Unearthing the truth about Booth Exhumation petition sought by Md. teacher, Tenn. professor

March 15, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Challenges to the government claim that Union troops killed John Wilkes Booth in a Virginia barn 12 days after he assassinated President Lincoln have been around for 126 years yet show no sign of aging.

Now, Nathaniel Orlowek, 33, an assassination buff since he was 15, says the issue can be resolved by exhuming the body that was buried as Booth's in 1869 in Green Mount Cemetery to let modern science try to identify it.

Mr. Orlowek and Dr. Arthur Ben Chitty, 77, of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., have asked Baltimore lawyer J. Martin McDonough Jr. to draft an exhumation petition to the Baltimore Circuit Court. Mr. McDonough said he does not know how long it will take to complete his legal research and prepare the papers.

Mr. Orlowek, of Silver Spring, a religious education director for Beth Sholom Synagogue in Potomac, argues that Booth escaped, spent years in the South and West, died in 1903 in Enid, Okla., with his body displayed in carnivals as a mummy. The most prevalent theory is that the government covered up the Harford County actor's escape after claiming he had been killed. All major encyclopedias mention the controversy.

Mr. Orlowek's theory was persuasive enough for the television show "Unsolved Mysteries" to broadcast a segment on it in September and again in January.

The pro-exhumation forces will face a fight, however, from Green Mount Cemetery officials supported by historians who accept that Booth died at Garrett's Farm, ending the massive manhunt that began after he shot President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington on April 14.

They contend that his body was identified at the farm, again in Washington where he was originally buried, and again in 1869. That year, President Andrew Johnson acceded to Booth family pleas and permitted disinterment for reburial in Baltimore.

Today, a marble stele marks the plot, which is the most-visited gravesite in the vast Green Mount Cemetery, according to cemetery staff.

If exhumation is permitted by the courts, forensic experts are prepared to do scientific examinations on the remains, using the latest identification techniques.

William C. Trimble Jr., a lawyer and chairman of the cemetery board, said Green Mount would demand releases from descendants, genealogical charts and birth and death certificates from certifiable Booth descendants before it would agree to exhumation.

Mr. Orlowek and Dr. Chitty insist that under Maryland law they do not need permission from Booth descendants to exhume the remains if they can convince a court that the exhumation "is in the public interest."

They argue that it is well within the public interest to determine whether Booth escaped and whether top Lincoln administration officials conspired to cover it up because they had announced his death.

"For the sake of the integrity of American history, we should know the identity, to know if the government lied to us that they killed Booth," Mr. Orlowek said, "and if they lied, it shows there was a government cover-up. We are entitled to know.

"If Booth is in that grave, at least we would know for sure. I only want the truth, and the only way to settle it is to examine the body," Mr. Orlowek said.

"There is no public right [to know] at all," said Mr. Trimble, the cemetery board chairman. "We feel we have a responsibility to the people who are buried there."

Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions and advice in the attorney general's office, said that Maryland has laws covering disinterments but none that seem to apply to this particular case. The judge would have to decide whether a disinterment was merited, he said.

Among the scientists who want a chance to study any purported Booth remains is Dr. Hugh Berryman, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Tennessee Medical School and director of the Regional Forensic Center in Shelby County, Tenn. He specializes in photographic super-imposition, a technique that uses two cameras to match photographs to skulls.

TC "It's like looking through the skin to the bone," the scientist said. If the skull has survived and does not match Booth photos, it would show the body was someone else's, he said. A match would show it could be Booth, and other examinations could be performed.

"My tendency" is to believe that John Wilkes Booth is buried in Baltimore, Dr. Berryman said. "But there's enough here that's interesting to check it out."

"You can't know unless you look," Mr. Chitty said. "If the skeleton survives, they can look for the left leg fracture and the deformed right thumb."

James O. Hall, 79, co-author of "Come Retribution," a history of the Lincoln assassination published by the University of Mississippi in 1988, rejects the claims of those who purport to be John Booth's descendants, including a family in Suffolk, Va., whose last male member, John Wilkes Booth III, died last summer.

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