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. Jon

    This contention is ridiculous. Move one step beyond and do some good old fashioned historiical research.
    Find out the facts and stop boring us with this dribble.

    December 25, 2010 at 8:54 am | Report abuse |
  2. Lance

    I heard a story that a man claiming to be Booth, years after the assasination, died and his body was "mummified" by someone. If that's true, no need to dig up a grave, just find the mummy and test his DNA. At least that can kill off one theory, or confirm it.

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

      The problem with that is that the mummified body was lost sometime between the '50s and the '70's. If it could be found, then they might be able to test the DNA against the bones at Walter Reed, without having to dig up the brother.

      December 26, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      Check the Skull and Bones secret stash over at Princeton!!! LOL

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

    The people who don't want the truth to be examined are statists Lincoln worshipers who don't want to deal with America realizing that much of the Lincoln myth is exactly that. They rightly recognize if it can be shown that a government conspiracy was executed to cover up one aspect of Lincoln's death, that it is very much more likely that other things have been covered up as well (about his death and life). Too bad there wasn't a 18th-century WikiLeaks to have exposed this all much sooner.

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

      I think you meant to say "a *19th* century WikiLeaks." The 18th century would've been the 1700s. Lincoln wasn't even born until 1809. 😉

      December 25, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      RAF, nobody likes a person that acts like you. You are not appointed to correct people gaffes.

      December 26, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sam

      Dandydonny; are you saying that it is unimportant if a person is not correct in what they're stating?

      December 27, 2010 at 7:26 am | Report abuse |
  4. joe

    Did Lincoln's assasin get away? NO

    December 25, 2010 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
    • TinKnight

      He might still be on the run, joe!
      He might be your neighbor!
      Wait...what was that sound behind you? 🙂

      December 26, 2010 at 4:19 am | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      How do you know that? If you are going to make an assinine statement like that you might at least give us a hint as to what triggered your brain f_a_r_t.

      December 26, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    And there are still folks who insist that Lincoln's Secretary of War Stanton, who was directed the chase, prosection, and execution or imprisonment of anyone involved in the assasination, him was also responsible for the lax security measures, and was trying to execute a coup d'etat against both Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. It is unlikely that he would succeed given that Grant, Sherman and Sheridan owed their advancements to Lincoln, not Stanton, and would have prevented him from siezing power by continuing the suspension of Habeas Corpus.

    December 25, 2010 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Buck

      It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Stanton had something to do with Lincoln's assassination. Stanton clearly wanted to punish the South for its crime of secession, and he thought Lincoln's terms were too "soft."

      December 26, 2010 at 10:31 am | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      Are you able to communicate with the dead? Did Grant and Sheridan tell you that directly or did you use a medium?

      December 26, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  6. tom

    Such stupidity from the anti-Lincoln southern apologists! I'm surprised nobody's insisted on seeing Lincoln's birth certificate!

    December 25, 2010 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      LOL! I am NO fan of O-Bush-Ma but these "birthers" are a funny bunch........ Shouldn't the line in the sand in decent society be peace/violence? Who is imprisoning, killing and profiting from the wars on terror/drugs? Have USA Presidents become puppets for their Banker masters? Further more I believe a major issue is and should be fiat vs Austrian economics. Debt vs sound money-central bank vs a "Free Banking" system. Lincon was murdered because he tried to give the people of the USA debt free money.

      December 25, 2010 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      What a stupid comment, you must claim to be a democrat.

      December 26, 2010 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      No, a life long Republican with common sense that knows stupidity when he sees it.

      December 27, 2010 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
  7. Dan

    Mess with the money and they JFK ya! Ol' Jesus whipped the money changers and they nailed him up on a cross!

    December 25, 2010 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      You've got it, Dan. Unfortunately, they took over most of His religion and turned it into a means of conquest and control. No wonder He said, "It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven!"

      December 25, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • dbuckm-TX

      Patrick – The bible is wrong on this accounting, there was an error in translation it should be that "It's easier for a gamel to pass through the eye of a needle ..." A gamel being a term used for a ship's rope. The Bible was written to make sense and a 'Camel" passing through a needle's eye makes no sense.

      December 25, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • JJD

      Sorry dbuckm-TX
      your wrong. Patrick is right. When Jesus said "It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven" He was speaking of the gate at the enrtance to Jerusalem. It was very hard for people to bring there camles through that gate. It's funny hearing people try to explain something without taking the time to research.

      December 26, 2010 at 3:17 am | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      I am wondering if I am the only adult posting here, most of the blather sounds like it is coming from adolescentes. Intelligent minds want to know the truth no matter wher the chips may fall, people who have no desire for the truth are dullards.
      To the person commenting on the eye of the needle. Although you have no desire to learn anything I will tell you the secret of the eye of the needle. Cities in those days were walled. They had large gates to admit traffic during the day but were closed at night for security. There was a small gate built in the large gate that was opened for nightly visitors. It was sized so that a camel might pass through it but not with a man on it's back. That gate was called the "Eye of the needle". Only a camel without a load on it's back was able to pass.

      December 26, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aarrgghh

      DandyDon: I am not sure about you being the "only adult" here but you certainly are among the most pompous.

      December 26, 2010 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Harold Bissonette (pronounced Bis-o-nay)

    In 2097, the same story will be published but the name of the President will be John F. Kennedy.

    December 25, 2010 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      Well said. Old JFK got his head (blown off) nailed to a cross for whipping them money changers didn't he!

      December 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • 2true

      There won't be a 2097.

      December 25, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • RetiredMSgt

      Exactly, and the U.S. government perpetrators will be found to be responsible for the assasination of Bobby also.

      December 26, 2010 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
    • The Chip Hits The Fan

      "Penny Magicians holding hillbillies for ransom....."

      December 26, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Dr. Lecter

    I blame the assassination on corporate greed, Big Oil (or, Big Cotton), and religion. Oh yeah, there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll.

    December 25, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      And Joe Biden says there was a magic bullet there also.

      December 26, 2010 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. travis

    All this talk about conspiracy is rediculous. Every assassination or attempted assassination on a president has been found that the assassin was deranged. Why is it Mckinley and Garfield were killed by psychos but with Lincoln and Kennedy there has to be a big conspiracy. Ill admit history is biased and in many cases wrong or false but I think exuming the body will shed light on a mystery. I mean it what if we found out that Hitler was living in a house in Vienna after the war and wasnt really killed? they never found the body. And I also think many of the people posting on here need to check the facts behind their books and articles. Opinions need to be made after examining all sides not just the wierd conspiiracy part. Closed mindedness is the reason for ALL the worlds problems.

    December 25, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  11. travis

    In addition if you actually study Lincoln he was a good man yes but he was also an amazing strategist and politician. I think he was one of our best presidents for what he did with the choices given to him however he made big mistakes as well. He has been glorified but So have many Presidents. Jefferson bought Louisianna, everyone loves him but do you know that is the biggest outstretch of presidential power ever in US history? completely unconstistutional. Lincoln was a politician and it isnt so hard to believe he wouldnt be just like the politicians of today.

    December 25, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      Lincoln was the first Republican elected president.

      December 26, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  12. MarkRH

    No amount of proof to the contrary, or ridiculousness of their claims will satisfy conspiracy theorists. We should pity them because their paranoia has blinded them to reality, but it’s hard when they subject us to their rants when we scoff at their lunacies.

    December 25, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Steve

    Mike Maione, the late Ford's Theatre Park Ranger, knew more about the assassination of President Lincoln than more historians and his opinion, based on historical research, concluded the man shot and killed was John Wilkes Booth. Those you feel there is another version of that story are just whistling Dixie. Check the facts, just check the facts. For example, here are reports of those who knew Booth taken at the time the body was being examined to determine if the body was Booth. It was very important at that time to make a definitive ID of the body. It was done. period. END OF STORY. All else is garbage history.
    ..."Within a short time, several people who knew Booth personally positively identified the body which was haggard from 12 days of riding, rowing, and hiding in underbrush. One of these people was Dr. John Frederick May. Some time prior to the assassination, Dr. May had removed a large fibroid tumor from Booth's neck. Dr. May found a scar from his operation on the corpse's neck exactly where it should have been. Booth's dentist, Dr. William Merrill, who had filled two teeth for Booth shortly before the assassination, pried open the corpse's mouth and positively identified his fillings. Charles Dawson, the clerk at the National Hotel where Booth was staying, examined the remains, saying "I distinctly recognize it as the body of J. Wilkes Booth – first, from the general appearance, next, from the India-ink letters, 'J.W.B.,' on his wrist, which I had very frequently noticed, and then by a scar on the neck. I also recognize the vest as that of J.
    Wilkes Booth." (As a boy Booth had his initials indelibly tattooed on the back of his left hand between his thumb and forefinger.) Seaton Munroe, a prominent Washington attorney who knew Booth, viewed the body and said that he "was very familiar with his (Booth's) face and distinctly recognize it." Alexander Gardner, a well-known Washington photographer, and his assistant, Timothy H. O'Sullivan, were also among those called to the Montauk to identify Booth's corpse."

    December 25, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      Does all this mean when they do the DNA testing and it doesn't match that we will have another conspiracy theory to deal with?

      December 26, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michael In Phoenix

      Sure. Bring up facts to these conspiracy theorists.

      December 26, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark S. Zaid, Esq.

      I knew Mike Maione quite well and counted him as a good friend (rest his soul). We met often to discuss the case and the litigation effort. He regularly gave me access to the files at Ford's Theatre. He and I shared a lot in common and held many of the same views about the case. We primarily just differed on whether there should be an exhumation or not.

      The fact that this case is back in the news again and based on the same old stories, quite frankly, proves exactly what I said in court 15 years ago: historians have failed to conclusively address this issue and science should step in and resolve it once and for all. That is the primary basis for the exhumation effort. Even noted Lincoln assassination historian and author MIchael Kaufman, who testified against the exhumation in 1995, has changed his mind and now supports it.

      I should also point out that the recent news is not entirely accurate as to what is currently ongoing.

      Mark S. Zaid, Esq.
      Attorney for Lois Trebisacci (Booth family relative)

      December 27, 2010 at 1:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Quincy9

      I don't believe that anyone is disputing Booth's actions and crimes as historical fact. I believe that it's focused on IF he actually died in the barn. There's no doubt that he was the assassin.

      December 27, 2010 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
  14. john

    Spell check CNN

    December 25, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  15. TransWarpDrive

    Travis said:
    " I mean it what if we found out that Hitler was living in a house in Vienna after the war and wasnt really killed? they never found the body."
    Sorry, friend. That's false. The Soviets found Hitler's partially-cremated remains in a shallow grave near the entrance to his underground bunker, and identified it through his dental records. They took his corpse, as well as those of Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels and his wife and children, with them back into Soviet-held territory. Those ten bodies were buried on the grounds of a Soviet military base in East Germany until April 4, 1970, when on the orders of the KGB, they were dug up, cremated once again, then dumped into a nearby river to be washed out into the Atlantic Ocean. They did save a fragment of Hitler's skull with a bullet hole in it, as well as some false teeth from his dental bridgework, to be stored in the Soviet historical archives. Those archives were revealed to the public shortly after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. If you want to find out more, I highly recommend this book: "Hitler's Death: Russia's Last Great Secret from the Files of the KGB" by V.K. Vinogradov, J.F. Pogonyi, and N.V. Teptzov. It was published in 2005 by Chaucer Press in London, and the ISBN is 1-904449-13-1. It goes into quite some detail about Hitler's final days, as well as the disposition of his remains.

    December 25, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Billy

      Its true that the Russians found a skull outside of Hitler's bunker, assumed it was Hitler's and took it back to Russia but a recent DNA test proved that the skull belonged to a female.Im in no way saying that Hitler escaped Germany and went on the run to Austria or S. America like a lot of Nazis, just that the skull that the Russians thought was Hitler's turned out to be a woman's. Maybe Eva Braun?

      December 25, 2010 at 11:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • dandydonny

      Recently some US forensic experts were allowed to look at these remains and take a small piece of the skull to extract DNA and test against his remaining family in Germany. I do not believe these test results have been published yet.

      December 26, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
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