A Baltimore Circuit Court hearing has been set for May 18 on the request to exhume the purported remains of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin, from Green Mount Cemetery for positive identification.
Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan set the hearing after meeting last week with Mark S. Zaid, the Washington lawyer who filed the request, and William C. Trimble Jr. chairman of Green Mount's board of directors and its attorney.
Judge Kaplan, himself a Civil War buff, yesterday called the case "very interesting" and said, "I want it done right." He would not comment on the issues before he hears the testimony and sees the evidence to support the request.
Although 22 Booth relatives have supported the exhumation, two of them as plaintiffs, Judge Kaplan ordered their attorney to advertise for still unknown relatives who might oppose it.
Mr. Zaid said ads will run on three consecutive Sundays in January in The Sun, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Boston Globe, all areas with Booth family connections.
The historians who are pressing for exhumation believe that Booth escaped from a Union trap at a Northern Virginia farm on April 26, 1865, 12 days after he shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington. They claim Booth lived in the South and West until 1903, when he poisoned himself with arsenic in Enid, Okla.
Most conventional historians reject the escape theory. They accept the government's explanation that Booth was killed in the burning barn and that his body was identified at the time by people who knew him, and again in 1869 when the body was taken to Baltimore for reburial at Green Mount.
Some historians have begun a letter-writing campaign to Booth relatives and regional newspapers opposing exhumation and asserting that escape theorists are rejecting documentary proof of Booth's death collected over the years.
After last week's meeting, historians Nathaniel Orlowek of Silver Spring and Arthur Ben Chitty of Sewanee, Tenn., who argued for the escape theory in pressing for exhumation, were dropped as plaintiffs.
This left as plaintiffs two Booth relatives, Virginia Kline of Warminster, Pa., a distant cousin, and Lois White Rathbun, a great-great niece.
Mrs. Kline's family has the certificate of ownership for the Booth plot at Green Mount, where several members of the family, including one of her aunts, are buried.
Mr. Orlowek said yesterday that he suggested that the Booth relatives, who have better legal standing, be at the forefront of the case. Removing himself and Mr. Chitty eliminates one legal argument against the exhumation request.
Mr. Trimble, the cemetery board chairman, requested that Green Mount be added to the suit so he could respond to the request.
Mr. Zaid also said he is optimistic of success. "We have the law and the facts and the intense public interest," he said.
Exhumation would also have practical results, Mr. Zaid said, because there are families around the country who claim to be descendants of John Wilkes Booth. Booth is not known to have fathered any children, legitimate or otherwise, and so has no known direct descendants -- unless, of course, he escaped.