A murdered president. A fleeing assassin. A dead man’s vertebrae. A deathbed confession and a ghastly suicide. A family’s disgrace. Conspiracy theories and courtroom battles. Secret burials and an unmarked grave. An aborted exhumation and a hopeful DNA analysis. Oh, and then there’s the riddle of that missing mummy.

It’s a story nearly 150 years in the making, steeped in death, myth, and uncertainty. Abraham Lincoln, now viewed as a martyr who ended slavery and preserved the Union, was in his time hated as much as beloved. A vaunted stage actor, John Wilkes Booth, killed him believing the death would revitalize the Southern cause. It didn’t, and Booth was hunted and himself killed. He died paralyzed and helpless, unable even to lift his hands.

Or did he? Since the official account was released in 1865, there have been doubters. Stories bubbled up from the collective unconscious: Booth had survived, lived out his days in obscurity — either haunted by his infamous killing or unrepentant to the last, depending on who’s telling the legend. The stories never gained much credence among historians, but they’ve persisted, returning every few decades like unquiet ghosts. John Wilkes Booth is dead, but his legend is not at rest.

“Any quote-unquote ‘fact’ is always subject to finding new information,” says Nate Orlowek. He’s spent the last 40 years — his entire adult life, off and on — saying that John Wilkes Booth just may not have died the way history tells us. And he has evidence: bits and pieces scavenged from the archives, dusty clues he thinks prove his case. But he’s never actually proven it: he’s provoked some believers, tweaked some skeptics, and generally kept the theory alive.

Today, though, Nate Orlowek, along with the Booth descendants who share his theory, are this close to knowing whether the infamous assassin died on a farmhouse porch in northern rural Virginia. DNA testing, they believe, will finally settle this historical mystery. All they have to do now is dig up Edwin Booth, the assassin’s brother, and convince the government to let them test his remains against three vertebrae taken from that man shot through the neck and identified as Booth 148 years ago.

It all sounds so simple, really.