History takes center stage in Booth case

May 20, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

Dueling historians in the John Wilkes Booth exhumation case insisted yesterday there is no evidence to support their opponents' arguments about what happened to Booth after he killed Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Dr. William Hanchett, an emeritus professor of history at San Diego State University, testified that Booth's body was identified so many times after he was shot by soldiers that "it is inconceivable that there could be any doubt about whether he is in his tomb. I can see no reason to justify his exhumation."

But Silver Spring history teacher Nathaniel Orlowek told Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, "There is no credible evidence that [Booth] was killed in 1865."

Mr. Orlowek has researched the Booth mystery for more than 20 years and helped launch the exhumation petition being argued in Baltimore Circuit Court since Wednesday.

Descendants of Booth's family have asked the court to allow the opening of his grave at Green Mount Cemetery. They want any remains it holds identified to settle a century-old debate over whether Booth died at the hands of U.S. troops in 1865, as the history books say, or whether he escaped. The cemetery opposes the petition.

The hearings, which Judge Kaplan had hoped to complete after three days, are headed for a fourth day of testimony sometime next week.

Increasingly impatient, the judge repeatedly interrupted yesterday as attorneys for each side labored to undermine the other side's historians. He demanded the historical arguments.

When attorney Mark Zaid, who represents Booth relatives seeking the exhumation, said he did not plan to have Mr. Orlowek describe historical evidence that had been submitted in writing, Judge Kaplan asked Mr. Orlowek to explain it to him.

Mr. Orlowek read a statement by William Garrett, whose father owned the Virginia farm where history says Booth was shot.

Given many years after the event, Garrett's statement said Booth fled the farm the afternoon before the federal troops arrived, and that the man soldiers later shot and killed was someone else who had arrived later asking for shelter.

"It never made sense to me that he [Booth] would leave, and then come back and risk getting caught," Mr. Orlowek said.

But why would the troops insist it was Booth they'd killed?

believe these individuals had to report they had killed John Wilkes Booth," Mr. Orlowek said. Had they challenged the man's identity, "they would have lost an astonishing amount of [reward] money, and they would have been liable to court-martial."

He also said some of the people who identified Booth's body in Washington had never met him. A doctor who had known Booth noted several differences between what he saw and what he remembered of Booth.

"Why would these people be doing this?" Judge Kaplan asked at one point. "All the people down the line would have to lie for one reason or another."

There weren't that many people involved, Mr. Orlowek replied, and maybe they believed it. Historian James O. Hall, author of "Come Retribution," a history of the Lincoln assassination, said later that William Garrett had given a "diametrically different" statement shortly after Booth's death in 1865.

He described the identifications of Booth in Washington as "accurate, complete and sufficient," relying in part on Booth's initials, which were tattooed on his wrist.

"Doesn't it stretch the imagination that the government would have a body ready with the initials and a broken leg within 12 hours? It doesn't hold any water," he said.

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