The Effort to Exhume Booth's Body

The Petition, 1995
On May 17, 1995, a hearing was begun in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan presiding, to determine whether the body of John Wilkes Booth should be exhumed from Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore. Petitioning to have the body exhumed were Lois W. Rathbun, Booth’s great-great-grand niece, and Virginia Eleanor Humbrecht Kline who is Booth’s first cousin, twice removed. These distant relatives sought the exhumation in order that the remains might be examined to determine whether the body in the grave actually is John Wilkes Booth.

Controversy over who is buried in Booth’s grave dates back to 1903 when a man named David E. George committed suicide in Enid, Oklahoma. Before he died, George claimed that he was John Wilkes Booth and that someone else had been killed at Garrett’s farm and buried in his place. George’s claims were “confirmed” by Finis L. Bates, a lawyer who said that George confessed the same to him several years earlier. Bates wrote a book entitled The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth and exhibited George’s mummified remains at carnival sideshows for years, thus keeping the rumor going.

Green Mount Cemetery opposed Booth’s relatives’ request for exhumation. Surratt Society members Steven G. Miller of Chicago, Dr. William Hanchett of San Diego, Michael Kauffman of Maryland, and Dr. Terry Alford and James O. Hall, both of Virginia, presented the documented history of Booth’s capture and death. On May 26, Judge Kaplan ruled that the exhumation should not occur. He concluded that there was no compelling reason for an exhumation. This decision was based on the facts that:

  • Green Mount Cemetery is not certain where John Wilkes Booth is buried, and there is evidence that three infant siblings are buried in a coffin on top of his remains. Exhumation would inappropriately disturb these individuals.
  • Accurate identification of the body is not probable due to the length of time that has elapsed since Booth was buried; the effect that excessive water damage to the Booth burial plot would have had on his remains; and the lack of dental records by which to make the identification. Because there are no dental records, experimental “video superimposition” techniques would have to be used instead. DNA testing is not an option because a proper match cannot be expected from among Booth’s relatives.
  • The historical evidence that Booth was indeed killed at Garrett’s farm is convincing. Numerous people, who were in a position to know Booth intimately, positively identified him during his escape, while he was at Garrett’s farm, after he was shot, and at his reinternment in Green Mount Cemetery in 1869. Evidence offered in support of having the body exhumed includes the claims of two soldiers who said that Booth was not killed at Garrett’s Farm. But these men were not even present when Booth was captured and killed. Furthermore, the escape/cover-up theory at the heart of the current case is based on Finis L. Bates’ book. In 1920, this book was declared an outright fraud by investigators hired by Henry Ford to whom Bates was endeavoring to sell the David E. George mummy. And during the recent hearing, the book was described as unreliable by the Petitioners’ own expert witness.

Judge Kaplan’s ruling may not end the matter. According to the August 1995 edition of the Surratt Courier, a Petitioners’ Notice of Appeal was filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on June 21, 1995.

The Appeal, 1996
On May 8, parties gathered at the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis, Maryland, to continue the quest by collateral descendants of John Wilkes Booth to exhume his body from Green Mount Cemetery for analysis in hopes of furthering the theory that an imposter is buried in his grave. The appeal was mounted by their lawyer, Mark S. Zaid, who contends that there is still an historical controversy. In May, 1995, Judge H. H. Kaplan of the Baltimore Circuit Court had denied a request to exhume Booth’s body after hearing historical experts testify to the overwhelming documentation of Booth’s death at Garrett’s Farm in Virginia on April 26, 1865.

This time, a three-judge panel heard the arguments by Zaid as well as by lawyer Francis J. Gorman, representing Green Mount Cemetery, which contends that there is no controversy. During the 40-minute hearing, Zaid fielded an aggressive battery of questions from the judges. Gorman based his case on the cemetery’s right to carry out its fiduciary and contractual duty to protect the rights of the Booth family, chiefly the wishes of the matriarch, Mary Ann Booth, who expected the family’s remains to rest in peace. As Gorman stated, “This is not a referendum; this is not a history class. This is a court of law, and the law is very clear about how final remains should be handled.” Chief Judge C. J. Wilner questioned the historical evidence Zaid presented, calling it contradictory.

On June 4, the appeal was denied. The judges’ opinion is that overwhelming evidence indicates that Booth did die at Garrett’s Farm and was buried in Green Mount Cemetery in 1869 after being interred for four years in Washington, and that Green Mount Cemetery has every right to control the grave site to which Booth’s body was entrusted by his mother.

For additional background on this subject, see: 
The Body in the Barn: The Controversy Over the Death of John Wilkes Booth which is a compilation of relevant articles that appeared in the Surratt Courier. The booklet can be ordered from the Gift Shop for $10.00 plus shipping & handling (Maryland residents must add 6% sales tax.).
Also see Michael Kauffman’s article in the May/June 1995 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated and his article in the December 3, 1994, edition of the Washington Times.