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John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln… but who killed John Wilkes Booth?

Did America's most infamous assassin escape justice?

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.

  1. April 14, 1865

    John Wilkes Booth walks into Ford’s Theater and shoots President Lincoln in the back of the head. He then escapes from Washington, DC, leaving the city — and the nation — in a panic. For the next 12 days, alleged Booth sightings place him virtually everywhere in the country.

  2. April 26, 1865

    Union soldiers surround Booth and an accomplice, David Herold, in a barn at the Garrett farmhouse in rural northern Virginia. Herold surrenders; Booth refuses. The cavalry sets the barn ablaze, and with the assassin moving around inside, one soldier, Sergeant Boston Corbett, shoots him through the neck. Dragged from the burning building, Booth dies three hours later. After an autopsy his third, fourth, and fifth vertebrae are removed and preserved; his body is buried in secret.

One Mad Act

One mad act

You know this story. You once learned it, probably in elementary school. In roughest outline, it goes something like this: on April 14th, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln accompanied his wife to Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, for a performance of Our American Cousin. The end of the Civil War, the bloody years that had so riven the country, was finally in sight. Early that month the Confederate capital had fallen to Union forces; less than a week later, General Robert E. Lee’s surrender ended the war in Virginia and prompted other commanders to lay down their arms. Washington, DC, had begun to feel something like relief.

The president had entered the theater to a standing ovation and the orchestra striking up "Hail to the Chief." Later, as Lincoln sat in the presidential box high above the audience, John Wilkes Booth climbed the stairs. He stood in the dark, narrow passageway with a dagger clasped in his left hand, a Philadelphia Deringer in his right. He’d long planned this moment, believing Lincoln’s death would rejuvenate the Confederacy. "Our cause being almost lost," he had written in his diary, "something decisive and great must be done."

He stepped forward, shot Lincoln in the back of the head, slashed his dagger across the arm of a bystander who tried to subdue him, and leaped over the railing onto the stage. He paused for a melodramatic flourish, facing the stunned crowd and yelling, Sic semper tyrannis — Latin for "Thus always to tyrants." He fled the theater and, amazingly, escaped the capital on horseback.

The escaped Booth became a specter in the public mind

The killing shocked the country. Northerners feared saboteurs among them, while many Southerners believed the murder would bring harsh retribution from the post-war government. The escaped Booth became a specter in the public mind, with witness reports coming in from Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Meanwhile, the real Booth was heading south, dodging the Union dragnet on his way to Mexico.

He didn’t get far. They finally caught him in the rising dawn of April 26th, holed up in a barn in Port Royal, Virginia, with an accomplice, David Herold. Surrounded, Herold quickly gave up, but Booth refused. An officer set the barn ablaze, hoping to smoke out the assassin. Instead, Sergeant Boston Corbett fired his pistol through a crack in the building, hitting Booth in the neck. Paralyzed, he was dragged from the flames. As he lay dying, he repeatedly whispered, "Tell my mother I die for my country." And finally, with his limp and nearly lifeless hands raised to his face: "Useless. Useless."

John Wilkes Booth escape route.

This is the story Nate Orlowek had learned, too: of a killer’s mad act, his flight from justice, and his small, pathetic death. Even before he’d learned that official story, though, he’d seen The Prisoner of Shark Island, about Dr. Samuel Mudd, who, the film contends, was scapegoated by a vindictive Northern government. After mending Booth’s broken leg on the night of the assassination, Mudd was tried as an accomplice and imprisoned on the titular island.

The film, directed by John Ford, plays fast and loose with history, but even at seven years old, Orlowek says, "I was outraged when I saw what they did to Dr. Mudd, and I had the sense that I wanted to go back in time." Much like the heroes of another favorite story: The Time Tunnel, a sci-fi TV show in which two scientists’ malfunctioning time machine sent them hurtling through history, righting wrongs along the way. In one episode, of course, they foiled an assassination plot against Lincoln.

Even at his youngest, Nate Orlowek had a strong sense of justice and a belief in the mutability of history. The Lincoln assassination became one of his many historical interests. But despite all he read, he never doubted the official story until he was 15. It was August, 1973. He was visiting a friend’s house one afternoon when he noticed a book; its spine bore the familiar presidential silhouette and the title, Web of Conspiracy: The Complete Story of the Men Who Murdered Abraham Lincoln.


David E. George, a drifter who’d poisoned himself with strychnine in the frontier town of Enid, Oklahoma, in 1903. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

He paged through it, flipping to the final illustrated plate. There he saw the familiar face of John Wilkes Booth juxtaposed with a picture of a dead man sitting in a chair. The dead man’s eyes were closed, his face draped with a thick mustache. In the right cast of mind you might see a resemblance between the two, accede that the dapper, 25-year-old star on the right could have sagged and drooped over 40 years to become the swollen, mummified body on the left. And that’s exactly what the book claimed.

"Puzzle for history," it read, introducing the dead man as David E. George, a drifter who’d poisoned himself with strychnine in the frontier town of Enid, Oklahoma, in 1903. As the story went, George had several times confessed to being John Wilkes Booth, even going so far as to admit, "I killed the best man that ever lived." After his grisly, self-inflicted exit from the stage, George’s body was embalmed by the local mortician, who assumed government officials would come to examine it. They didn’t, but the remains became a local attraction, mentioned in newspapers and promoted by civic boosters. A lawyer named Finis L. Bates eventually claimed the body, and later wrote a book, The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, detailing how he’d come to know David E. George, how the man had confessed, and how his tale offered "a correction of history."

As 15-year-old Nate Orlowek held Web of Conspiracy in his hands and gazed into the "puzzle for history," he could see only dimly the story he’d spend the rest of his life pursuing. It was as though a quest had opened before him, this bookishly serious but charismatic young man. He had found not just a puzzle, but an opportunity to set things right. From his father, who had marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam war, who when watching sports always rooted for the underdog, and who unapologetically believed that one man could save the world — from him Orlowek learned that when something is wrong, you should try to change it. "There are a lot of things that are not the way they’re supposed to be," he says, "and we should not accept things as they are if they’re not the way they’re supposed to be. We should fight to change them."

"A lot of people ask me, ‘Why John Wilkes Booth?’" he says now, looking back, sitting on a couch in the living room of his childhood home in Silver Spring, Maryland. After his parents passed, he moved back here; the coffee table is scattered with papers he’s recovered from his basement, mementos and clippings of his time wandering the lonely labyrinth of counter-history, searching for the truth in a jungle of rumor and misinformation.


Nate Orlowek has spent 40 years investigating whether Booth died in the barn — or escaped to Oklahoma.

Family photographs flank the couch. Behind him, in gold, oval frames, hang line portraits of two young boys: the Orlowek brothers, Nate’s younger self gazing over his shoulder as he speaks. He’s 55 now, thinned by age and time, lightly tinted glasses resting on his nose, yarmulke crowning his head. You could wonder whether it has consumed him, this quest to correct history. But he denies that; says it’s really been a small, if persistent, part of his life. When he warms to the subject he speaks quickly, punctuating his points with a defiantly raised finger, his tales digressive, his facts precise.

So why John Wilkes Booth? "Really, that was what floated by," he says. Like his father he wanted a cause bigger than himself; like his father he wanted to save the world. "I wasn’t able to save the world when I was 15. I wasn’t able to march for civil rights or work Social Security," the institution to which his father devoted his idealistic energies as a lawyer. "But this thing with John Wilkes Booth was a way of doing something that made a difference, something that impacted people."

He took to his cause with the zeal of an idealistic teenager. He recruited friends. He combed archives. When the Library of Congress told him he was too young to do research there, he cornered his senator in an elevator and, soon enough, got his access. Not only that, but he gained entrance to the rare books room.

The media flocked to him. Local television, newspapers, and radio. A lot of radio. And then, in July 1976, Rolling Stone. Tim Crouse’s skeptically supportive feature — opening with the axiom, "The infuriating thing about nut theories is that there’s always that million-to-one shot that an irrefutable piece of evidence is out there somewhere, half-buried, as it were, just waiting for someone to stoop down and dig it up" — lifted the tale to a new strata of attention. Orlowek soon signed on as a consultant for The Lincoln Conspiracy, billed as "a story every American has the right to know."


John Wilkes Booth's diary. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Working on a movie was new and exciting, even if Orlowek clashed with the producers over a fraudster selling the allegedly missing pages of Booth’s diary. But while the finished film, released in 1977, alleged Booth did not die in the barn, it also claimed Lincoln’s own secretary of war had conspired with the head of the Secret Service to kill the president — a plot supposedly revealed in the missing diary pages. Even in a post-JFK assassination, post-Watergate era, with audiences deeply cynical about government, the theory had limited popular appeal. Historians were appalled.

Afterward, Orlowek found himself drifting away from the work. Because what more could he do? Continue digging through history, hoping to find that one irrefutable piece of half-buried evidence? What were the chances of that? He’d done his best, got the story out there. He turned to more tangible goals, petitioning President Carter to clear the name of Dr. Samuel Mudd.

Only after another researcher contacted him a dozen years later, in 1989, did Orlowek again take up his case in earnest. He traveled to Enid, Oklahoma, where locals had tried to interest the wildly popular TV series Unsolved Mysteries in a story about their famous mummy. His zeal renewed, Orlowek signed on to help.

Soon enough, Nate Orlowek reached the next stage of his quest: bringing up the body

Two years later, the segment aired: a full 20 minutes devoted to the now-mysterious body in the barn. Host Robert Stack solemnly intoned, "Those who question the official account believe that in the confusion following the Civil War, critical evidence may have been mistakenly recorded or perhaps covered up. Other(s) dismiss these theories as revisionist nonsense." Orlowek appeared and summarized The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. Opposite him, historian James O. Hall cantankerously dismissed this "evidence" as poorly sourced, speculative, or contradicted by more persuasive evidence. He finally scoffed, "I see no mystery about it at all."

But a show called Unsolved Mysteries was unlikely to agree. Instead, a concluding voiceover described Booth’s final interment in an unmarked grave in Baltimore, Maryland’s Green Mount Cemetery. Over an image of the marble stele marking the family plot, Stack pondered, "Perhaps there lies the definitive proof to this unsolved mystery." The implication couldn’t be clearer.

Soon enough, Nate Orlowek reached the next stage of his quest: bringing up the body.

Portrait of John Wilkes Booth around the time of Lincoln's assassination.

A family affair

Nate Orlowek chose to seize the Booth mystery. Joanne Hulme, however, was born into it. She’s the great-great-great granddaughter of Jane Booth, aunt to John Wilkes Booth. That bloodline meant hearing from an early age that the assassin had escaped Union justice, and that the body buried in Green Mount Cemetery did not belong to her family. The official history was trumped by her family’s story.


Photograph of (left to right) John Wilkes Booth with brothers Edwin and Junius in a production of Julius Caesar.

She first heard about it in the summer before sixth grade, when her mother told her she was being dramatic, just like her relatives. That meant Edwin Booth, and, yes, his brother, John Wilkes Booth, who Hulme until then had known as a presidential assassin, not a distant relative. Her mother warned that she’d be hearing the official story in school, but that the family knew better; Booth had escaped the barn and lived for many, many years. The family had always known it, and Edwin provided money for him.

The news astounded her, but most of the family never talked about their infamous relative, leaving her to ponder on her own. Her mother even forbade discussion with her siblings. But like young Nate Orlowek, Joanne Hulme was interested in history. She’d begun to devour stories about Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, whose entire family was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. For decades afterward, rumors lingered that Nicolas’ youngest daughter, Anastasia, had survived the killings, with several women claiming to be the orphaned princess.

Forensic DNA testing recently identified the remains of the entire royal family, but at the time Hulme connected the "family mystery" of Anastasia’s possible survival to that of her newly discovered relative. She was intrigued, both to know that she belonged to a family of actors and to know the mind of someone who could kill a president. She found a family biography called the The Mad Booths of Maryland and began using stories from it to pry more information out of her relatives. Much of what she heard made her proud, and she tried to share that pride. The assassination was a horrible crime, yes, but John Wilkes Booth wasn’t a monster, she’d argue; the family name shouldn’t be forever marred by his history-changing act. "There’s a massive legacy before that terrible day in April, and there’s a massive legacy afterward," she says. "I wish history were kinder to the talent and the legacy of the Booths."

The family name shouldn’t be forever marred by John Wilkes Booth's history-changing act

As for John Wilkes Booth, she heard that after his escape from the barn — where he had stayed, but never been cornered by Union troops — he met up with supporters who spirited him out of the country. He went to Sri Lanka, India, the Hawaiian islands. After four years or so, he returned to the states. Similar stories had long circulated, painting Booth’s supposedly posthumous exploits as those of a swashbuckler, a Reconstruction era Zelig who always found himself among the day’s most interesting world shakers. In the legends, he was a romantic figure: the killer doomed to exile, yet still living an enviable adventure.

Joanne Hulme grew up knowing that there was more to history than the official story. But like Nate Orlowek, there wasn’t much she could do other than tell her story. There was evidence, much of it unpersuasive to skeptics, including almost all historians. ("I think historian is a self-appointed title," she says.) Only after Unsolved Mysteries did another possibility present itself.

After appearing on the show in 1991, Nate Orlowek and his new research partner, Arthur Ben Chitty, a historiographer and professor at the University of the South, were contacted by the Smithsonian Institution. It offered to back an exhumation of whoever was buried in Booth’s grave. There were no dental records, and after almost 130 years, the skeleton was likely to be severely degraded. But with a technique called video superimposition — essentially overlaying a photographic image on an unidentified skull to check for a match — it seemed possible to prove whether the body in Green Mount Cemetery was John Wilkes Booth. As a stage star he’d had hundreds of photos taken. For the superimposition all they needed was a skull.

The Booth descendants at first resisted the idea, but Orlowek’s evidence persuaded many of them. Joanne Hulme’s mother, Virginia Eleanor Humbrecht Kline, signed on to the project, along with Lois W. Rathbun, Booth’s great-great-grand niece. Backed by the Smithsonian, having rallied the family, recruited a young up-and-coming lawyer named Mark Zaid, and with the support of Baltimore’s state’s attorney, by 1994 Orlowek and company would finally know just who was buried in Booth’s grave. Everything was going to plan.

Then the cemetery balked.


Four of Booth's co-conspirators were hanged, including Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the US federal government. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

  1. 1992-1994

    With media interest in the story at a new peak, Orlowek and his team begin preparing a legal brief to exhume the body of the "John Wilkes Booth" buried in Green Mount Cemetery, in Baltimore, Maryland. Of the 22 living Booth descendants, 21 support the project, along with the local district attorney. After exhuming the body, Orlowek and the descendants plan to use photographic superimposition to determine whether it’s really John Wilkes Booth.

  2. October 1994

    The president of Green Mount Cemetery and a group of historians go to court to block the exhumation, bringing more attention to the case.

  3. Jwb_grave

    May 1995

    The judge denies the exhumation request, finding no compelling reason to disturb the grave site.

  4. 2007-2009

    Orlowek and his team begin looking into potential DNA testing. With exhumations blocked in Green Mount Cemetery, they focus on Booth’s brother Edwin, buried in Boston. The new plan calls for comparing DNA from Edwin’s body with that contained in a vertebrae belonging to the man shot in Garrett’s barn. That specimen, however, belongs to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, a government archive that’s unlikely to allow testing.

  5. January 2013

    Orlowek and his team submit their proposal through their local congressman and begin to wait.

  6. March 2013

    The NMHM responds that it will not allow any testing of the vertebrae, as it "would significantly deplete the material and destroy both the physical integrity of the object and the evidence of the trauma suffered at the time of injury." At this point, it seems, Orlowek has no recourse.

History on Trial

History on trial

Green Mount Cemetery knew Nate Orlowek. He’d asked permission for an exhumation several times in 1992, but the cemetery president saw no reason to grant the request. He considered The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth an opportunistic fraud perpetrated by Finis L. Bates, or, perhaps worse, a joke played on the lawyer by the man who’d claimed to be Booth. And Orlowek’s case rested heavily on the story told by Bates’ book and a few scraps of testimony contradicting the official story. Green Mount wasn’t about to disturb the cemetery based on such flimsy evidence.

So Orlowek returned with a lawyer, and with Booth’s distant relatives acting as plaintiffs against the cemetery. That attracted plenty of media attention, which Green Mount alleged as the true motive behind the case. The would-be exhumers wanted to make the trial a venue for airing the escape story drawn from Bates’ book; Green Mount responded that its duty remained to Mary Ann Booth, who’d interred her son’s body there after the government returned it to her in 1869. She’d entrusted the cemetery with his remains, and it required "that substantial, credible, and objective historical and scientific evidence be presented to the court in response to the amended petition in order to prevent disturbing the remains of the deceased for frivolous or unsubstantial reasons." To win exhumation, in other words, the plaintiffs would have to convince a judge that Booth really might have escaped, and that digging up "Booth" could prove it.

Green Mount wasn’t about to disturb the cemetery based on such flimsy evidence

The trial took place in May 1995, with Green Mount’s lawyers planning to eviscerate the escape theory. They treated it as an identification case, calling historians to testify that John Wilkes Booth had been positively identified at every part of his long journey from Ford’s Theater to Green Mount Cemetery. Union troops had seen Booth at the farmhouse; they’d taken his body aboard the USS Montauk, a Union Navy ship, where it was further identified. When the body was returned in 1869, Green Mount’s witnesses testified, even family members had agreed it was John Wilkes.

The cemetery even called Dr. James Starrs, a law professor and exhumation expert already famous for digging up the five victims of "Colorado Cannibal" Alferd Packer, and who would go on to exhume famous outlaw Jesse James and Albert DeSalvo, alleged to be the Boston Strangler. Starrs, perhaps coyly seeking to sabotage a high-profile forensic exhumation that wasn’t his, some speculated, testified that no one could predict the condition of the "Booth" body after more than a century. Other experts agreed, citing unfavorable soil and water conditions. Even if the skeleton was reasonably intact, they said, video superimposition remained an experimental method — Orlowek and his team wanted to test the body for months, with no guarantee of success.

That was, of course, if the cemetery could even find the body. On the trial’s second day, a woman called the judge’s office to say that a co-worker of hers was related to John Henry Weaver, the undertaker who’d transferred the alleged Booth body to Green Mount. She said it was not buried in the family plot, but in an unmarked grave somewhere on the grounds. The judge took this into consideration. Later, though, the cemetery president testified that Weaver’s relative had told him that the body was, in fact, in the family plot. This uncertainty, paradoxically, strengthened the cemetery’s case, given the possibility that digging up the graves might not even yield the right body. Maryland law does not look kindly on impromptu archaeological expeditions through its cemeteries.

The court heard further testimony designed to discredit The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. Michael W. Kauffman, the historian who later wrote American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, compared the 1903 photo of the mummified David E. George with those of Booth. Soon he had the judge pointing out discrepancies: the eyes were wrong, the hair was wrong — despite aging another 40 years, George appeared to have gained hair on his head. Kauffmann even mentioned that, according to a newspaper interview with the embalmer, Finis L. Bates had asked to make George look like Booth.

The judge’s conclusion was blunt. "To summarize," he wrote,

the alleged remains of John Wilkes Booth were buried in an unknown location some one hundred twenty-six (126) years ago and there is evidence that three infant siblings are buried on top of John Wilkes Booth's remains, wherever they may be. There may be severe water damage to the Booth burial plot and there are no dental records available for comparison. Thus, an identification may be inconclusive. A distant relative is seeking exhumation and any exhumation would require that the Booth remains be kept out of the grave for an inappropriate minimum of six (6) weeks. The above reasons coupled with the unreliability of Petitioners' less than convincing escape/cover up theory gives rise to the conclusion that there is no compelling reason for exhumation.

Orlowek and the Booth descendants appealed, but the court’s decision was upheld. There’d be no digging in Green Mount Cemetery.

Can DNA solve the puzzle?

With any exhumations at Green Mount Cemetery ruled out, it looked as though Orlowek and his team had finally hit an obstacle they couldn’t overcome. Without the body, they certainly couldn’t carry out the photographic superimposition. There didn’t seem to be any other option. They needed that skull, and they weren’t going to get it.

But over the years, DNA testing technology advanced. Orlowek started seeing it used in criminal cases. In 2009, he and his team decided to try another approach. If all the Booth family remains in Baltimore were untouchable, maybe they could find DNA elsewhere. There was one Booth who wasn’t in Green Mount: Edwin Booth, older brother to John Wilkes, buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts. Lois Trebisacci, Edwin’s great-great-granddaughter, agreed to an eventual exhumation. With her permission, they could bring up the bones of her great-great-grandfather and retrieve Edwin’s DNA.

Without the body in Green Mount Cemetery, though, where could they find a DNA sample for comparison?

That alone wouldn’t prove anything; after all, there was no controversy over who was buried in his grave. But by comparing it to the DNA of the man in the barn, they could say whether the two were blood relatives. Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, being brothers, would of course be related. And if the results showed that, yes, the two bodies belonged to the same family, Orlowek admits he’d concede defeat. (Joanne Hulme is not so sure.)

Without the body in Green Mount Cemetery, though, where could they find a DNA sample for comparison? An elegant if unorthodox solution presented itself: after the government removed Booth’s body from the farmhouse, army doctors conducted an autopsy. Though authorities returned the body to the Booth family in 1869, the army kept three cervical vertebrae surrounding the path Boston Corbett’s bullet had taken. Today, those neck bones belong to the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM), located almost too conveniently in Nate Orlowek’s hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland. (Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum also has a tissue sample allegedly from the autopsied body, but its provenance is less certain, and decades spent in an unidentified preservation fluid have likely made DNA testing impossible.)

Orlowek and his team began building a proposal to compare DNA from the vertebrae against that of Edwin Booth. They worked quietly, eager to avoid a repeat of the Green Mount trial, where prominent historians had blocked their efforts.

In 2011 Orlowek began talking to Krista Latham, director of the University of Indianapolis Molecular Anthropology Laboratory and an assistant professor of biology and anthropology. She specializes in skeletal DNA analysis, with a background in forensic science. Their first conversations revolved around hypotheticals, about what they could do given different scenarios, different materials. Latham immediately embraced the project, seeing it as the only scientific way to solve the mystery. If there was a test to be done, she wanted to do it. "I never wrote this off as a crazy conspiracy theory," Latham says, "I think it's kind of exciting. In today's world, you don't have mysteries like this."

"The need to preserve these bones for future generations compels us to decline the destructive test."

Latham prepared a proposal outlining the recent advances in forensic science. She cited the example of Anastasia and the Romanov family, whose remains had been identified nearly a century after their deaths thanks to skeletal DNA analysis. She proposed that two independent labs take samples from the Lucite-encased vertebrae in the NMHM’s care; the minimally destructive procedure, requiring less than 0.2 grams of powderized bone material for each lab. Compared to the DNA extracted from Edwin Booth’s bones, it could put the mystery of John Wilkes Booth’s fate to rest. The National Museum of Health and Medicine just had to give the go-ahead.

In early 2013 they submitted their proposal and settled in to wait. The response came quicker than they expected, and without the answer they’d hoped for. "Although the results might be intriguing, and the temptation to exploit emerging technologies is strong," replied Carol Robinson, of the US Army Medical Command, which oversees the museum, "the need to preserve these bones for future generations compels us to decline the destructive test." Given current technology, destroying those 0.4 grams is the only way to do such a test. Yet even if the NMHM allowed harvesting a sample, the letter continued, the unique artifact would be altered and "DNA testing may or may not yield the information desired." The museum, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment, described itself as protecting the integrity of its collection, preserving those artifacts for future generations.

But according to the bone-keepers, until there exists a non-destructive method of examining the vertebrae, there will be no test.


The Assassination of President Lincoln from left to right: Major Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth. Print by Currier & Ives.

Forward into the past

Journalist Ron Rosenbaum once spent some time in Dallas, Texas among JFK assassination buffs — who one might less-charitably call conspiracy theorists. He climbed up the grassy knoll around Dealey Plaza, and even down into the dark bowels beneath the street to look out of a storm drain, lowering himself bodily into one of the many suspected sniper positions. He looked out on Elm Street through a small rectangle of light, gaining just the perspective one buff wanted him to see. It made a handy metaphor for his benevolent skepticism toward the people for whom the assassination, then 25 years gone, now closer to 50, was much more than history. "I want you to know my attitude toward these people," he wrote, "which can be summed up by saying that I’ll go down into the manhole with them but I won’t pull the cover over my head."

But what struck him most about the buffs was not their imaginative ability to fill the plaza with ghostly snipers, or to weave disparate, tenuous facts into coherent if outlandish narratives. It was the quality of their grief. Decades later, they still mourned for a handsome and charismatic young man gunned down in public on a bright November day — a man who also happened to be president. "They are mourners," Rosenbaum wrote. "Their investigation of the assassination is a continuation of his last rites that they can’t abandon. Unlike the rest of us, they haven’t stopped grieving." Their search for a truth could never end, even as it spiraled out to take in more and more of the world. It served the same function as the eternal flame on Kennedy’s grave, keeping his story — a story — in living memory.

Lincoln hasn’t inspired that same sense of personal connection. Whether it’s because he’s receded too far in time to be recognizably human, becoming only an idealized figure of America’s Greatest President, or, conversely, because unlike Kennedy he lived before celebrity culture swallowed politics as it has everything else, providing the (stage-managed, focus-grouped) illusion of intimacy with even the president, Lincoln’s death does not move people to grief. As Secretary of War Edwin Stanton supposedly said upon hearing of Lincoln’s death, "Now he belongs to the ages;" a towering martyr-figure immortalized in Georgia white marble, his words carved into rock around him.


The Monument to Memory of John Wilkes Booth erected by "Pink" Parker..

Booth got his own monument, erected in 1906 by a Confederate veteran in Troy, Alabama. The 3-foot stone read, "Erected by Pink Parker in honor of John Wilks Booth [sic] for killing Old Abe Lincoln." Denied his request to place the monument in front of the local courthouse, Parker instead placed it in his own yard. It was refashioned into his headstone when he died 15 years later.

The picture of a Union preserved but never truly united

That may seem anomalous, a trivial historical curiosity. Yet even today, if you visit Booth’s grave in Maryland, you’ll recognize Americans declaring their allegiance. In a corner of the family plot a white footstone rises from the ground. Because it’s unmarked, visitors often assume it’s John Wilkes Booth’s final resting place. On a recent visit, it was covered with pennies, dozens of tiny Abraham Lincoln portraits resting in the sun. They even perched in the family stele, tucked into the center of the double "o" in "Booth." And until recently, if you visited the site of Booth’s death, leaving the highway and traipsing into the overgrown median, you’d find his picture waiting in the woods above a wreath and a black ribbon. There were benches, and in the ground a plaque reading, "Let your peace fall upon the soul of John Wilkes Booth. The Twenty-First Century Confederate Legion." On the plaque lay pennies, placed face down. The picture of a Union preserved but never truly united.

This unfinished past haunts Joanne Hulme; she says the Booth family saga has given her 50 years of angst. She lives in a comfortable artist’s apartment in Philadelphia, where she carries on her mother’s work to prove that John Wilkes is buried in the family plot. She doesn’t want to pass such responsibility on to the next generation. For her, the question is not about correcting history, but setting right the story of her family. "I try to let my siblings know — don’t be like these historians," she says, "Don’t let John Wilkes Booth be the person who has wrecked the legacy of many generations."

Asked whether this recent setback has brought his quest to an end, Nate Orlowek responds, "At every step of the way I felt like the story, had, so to speak, ended, because my goal always was to just do the best I could. The only people who lose are the ones who don’t try." He’s appealing to the public, hoping to put pressure on the National Museum of Health and Medicine. He wants other people to take up the fight. And maybe there are other options: the Mütter Museum’s tissue sample, maybe, or some as-yet-undiscovered non-destructive test. Don’t give up, he says: "In the end we can all win, if we get the truth."

And there’s still that mummy, poor old David E. George. Maybe if it could be found, its DNA could match Edwin Booth’s. But only a few people — maybe no one, actually — knows where the mummy currently rests. After touring the country for decades, it disappeared in the mid-1970s, last seen in Pennsylvania. Rumor has it the mummy belongs to a private collector who’s keeping it a secret, right under Nate Orlowek’s nose. Just another undead piece of American history, ready to rise up again when you least expect it.