us.

      December 25, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      Bring it. We kicked your ass once and we can do it again.

      December 25, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • American fisrt

      No Umar... we got our butts kicked in a huge way. I love the South, but I am not about to rewrite history. Maybe it's about time you loved your country more than a distant memory. By the way, your comment is treasonous to this nation... You sound like a jihadist.

      December 25, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      It's been 145 years....Let it go.....breathe in..breathe out..Now don't you feel better?

      December 25, 2010 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      Umar... I am from Texas and can't believe what you're saying...Quit sniffing the paint. You don't speak for all Texans! God bless AMERICA!!!

      December 25, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • windrider2

      Dear Umar, what makes you think that we'll race to force you back into the Union if you secede this time. The Federal government could save trillions if the South seceded. We could pull back our border facilities and not have to worry about illegal Mexican immigrants. We can close all military bases and other federal facilities in all secessionary states. We can decide whether or not we want diplomatic relations with any of the secessionary states. The rest of the Union would be better off if the South does secede. We won't make the same mistake again and sacrifice millions of lives to drag you kicking and screaming back into the Union. Go your own way and be damned.

      December 25, 2010 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • TinKnight

      Umar, it was not "Texas's" desire to pull out of the Union, it was our lunatic governor's ranting–the same man who came shockingly close to losing to a Democrat in a strongly-Republican state during a strongly anti-Democratic election season.
      Very few people would support such a move, whether they're Democratic or Republic or even "Tea Partiers." No one wins in that case.
      Those of you who say Texas and/or the rest of the South should secede "because it's better for the North" are showing you're just as ignorant.
      And that's not getting into the idiocy that ANYONE in this country would fare well in the event of armed conflict raging across the land–please take a look at the rest of the world for Exhibit A of what happens in a war.

      December 26, 2010 at 4:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Stosh

      Umar, H. is messing with y'all. He's a fake Southerner. Anyone who doesn't know how to say "y'all" properly isn't a true Southerner!

      www yall com

      December 26, 2010 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      Would you mind posting this again and try real hard to make it readable? It doesn't make much sense as it reads now. Perhaps you could get mommie or daddie to help you.

      December 26, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      Wow it is interesting to see Umar claim the South should rise again. Texas provide exactly less than 1 % of the Souths troops though being a good supply line logistically until 1863 they had few MEN in the fight. They even ousted Sam Houston from Governorship for not swearing allegeince to the South. Lets not forget Sam Houston did single handedley provide the situation and reason for Texas even being a state. You guys from Texas are the stupidest lot of revisionist historians I have ever met, followed closely by AZ. Go get a real education and stop hanging around your militia buddies.

      December 26, 2010 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dr. Micheal Bellamy

      If I'd had lived back then the South would have won the war and we would not have gettos, gangs, violence hypocritic athiests and racism. Islam would never dare mess with us as well.

      December 27, 2010 at 6:44 am | Report abuse |
    • 99sparky

      No No Flippy there's a HUGE difference. You see, the colonies WON thier war for independance. The south LOST their revolt.

      December 27, 2010 at 7:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Flippy1124

      @99sparky you are missing the point of the original comment, it has nothing to do with the result of the conflict. The British thought of the colonies the same way the North thought of the south. The way Mmmm original comment states, which is what I was commenting on.

      December 27, 2010 at 8:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Kotawolf

      There is so much hate here... and what ever this Umar person posted has been removed. But what I find surprising is that so many people say Texas is worthless and such. When Texas has more corporate headquarters than most if not all other states in the union. As well as, Texas has actually fared better than every other state in this recession. Its no wonder that there are places in the world hate the US... when we have so many people who act like they do on this message board.

      December 27, 2010 at 9:25 am | Report abuse |
    • texas

      you guys need to get off TEXAS because unlike your states and your towns we still have jobs!!
      as for what this article is about ....just do it BB

      December 27, 2010 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
    • THE BIG T

      i'm from texas and i have the liberty of walking outside with out seeing politics all around and i thank god for that please stop the racism its not healthy for any one either way your still living there and we are still living here

      December 27, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mrs. TEXAS

      if we are so dumb how come NASA is here and how come we still have the best economy and how come we are still driving our trucks while you guys have to go to low fueled cars face it we may seem dumb to the country but who is really living in the land of FREE

      December 27, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jamie Sipe

    It would be good to correct any historical records. We already teach ouir children too many distorted, or bias facts about many historical events, for the sake of political correctness.
    Factually, Lincoln wanted the slaves returned to their native lands. He never felt that Europeans and the slaves would be able to live in harmony.
    Factually, only about 5% of the Southern populace were slave owners. The consistant rectoric about the Civil war being a war to protect slavery, or that all Southerners are somehow less educated, ecetera, is rather borish and juvinille.

    December 25, 2010 at 8:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Don Beal

      The South just fought to protect its way of life, which just incidentally included slavery. Not that important at all.

      December 25, 2010 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Don Beal

      It's rhetoric, boorish, juvenile, consistent, and et cetera.

      December 25, 2010 at 11:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Harold Bissonette (pronounced Bis-o-nay)

      Sorry, sir, anyone who supported a system of enslaving human beings is a moron. Same thing is happening today for the same reason, the slave holders didn't want to pay a living wage to people so they bought other people and treated them like animals. Who could support that? Well, I know a lot of southern Republicans still vote against their own interests. Maybe there's a genetic defect there. And if you think it wasn't about slavery, read South Carolina's articles of secession.

      December 25, 2010 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • 2true

      Well, just look above at Umar, H. Looks like Umar didn't learn English 101 in those southern schools! Case closed. It is what it is!

      December 25, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill Mullign

      Slavery was NOT incidenial-denying the role of slavery just shows a total lack of underastanding of the South during that time period .

      December 25, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Garvey and his group wanted to return, too. I have not read any reputable historian that said that Lincoln wanted to send Blacks back to Africa, only that it was something that was discussed. We don't know because of Booth what he really wanted. Lincoln liked debate. He liked to listen to both sides. The main thing is that he saved the Union and we are, whether we deserve it or not, stronger for it

      December 25, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      You are just being politically correct, actually it is stupid and childish. These type of comments you refer to are uttered by people who have very little knowledge or education and are just too stupid to keep their mouths shut.

      December 26, 2010 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Talmadge Walker

      Jamie, the 5% figure for southern slave-owners is technically close to correct, but only because the head of the household was usually the only "owner" listed on the census forms. Children and usually spouses did not own property & so technically weren't slave "owners". What you really need to look at are the % of slave-owning HOUSEHOLDS in the south, and that was roughly 30% in 1860. In the Deep South it was even higher, and it was close to 50% in South Carolina & Mississippi.

      December 27, 2010 at 7:46 am | Report abuse |
    • tensor

      Talmadge: A household was the *man* who owned it and everyone who lived in that house and on his land, including women and certainly children – white and black. Societies were stratified at that time, esp. in French-inflected states (Louisiana) with a man's black mistress often having more freedoms and even her own home, income and high social status.

      December 27, 2010 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Maggie

      Jamie: I agree with what you said but just wanted to add that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the South; the slaves in the North weren't freed until years later.

      December 27, 2010 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Teacher

      The sad fact is that the slave owners controlled the politics of the South and drove the South to secede. When they pulled out of the Union in 1860 and 1861, they openly declared that slavery was the reason they were leaving. It was this same group of slave owners that kept most southern states from developing statewide public school systems until after the Civil War, long after most northern states. From the Mississippi Declaration of Secession, in the secessionists' own words: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_missec.asp

      December 27, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. susan Connecticut

    Tobacco SHED is the correct term.....barns are for livestock.

    December 25, 2010 at 8:22 am | Report abuse |


      December 25, 2010 at 8:47 am | Report abuse |
    • cg

      Actually, tobacco is cured in a barn, in those days it was hung, by tying the leaves to a stick and hung in the rafters of the barn to be cured by a heat source.

      December 25, 2010 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
    • unretired05

      The less eloquent term would be a "Backy Barn". That is what many still call their "sheds" that have room for animals below and racks above.

      December 25, 2010 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Randy

      In Indiana we have Tobacco BARNS. Big, two story structures (most assuredly NOT sheds) for the hanging and curing of tobacco. Do a google search on the term.

      December 25, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Gravedigger

    It's not changing American history it's correcting it. Why should we b satisfied with not living the truth. History is written by the victors but it should be a tapestry of truth as to the events that actually unfolded

    December 25, 2010 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      The historians are convinced that if we dig too deeply we will uncover a conspiracy of certain members of the government who hated Lincoln and were responsible for his assination.

      December 26, 2010 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
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