Science may lay Booth debate to rest

October 31, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

Modern scientific techniques and an old-fashioned eyeball examination could end the 129-year-old controversy over whether John Wilkes Booth escaped after he assassinated President Lincoln or was trapped and killed by soldiers, scientists say.

Bones remain well-preserved, even many years after burial, the scientists said, so exhumation of the purported remains of Booth from Green Mount Cemetery offer the best opportunity to end the debate, which has raged since 1865.

An exhumation request was filed in Baltimore Circuit Court last week by two Booth relatives on behalf of 20 other descendants and two historical researchers who dispute the government's claim that Booth died April 26, 1865, when Union soldiers trapped him in a burning barn on a Northern Virginia farm.

If the remains are exhumed, the results would depend on what was found and in what condition, but "bones preserve extremely well, on average," and there is frequently some soft tissue as well, said Dr. Marc S. Micozzi.

Dr. Micozzi, associate director of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, is among the experts who have offered the latest scientific techniques to the project.

Proponents of the escape theory argue that another man who had some of Booth's things died in the barn and was identified as Booth while the assassin escaped and lived in the South and West until he committed suicide in 1903 in Enid, Okla.

Most historians reject this theory. They contend that records and testimony from that time prove that Booth died as the government said, that his body was identified in Washington and again in Baltimore in 1869 when he was reinterred in the family plot at Green Mount.

Even before modern techniques, the scientists would look at the skeleton to determine age, race, sex and stature and to see if it had any of the physical features that would be clues to its identity.

"Whoever shot Lincoln was seen by many people to have broken his leg so the skeleton should show evidence of that if it is Booth," said Dr. Micozzi, an anthropologist and pathologist.

When Army pathologists in 1865 autopsied the man said to be Booth they removed three neck vertebrae and a section of spinal cord, which are preserved at the institute and could be used for DNA comparison with Booth's relatives.

If the skull were recovered intact, another identification technique would be to superimpose a photograph of Booth over the skull using computers and video. If a series of predetermined features matched, it would support the theory that the remains are Booth.

Douglas Ubelaker, curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History and a leading bone detective for the FBI for years, also has volunteered for the Booth project.

"What we would do is try to extract as much information as possible from the skeleton and compare it with what is known about Booth," Dr. Ubelaker said. He is co-author of the book, "Bones: A Forensic Detective's Casebook," which is about some of his nearly 500 forensic cases. He has identified remains, helped determine the cause of death and matched wounds to weapons. In effect, he lets bones tell their own story.

Recent scientific advances, particularly DNA genetic fingerprint tests, have made possible many things that more than a decade ago were impossible, Dr. Ubelaker said. "We're willing to use our science to look."

He has participated in several recent historical archaeological investigations in Maryland, including excavation of 17th century Calvert family graves in St. Mary's City and examination of 19 skeletons of mid-17th century English indentured servants on a plantation at Patuxent Point.

If the court authorizes exhumation, Green Mount records would be used to identify John Wilkes' unmarked grave among the other Booth graves before any excavation.

Ground-penetrating radar, which Dr. Ubelaker said easily can reach a depth of six feet, would verify the grave location and ascertain the type of coffin. Soil core samples would determine the acidity of the soil.

Historian James O. Hall of McLean, Va., who has written extensively on the Lincoln assassination and rejects the Booth-escape theory, said it is not known whether Booth was buried in a wooden coffin, which would have rotted, or a metal casket.

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