This past Thursday a Philadelphia Inquirer article and a History Channel special revisited a strangely enduring "mystery" from the Civil War. Some descendants of the infamous John Wilkes Booth, as well as a few skeptics, refuse to believe that Booth was killed by Union soldiers in a tobacco barn on the farm of Richard Garrett in Port Royal, Virginia, in April 1865. Instead, they believe he eluded capture and lived several more decades.
In 1995 these Booth descendants filed suit to have his body exhumed from a Baltimore cemetery in order to conduct DNA tests that would prove whether or not the remains truly were his. A judge denied that suit when it could not be conclusively determined where the remains were. Now, as the Inquirer story recounts, several Booth descendants have agreed to exhume the body of John Wilkes' brother, Edwin, from a Massachusetts grave. Their hope is to recover DNA from Edwin's remains and compare it to a DNA sample from the body of the man killed in the Garrett barn 145 years ago. The National Museum of Health and Medicine has three cervical vertebrae from Booth's (or as his descendants refer to him, the man in the barn). However, it is doubtful that the museum would allow these specimens to be tested, for its mission is to preserve these relics, and the testing necessarily would damage them to some extent.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this story is that it brings together the country's enduring fascination with the Civil War (and with uncovering historical mysteries) and the recent obsession with the seemingly limitless possibilities of DNA testing. In this story, it appears that C.S.I. meets the Lincoln assassination. The notion that Booth was not the man killed on the Garrett farm has held sway with a gaggle of oddballs and skeptics almost from the moment of his death. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries more than one man claimed to be the real John Wilkes Booth, with one of them gaining enough notoriety that his mummified body would be displayed in a carnival as the body of the presidential assassin as recently as 1976.
Ironically, what makes such contrived "mysteries" so compelling and long-lived is that they cannot easily be proven. Flying in the face of the evidence, this "mystery" relies upon intricately crafted counter-factual "evidence" to claim a tenuous plausibility. We would have to believe that Booth recruited a patsy to stand in his stead and travel to Port Royal along with one of his accomplices in the assassination plot, David Herold, to lure the manhunt for Lincoln's killer away from the real assassin. Indeed, Herold was captured in the same barn where Booth met his end. Herold positively identified his mortally wounded companion and ultimately confessed to his own role in the plot to kill the president. Moreover, Booth, a famous actor, had his image reproduced in countless newspapers, journals, broadsides, posters, cards de visite, and other materials, providing relatively easy means of identifying him by his appearance alone. Yet, Booth skeptics cling to a convoluted conspiracy theory in the face of a pile of evidence against them.
Ironically, the appeal to a rigorous scientific lab test, like DNA analysis, reveals what lazy thinkers the Booth skeptics are. Rather than sift the considerable circumstantial and material evidence that proves Booth was apprehended and shot on the Garrett property, desperate conspiracy theorists argue that only a scientific test of the man's remains can prove the truth and provide closure.