Last Act: Will Booth Rise From Grave?

January 15, 1995|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

Even in death, actor-assassin John Wilkes Booth plays a mystery role and eludes historians.

But scientist Paul Sledzik has joined the hunt. He plans to use radar, computers and other technology to determine if the body in Baltimore's Green Mount Cemetery is that of Abraham Lincoln's killer.

The remains of Booth, or whoever is buried in his spot in the family plot, could be exhumed and examined this summer. Twenty-two known relatives of the man who shot Lincoln say they want to end speculation that Booth escaped a federal dragnet, and that someone else is buried there.

Enter Mr. Sledzik, a forensic anthropologist for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, who is as methodical as Booth is mysterious. "I have no book deals or movie scripts lined up," he says. "I just want to help settle the discrepancy."

The legal steps leading to the disinterment are expected to begin this month, with advertising in several newspapers. The intent is to locate any unknown Booth relatives who might oppose exhumation.

Officials at Green Mount Cemetery themselves have asked a Baltimore Circuit judge to deny the project which, they say, lacks clear-cut motive.

If the family's petition is upheld -- a court hearing is due May 18 -- the remains would be unearthed by Mr. Sledzik and two other skeletal sleuths who then would use bone studies and computer imaging in a quest to solve the Booth mystery.

"There is drama here," says Mr. Sledzik. "This question impacts on the history of the presidency."

On April 14, 1865, during a play at Ford's Theater in Washington, John Wilkes Booth -- flamboyant actor and Southern sympathizer -- burst into the presidential box, put a small pistol to Lincoln's head and pulled the trigger. Booth then bounded onto the stage, breaking his left leg, shouted a garbled message to the audience and fled.

Twelve days later, Union troops trapped, shot and killed a man purported to be Booth in a flaming Virginia barn. An autopsy revealed he'd been shot in the neck; both bullet and bone were removed from the body before its interment at the Washington Arsenal.

Four years later, the government released the corpse, which was identified by Booth's relatives, taken to Baltimore and buried hastily in the family plot, sans headstone.

Unearthing the remains will determine if justice was served, as the government claims, or if soldiers killed the wrong man.

Did Booth escape that burning barn, as several historians

suggest, take an alias, settle in the South, raise a family, ultimately commit suicide and wind up touring the country as a mummy in carnival shows well into this century?

Bones "talk" to Paul Sledzik. With a little poking and prodding, they share long-buried secrets, and he suspects those in Green Mount Cemetery would have much to say.

Most historians believe the remains, at the foot of a hillside, are those of Booth. And the pale section of bone removed from the dead man's neck is on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, alongside several fragments of Lincoln's skull and the bullet that killed the president.

Mr. Sledzik is curator of that museum, which also employed the )) pathologist who performed the Booth autopsy more than a century ago. The irony is not lost on Mr. Sledzik.

"It would be exciting, re-creating what my 'ancestor' did," he says.

Such detective work is routine for Mr. Sledzik, 32, who grew up in Rhode Island. Since earning a master's degree in biological anthropology from University of Connecticut, he has been called on to analyze and process thousands of human fragments, from bits of bone of American soldiers killed in Operation Desert Storm to minuscule remains of the 132 victims of September's USAir crash in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Sledzik helped exhume and examine the remains found in three 17th century lead coffins unearthed in 1992 in Maryland's St Mary's City. His skills have also been tested during several murder investigations, and he lectures at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.

Also tapped for the Booth project are Douglas Owsley and Douglas Ubelacker, anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution. The team will locate, remove and analyze remains that have triggered debate for nearly 130 years. The process could take several months.

How does one dig up such a corpse? With great care, says Mr. Sledzik. "The one word you can't hear is 'oops.' "

The excavation would be done in one day, he says. Armed with radar, the scientists would locate the remains, then begin their descent using tools ranging from crude (a backhoe) to the sublime (hand trowels and brushes). Tension mounts as the dirt flies, says Mr. Sledzik, particularly in such a controversial dig. "Your knees are sore, you're breathing dirt, and you're curious about what you'll find -- while hoping you don't break anything in the process."

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