OPINION: It’s time to test the remains of John Wilkes Booth
On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Afterward, Booth jumped to the stage and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis,” and miraculously managed to flee the capital on horseback with a broken leg. Twelve days later, Union forces surrounded the assassin and shot him dead at Richard Garrett’s barn in Virginia.
That’s what the history books will tell you. But for over a century, others have argued that a political conspiracy reaching the highest levels of government perpetrated the greatest hoax ever played on the American public … and that Booth, who was working on behalf of Vice President Andrew Johnson, escaped.
Similar to the way mainstream culture pokes fun at 9/11 and Bin Laden conspiracy theories, so do most Americans dismiss this theory, as well. But on Monday, February 25, 2013, Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md. 8th District) wrote a letter to the U.S. Army passing along the concerns of his constituent, Nate Orlowek, who has been researching the plausibility Booth escaped for 40-odd years and wants to clear the whole story up, once and for all.
The proposition was simple: to compare the DNA of the assassin with that of his brother’s — the famous 19th-century actor, Edwin Booth. If the DNA matched, it would prove that Booth died at the barn like the history books tell us. If it didn’t, there would be conclusive proof that John Wilkes Booth cheated death after slaying, perhaps, the greatest president in U.S. history.
Unfortunately, less than a month later the U.S. Army, who owns the only testable remains of John Wilkes Booth, denied the proposal. Officials with the Army Medical Command advised that “although the results might be intriguing, and the temptation to exploit emerging technologies strong, the need to preserve these bones for future generations compels us to decline the destructive test.”
What greater purpose might the bones of Booth have, if not for affirming the assassin’s ultimate fate?
The lead geneticist for the experiment, Dr. Krista Latham of the University of Indianapolis, assured me that destruction to the specimens would be minimal. The size of the sample needed to perform the test would approximately fit on the surface area of a penny.
After extensively researching the case, I firmly believe that, no matter what the truth, there’s enough convincing evidence to warrant the test. The most compelling example, in my opinion, are the words of Colonel Lafayette Baker, the second highest ranking official in the War Department, who directly orchestrated the manhunt for Booth, the man who collected nearly all of the reward money for Booth’s death. Before Baker died, he flat-out confessed he helped the assassin get away.
If the DNA test backs up this claim scholars would have to re-examine the entire assassination case.
The history of the Civil War and its aftermath remains central to American society. We are still living with the effects of the Civil War and the harmful reforms of President Johnson’s weak Reconstruction efforts. Of equal importance is our basic understanding of our own government and the narrative of our nation’s story. If Booth really escaped and there was a cover-up, it would have repercussions beyond just the event itself. It would forever change the way we view those in power and the way we read history.
This April 26 marks the 150th anniversary of Booth’s death at the barn. I believe it’s high time to lay this story to rest, permanently. What is the Army afraid of?
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Nate Chura is a Brooklyn writer and author of “The Man in the Barn: Digging Up Lincoln’s Killer,” a provocative new novel that explores the mystery behind John Wilkes Booth’s death. The book will be available in bookstores on April 26.
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