If John Wilkes Booth really is in his grave in Baltimore's Green Mount Cemetery, Lisa Booth Booth and her relatives will have some shattered family legends on their hands.
"Our family history records that John Wilkes Booth escaped after the assassination, fathered a child . . . and died in Enid, Oklahoma, in 1903," she said yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court.
Booth's son was her great-grandfather, she said, and that makes her the great-great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln's assassin.
"There's never been any doubt in our minds," she said. "If he is in the [Baltimore] grave, then we have a lot of research we need to do."
She was one of three women claiming to be Booth family members who testified yesterday in support of a petition to have the remains in the grave exhumed and identified.
The petition was launched by historians Nathaniel Orlowek and Arthur Ben Chitty, who have long believed that Booth escaped his pursuers in 1865.
It is opposed by Green Mount Cemetery. The exhumation has little chance of proving anything 126 years after burial there, cemetery lawyers argue, and there is a strong likelihood of disturbing other remains.
This would be "the third time the remains of John Wilkes Booth have been disturbed," said Green Mount attorney Francis J. Gorman. "I don't think anyone would wish that on any of our ancestors, no matter what they had done."
The hearing before Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan was to continue today. Mr. Orlowek and Mr. Chitty were expected to testify that exhumation could resolve the controversy.
The cemetery's lawyers argued that the petitioners are motivated by a bid for money and publicity. Green Mount is ready with its own historians, including James O. Hall, 82, co-author of "Come Retribution," a history of the assassination. He calls the escape theories "utter nonsense."
History texts teach that Lincoln's assassin was shot to death in April 1865, probably by a soldier, as he hid in a burning tobacco barn near Bowling Green, Va. The body was buried first in a Washington prison cell, moved to another site in the prison, then reburied by his family in 1869 in their Baltimore cemetery plot. History says he left no children.
Virginia Eleanor Humbrecht Kline of Warminster, Pa., testified that she is descended from Booth's aunt, Jane Booth.
Ms. Kline opposed the exhumation at first but said she has since changed her mind. "I want to know whether there is really a stranger in that grave," she told the court.
Her sister, Marie Worster, 80, of Oreland, Pa., is said to hold the papers to the Green Mount plot and signed a letter supporting the exhumation. But she did not attend the hearing or produce the ownership papers. "She likes to be in control," Ms. Kline said of her sister.
Lois White Rathbun, 44, of Hopkinton, R.I., said she is descended from Booth's older brother, famed actor Edwin Booth. She had long expected that someone would seek to open the Baltimore grave and now wants to ensure that it is done properly. "For historical reasons, we should be accurate," she said.
Only Lisa Booth Booth (a Booth by birth who happened to marry an unrelated Booth) claims to be directly descended from John Wilkes Booth. The 40-year-old Lynchburg, Va., resident backs her claim with family Bible entries and the stories her grandfather, John Wilkes Booth Jr., told until his death in 1981.
Jeremy S. Friedberg, an attorney for the petitioners, said no Booth family members have opposed the petition.
Dr. Douglas H. Ubelaker, a forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution, told the court his team of experts is ready to assist the project with careful archaeology and high-tech sleuthing.
If a well-preserved skull can be found, he said, computer imaging can compare it with the numerous photographs taken of Booth, with a "high probability" of at least excluding any remains that aren't Booth's.
Under questioning by Mr. Gorman, Dr. Ubelaker said that it is impossible to predict if anything is left of the bones buried in the Booth plot in 1869 but that older remains have been excavated elsewhere in good condition.
Asked about the morality of disturbing remains, Dr. Ubelaker said, "We would expect some guidance from the court on . . . what those ethical considerations are."
BOOTH CASE UPDATE
To hear the latest on the case being presented by the relatives of John Wilkes Booth, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800, access code 6140. For other Sundial numbers, see the SunSource directory on Page 2A.