John Wilkes Booth: RIP

March 25, 1992

Haven't we heard this before? An unknown gunman assassinates a beloved sitting president, then flees. A suspect is identified, but before he can be brought to trial he is himself killed under the noses of federal officials. Sometime later a high-level commission convened to investigate the matter concludes the president's murder was the work of a deranged individual acting alone.

Sound familiar? We hasten to add that the above scenario is not intended as a description of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald in November 1963, but rather of President Lincoln's assassination by the actor John Wilkes Booth nearly a century earlier. Just as the Kennedy assassination spawned a veritable cottage industry of conspiracy theories rejecting the "lone gunman" of the Warren Commission, so aficionados of the earlier killing believe Booth was merely the convenient "fall guy" for a high-level plot to assassinate President Lincoln.

Nathaniel Orlowek of Silver Spring, a self-described assassination buff, is so convinced the nation has been victimized by an insidious cover-up for the past 127 years that he has petitioned a Baltimore Circuit Court judge to exhume Booth's grave in Green Mount Cemetery so experts can determine whether the body buried there is really that of the actor. Cemetery officials oppose the request on the not unreasonable grounds that the dead are better left to rest in peace.

Mr. Orlowek was doubtless encouraged by the notoriety generated by director Oliver Stone's controversial film, "JFK," which revived long-discredited conspiracy theories of the Kennedy assassination. But reputable historians overwhelmingly concur in the judgment that the body in Green Mount Cemetery is indeed Booth's, and that Booth was also the principal figure in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Given the extremely slender evidence to the contrary, Mr. Orlowek's request seems little more than a grisly fishing expedition.

There are probably many things that will never be known conclusively about either the Kennedy or Lincoln assassinations. That fact of life will continue to be an intriguing source of speculation for historians. But it should not be interpreted as justifying extreme measures such as exhumation, except in rare cases. However sincere Mr. Orlowek's beliefs, this case is not one of them.

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