Booth's fate was both fame and obscurity


April 12, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The nation was gripped in deep mourning when President Abraham Lincoln died April 15, 1863, hours after he was shot during a performance of Our American Cousin at Washington's Ford's Theatre.

Eleven days would pass before his assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth, a Harford County native, would be found hiding in a barn in Bowling Green, Va.

After Booth shot Lincoln, he made his way to Anacostia, Va., where he was met by David Herold, a young accomplice, and the pair made their way through Southern Maryland to Port Tobacco.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on Page 2D of yesterday's editions of The Sun gave an incorrect year for the death of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865, died April 15.
The Sun regrets the error.

There was one unexpected stop at the farmhouse of Dr. Samuel Mudd near Waldorf, where Booth sought medical attention for a broken shin bone, sustained when he jumped from the theater's presidential box to the stage.

Mudd set Booth's leg and gave him a crutch. Booth and Herold later rowed across the Potomac River and made their way to Bowling Green. At 2 a.m. on April 26, Col. E.J. Conger of the U.S. Secret Service found the men hiding in a barn and ordered them to surrender.

Herold emerged, but Booth did not. Conger then warned him that the barn would be set on fire.

"I am but a crippled, one-legged man. Withdraw your men a hundred yards from the door and I will come out. Give me a chance for my life, captain. I will never be taken alive," replied Booth.

When he refused the order to come out, Conger threw a lighted bundle of straw into the building. "Behind the blaze," Conger said, "I saw Wilkes Booth standing upright on a crutch."

Booth dropped the crutch and stumbled toward the door with a revolver in his hand. A shot sounded and he fell. Dragged from the inferno, Booth died shortly afterward.

Booth's body was taken aboard the ironclad Montauk for identification. Dr. John Frederick May, a Washington surgeon who had recently removed a fibroid tumor from Booth's neck, identified the body from the scar made by his surgical incision.

Sensing that an exhibition of Booth's body might cause a riot, the government had it secretly buried at night in a grave in the yard of the Washington Penitentiary.

In 1869, Booth's brother, actor Edwin Booth, asked John H. Weaver, a Baltimore undertaker, to take a letter to President Andrew Johnson requesting that the remains be released to him for burial in Baltimore.

"I beg that you will not delay in ordering the body to be given to his care. He will retain it (placing it in his vault) until such time we can remove other members of our family to the Baltimore cemetery and thus prevent any special notice of it," Edwin Booth wrote.

Johnson signed the release, and John Wilkes Booth's body was removed from its temporary grave where it had rested in an old gun case. Inked on the box was a single word: Booth.

The Sun reported that it was then placed in a "common deal coffin," which Weaver transported to his undertaking establishment on Fayette Street, near Gay, across from the stage door of the Holliday Street Theater, on Feb. 18, 1869.

Booth's mother, sister and another brother, Dr. Joseph Booth, and several others - including Daniel Haggerty, former Central District police captain; Basil Moxley, doorkeeper of the Holliday Day Street Theater, Maj. William B. Pegram, a longtime friend, and Henry C. Wagner - identified the body.

Booth's body was well preserved, Pegram recalled in 1913.

"The left leg was disjointed both at the knee and ankle, the latter having been broken when he jumped from the box to the stage of the theater after the shooting of Lincoln," Pegram wrote. "It will be remembered that Dr. Mudd treated the broken ankle without knowing who his patient was. He cut the boot from the left leg and manufactured a shoe from the boot's foot, in which we saw the remains of the actual foot lying in the casket. It had become separated from the bones of the leg, and they also separated at the knee."

Booth's face was still recognizable. The skin was still drawn tightly over the grinning skull, which showed the splendid teeth for which Booth was noted. The coal-black hair, which rolled back from the forehead, had grown nearly a foot in length.

The body was moved to a holding vault at Green Mount Cemetery, and in late June, it was carried to the Booth family plot by pallbearers whose lighted torches illuminated the eerie late-night scene. Booth was then "left to the profound repose of the tomb," reported The Sun.

The graveside services were presided over by the Rev. Fleming James, an Episcopal minister visiting from New York. When his parishioners learned that he had officiated at the reburial of Lincoln's killer, they fired him.

Years later, Henry W. Mears, who had taken over Weaver's business, and as a boy had played with John Wilkes Booth, went to Philadelphia to speak with Edwin Booth about several gravestones in the Booth plot.

In the course of their conversation, Mears mentioned that the grave of John Wilkes Booth had never been marked.

Edwin Booth, who never recovered from what his brother had done, replied, "We'll let that remain as it is."

Visitors to Green Mount today will still find the grave unmarked.

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