Contradictions Concerning the Death and Autopsy of John Wilkes Booth

Paper presented by Robert E. Arnold M.D.

Dr. Arnold is a retired Naval Surgeon
and a national recognized consultant on venomous bites.

             It was April 24, 1865, ten days after John Wilkes Booth had assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Lt. Edward Doherty, Enerton Conger and Luther Baker reported to the office of Lafayette Baker the War Departments chief detective and Luther Baker’s cousin. (1) General James R. O’Beirne had discovered the route taken by Booth for his escape. O’Beirne thought he had Booth cornered, he asked for orders from Washington but was told to return to his command in Maryland. The honor of capturing Booth was taken from a first class general and transferred to amateurs (2).  Thus began a strange saga of mistakes, contradictions, and unexplained occurrences.

             Lt. Doherty, Conger, Baker and twenty-five men embarked on the steamer John Ide for Belle Plain (3). They searched the area and eventually were led to Mr. Garretts house. Under threat of death, Garrett led the detectives and the detachment to the barn. The farm was surrounded and a conversation ensued with the men inside. One of them, David Herald, surrendered. The official report states that a fire was started in some hay in the rear of the barn. A shot struck the lone figure in the neck. Conger, Baker, and some of the soldiers entered the barn and removed him to the front porch of the house. Conger stated that the man had shot himself. Baker thought Conger had fired the fatal shot but thought that if he had, it had better not be known. Sgt. Boston Corbett would eventually get the credit for shooting Booth. Sgt. Corbett deserves comment.  He was a religious fanatic who changed his first name to Boston after the city where he had joined the church. He was also said to have castrated himself in remorse for spending a night with a prostitute. He had been a hatter in civilian life and hatters were well famous for mental alterations caused by inhaling mercury vapors (The Mad Hatter from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carrol). For example, when Corbett was asked why he had shot Booth, he said, “ God had directed him to do so.” (2)

             One of the soldiers summoned a doctor, Charles Urquhart, but there is nothing in the Official Record of his visit. There was no death certificate and Urquhart was not questioned later.

             The decedent lived 2-3 hours and was reported to have uttered a few sentences. Conger took the man’s possessions and left for Washington accompanied by Sgt. Corbett at lest as far as Belle Plain. Conger officially reported that Booth had been tracked down and shot by Sgt. Boston Corbett while trying to escape.

             The body’s 18-mile trip to the Belle Plain landing was bizarre. Luther Baker took the body over Doherty’s objection and went on ahead. This resulted in quite a delay and Baker said they had “gotten lost.” They arrived in Alexandria at eleven o’clock P.M. and Lafayette Baker took charge of the body, transferred it to a tugboat and took it to the ironclad Montauk, which was laid up for repairs in the Washington Navy Yard. The commanding officer, LC. Dr. Edward Stone stated he received no orders or authority concerning the body. They sent an urgent message to the secretary of the Navy that the body was changing rapidly. An autopsy was ordered to be performed on the Montauk by Joseph K. Barnes, the Surgeon General.

             The witnesses summoned for the identification of the corpse deserve comment.

             Charles Dawson, the hotel clerk, said he knew Booth from the initials tattooed on his wrist but he named the wrong wrist.

             The Captain clerk on the Montark said he knew Booth and recognized the body from “general appearance.” Likewise the Montark’s acting master, William Crowninshield. There is no good evidence that either of these had ever met Booth.

             Dr. Frederick May who had removed a tumor from Booth’s neck was summoned. His first comment was, “ There is no resemblance in that corpse to Booth nor can I believe it to be him.”(1) Dr. May later said the scar on the neck was similar to Booths.

             No stage acquaintances, personal friends, relations, or co-conspirators were questioned, although they were readily available.

             The autopsy demonstrated a bullet wound through the transverse processes of the third and fourth cervical vertebrae. The body was then taken to the grounds of Washington’s old penitentiary, which was being used as an arsenal and interred in one of the old cells. This removal from the Montauk was done quickly and without the knowledge of the Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard, John B. Montgomery.

             The body remained interred until 1869 when the body was disinterred and transferred to a Baltimore undertaker. Joseph Booth was present but the corpse had disintegrated so thoroughly that identification was not possible. The remains were then buried in Green Mount Cemetery.

             In 1903, a man named David George committed suicide in Enid, Oklahoma after confessing to have assassinated President Lincoln. The body was mummified and put on Public display locally and at St. Louis World Fair in 1904.

             Various carnivals displayed the remains until 1920 when Finis Bates of Memphis claimed it. Its whereabouts are no longer known. (5). The mummy was supposedly examined and had a broken ankle, deformed right thumb and a scar above the right eye which Booth was known to have (6).

The Controversy Begins

            There are many contradictions surrounding the death and autopsy of Booth. Many of them are minor, such as the presence of a mustache, what he was wearing and also fake testimony given by witnesses for various reasons. There is one undeniable fact that casts doubt on the identity of the dead man and that is the actions by the army during the autopsy and burial. Booth was the most wanted man on earth. The natural course would be to take the body to Washington where as many people as possible could see it, pictures taken and documentation by impeccable sources. The army did the exact opposite.