Is Booth's gravesite an unsolved mystery?

September 26, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

The marble stele that marks John Wilkes Booth's grave is the most sought-out monument in Green Mount Cemetery, but a Montgomery County religious instructor insists that President Lincoln's assassin isn't buried there.

In fact, according to Nathan Orlowek, 33 -- who has pursued the theory for 18 years -- Booth did not die trapped by Union soldiers in a burning barn in Northern Virginia in April 1865 -- as the government maintains -- but escaped to live another 38 years before dying in Enid, Okla., in 1903.

Using a previously unreleased collection of documents and other records now in the Georgetown University Library, along with his other research, Mr. Orlowek said he persuaded producers of the "Unsolved Mysteries" television show that his theory carried enough weight to be worth airing last night on WMAR-TV, Channel 2.

But Frank Hebblethwaite, for 10 years curator of the Ford's Theatre Museum, yesterday dismissed Mr. Orlowek as a "true believer" in the"Enid Mummy" theory of the 1930s.

That theory was discredited because the Booth family had identified the assassin's body at its reburial in Baltimore in 1869, said Mr. Hebblethwaite, now lead park ranger at the Rock Creek Park nature center.

A 1949 Evening Sun article by Burke Davis, a historical writer, described how President Andrew Johnson acceded to Booth family pleas to transfer John Wilkes' body from Washington to the family plot in Green Mount.

"Members of the family and a doctor who knew Booth well identified the body when it was exhumed. They made note of his injured leg, his clothing and general appearance. A dentist who had attended him checked his teeth," he wrote.

News of the reburial became public, and people jammed the funeral home. Mr. Davis described one scene in which men and women "passed among them the head of the assassin, which had been severed from his body. In Baltimore there was no doubt of his identity."

Mr. Davis also wrote that a man claiming to be Booth turned up many years later in the West and was exhibited as a mummy after his death, "but there was no question raised by those who knew him [Booth] and saw his body before burial in Green Mount."

Mr. Hebblethwaite, who spoke with the producers of "Unsolved Mysteries," said they are aware that "the overwhelming number, 99 percent, of legitimate historians" accept that Booth died at the Garrett farm.

"They found one guy who is a true believer in the Enid Mummy theory, and they're going to say there are two sides to the story. The '20/20' program did the same thing a few years ago," he said.

James O. Hall, 79, co-author of "Come Retribution," a new history the Lincoln assassination, also was interviewed for the television show, and he said the evidence against Mr. Orlowek's theory is overwhelming.

Yesterday, Mr. Hall of McLean, Va., said that David E. Herold, who was captured at the Garrett farm after Booth was shot, identified Booth in a long statement as having been in the barn with him during the shoot-out.

In addition, Mr. Hall said, Booth, as a teen-ager, tattooed his initials between his left thumb and forefinger, and this tattoo was identified on the body as it lay on the porch of the Garrett farmhouse and later aboard a warship in Washington by Charles Dawson, a clerk at the National Hotel and a Booth friend.

Mr. Hall said he believed that the producers would delete as much of his comment as possible "so they can leave it as something unsolved."

Matt Kleinman, the show's researcher, said no one on the show has taken a position on Mr. Orlowek's conclusions "but I certainly think he has enough on his side to make a viable segment for our show. It makes for compelling television."

Mr. Orlowek, religious education director for Beth Sholom Synagogue in Potomac, said yesterday that history had always fascinated him but that he focused on the Lincoln assassination when he was 15 and read Theodore Roscoe's "Web of Conspiracy."

"It contained some evidence that Booth got away, and that whe my appetite for more," he said.

Because he was so young, Mr. Orlowek said, he had to enlist th aid of U.S. Sens. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. and J. Glenn Beall Jr. to persuade the Library of Congress to grant him access to its files. "When you're 15, you think you can do anything," he said.

He said he pursued his subject everywhere he could, in privat files in various states, in interviews and in the National Archives. His biggest break came when a previously inaccessible private collection from Texas was left to Georgetown University in 1983.

"There is a tremendous number of documents, records, diaries and affidavits, 15 boxes of them," he said, "that slam dunks it, really proves it."

Federal authorities manipulated information right from the day of the president's murder in Ford's Theatre in Washington on April 14, 1865, and even manufactured evidence during the trial of the conspirators who were arrested, Mr. Orlowek asserted.

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