Who's buried in Booth's grave? Historians, family want to check

October 25, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

Relatives of John Wilkes Booth and two historians yesterday filed a court petition to exhume the remains of President Lincoln's assassin from Baltimore's Green Mount Cemetery to resolve a long-standing debate over whether Booth is really buried there.

They believe the man buried as Booth in 1869 is really someone else, and they dispute traditional accounts that Booth was shot to death by Union soldiers in a burning barn in Northern Virginia 12 days after the assassination in April 1865.

"Both sides have done decades of research. However, this is the only way ever that we'll know the truth," said Nathaniel Orlowek, a Silver Spring educator and historian who is one of the petitioners.

Their theory is that another man was in the barn and that Booth, an actor from Harford County, escaped his pursuers and lived another 38 years before dying in Enid, Okla., in 1903.

The body of the man who died in Oklahoma was mummified and displayed as Booth for years in carnivals during the early decades of this century.

The escape-theory historians hope that the latest high-tech forensics -- including DNA testing -- will help determine whether Booth is really buried in Green Mount Cemetery, or whether the government engaged in a cover-up after the assassin slipped through the fingers of his pursuers.

Virginia Eleanor Humbrecht Kline, a Booth third cousin, and Lois White Rathbun, a great-great niece, are listed as petitioners in documents filed in Baltimore Circuit Court, although a total of 22 Booth descendants are officially listed as supporting the exhumation.

The co-petitioners are Mr. Orlowek, 36, and Arthur Ben Chitty, 80, of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. Mr. Chitty has studied the Lincoln assassination for more than 40 years and Mr. Orlowek since he was a teen-ager.

The legal brief and new research were prepared by Mark Zaid, 27, a Washington lawyer and assassination buff who got interested in the Booth project when he read an account in The Sun of the debate three years ago.

The petition asks the court to allow testing of the Booth family plot using such techniques as ground-piercing radar and soil samples to determine if there are discernible remains after almost 130 years. If the remains exist, the petitioners want to dig them up for sophisticated testing.

Scientists from the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History and the Armed Forces Institute's National Museum of Health and Medicine have offered to test the remains, according to the documents.

Other supporters of the petition include the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Society Inc., named for the Charles County physician who set Booth's broken left leg after the shooting and who was convicted as a conspirator; Dr. John E. Smialek, the Maryland state medical examiner; and two Montgomery County legislators, Sen. Howard A. Denis and Del. Carol S. Petzold.

Mr. Orlowek acknowledged that the group faces strong opposition, particularly from professional historians. One of those opponents is James O. Hall, 82, co-author of "Come Retribution," a history of the Lincoln assassination.

"This thing is utter nonsense," said Mr. Hall. "It has been disproved so many times that I can't see how it is still kicking around. The Booth descendants are being used. These people are a bunch of crackpots."

Pro-escape theorists argue that the government covered up the assassin's escape by claiming that Booth was shot to death in a burning barn on the Garrett family farm in Bowling Green on April 26, 1865.

DNA testing

DNA genetic-fingerprint testing, which has been in the news recently because of its prominence in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, could play a significant role in the Booth matter if sufficient remains were recovered from the cemetery.

The genetic tests could be used to compare remains believed to be Booth's from Green Mount Cemetery against remains of other family members in the burial plot and anatomical samples from the body of the man the government identified as Booth in 1865.

The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia has a small fragment labeled as Booth's chest tissue, sent to the college by the surgeon general after the Booth autopsy. In the U.S. Army pathology museum are three neck vertebrae identified as Booth's. And a Tappahannock, Va., woman descended from the family that owned the farm has a lock of hair said to have been cut from Booth's head by a physician as the assassin lay dying on the farmhouse porch.

In 1992, when Mr. Orlowek first proposed exhumation, Green Mount Cemetery officials said it would demand releases, genealogical charts and birth and death certificates from certifiable Booth descendants before it would agree to exhumation.

Mr. Zaid has provided certificates, charts and releases from a number of the Booth descendants, along with the original certificate of ownership to the Booth family plot.

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