Cemetery not sure where Booth grave lies

John Wilkes Booth hid from federal troops for 12 days after he shot President Abraham Lincoln.

And Green Mount Cemetery officials in Baltimore say Mr. Booth has been hiding from them for most of the 126 years that have passed since he was buried in the family plot.


"It is our understanding that Booth was deliberately placed in an unmarked grave so that his remains wouldn't be subject to vandalism," said Green Mount Chairman William C. Trimble Jr.

Since then, he said, the exact location of Booth's grave within the plot has been forgotten, and cemetery records and conflicting plot diagrams can't resolve the question.


That's too much uncertainty for James Edward Starrs, a George Washington University forensic scientist. He testified yesterday that an exhumation would amount to "an archaeological dig" that would almost certainly disturb other remains before locating Booth's.

In Baltimore Circuit Court, Mr. Starrs urged Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan not to grant a petition by Booth family members for a dig in search of the assassin's bones.

If Judge Kaplan doesn't allow an exhumation, it would be a big disappointment to Jean H. Baker, a Goucher College history professor and an authority on America during the Civil War.

"If we really knew who was in the grave . . . it would be possible to answer some of the questions these events bring up," she told the court. "I urge the court to proceed with an exhumation."

John Wilkes Booth, an actor, shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865, and fled into Virginia, where he was cornered April 26 in a burning tobacco barn. Most historians believe he was shot to death there, probably by a federal soldier.

The body was returned to Washington, where it was buried and reburied once more in a federal prison. In 1869, Booth's mother had it returned to Baltimore for another reburial at Green Mount.

Rumors quickly began circulating, however. Some said Booth had escaped his pursuers and fled to the South. A 1907 book claimed that Booth lived under assumed names before committing suicide in Oklahoma in 1903.

Historians Nathaniel Orlowek and Arthur Ben Chitty have long subscribed to that theory, and they enlisted two descendants of the Booth family in the petition seeking exhumation of the remains for possible identification.


Green Mount Cemetery opposes exhumation, arguing that it would disturb other graves and would offer little hope of resolving the historical questions.

Mr. Starrs has been involved in a number of exhumations of historic figures; as recently as 1992 he advocated the exhumation of Booth's grave. But the scientist has changed his mind because of the uncertainties in the case.

To justify such an exhumation, he testified, there must be significant scientific or historical issues that can be resolved, without unnecessarily disturbing other remains.

"In this case," he said, "there is no location known to be that of John Wilkes Booth."

Cemetery records suggest that several children and at least one other adult lie in unmarked graves in the plot. Without better information, Mr. Starrs said, "it's possible the entire area would be dug up looking for John Wilkes Booth."

Even if the remains were found, they might not resolve whether Booth escaped from federal troops, Mr. Starrs said. For example, Booth might have died in 1865, but "there could have been a mix-up" during one of the two times his remains were dug up before being returned to Baltimore. In that case, the history books would be right, but the bones in Green Mount would not be his.


Dr. Baker, the historian, testified that it is "most likely that Booth did not escape." And she could name only two historians -- Mr. Chitty and Mr. Orlowek -- who believe he did.

But even highly respected experts acknowledge the persistent controversy, said Dr. Baker. "I think it's a worthy endeavor to try to find out what's right about these things."

If Booth did escape, she said, "this tells us something about the climate of opinion in Virginia, and tells us something about the political culture of the Confederacy at the end of the war."

And, she added, "it would keep a lot of historians busy for the rest of their lives."