Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Explorations Below Ground: Profile James E. Starrs

Last Resort

Starrs does not believe that we ought to be exhuming all controversial historical figures.  An exhumation should always be the last resort, he says, out of respect for the dead.  Like Jesse James, the person of John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Lincoln in 1865, is another one about whom the story has been told that his death was faked.  While Starrs was not interested in exhuming him to find out the truth, he was asked about its necessity in court when an attorney for the family was fighting the cemetery.

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth

People who claimed to be descendants of John Wilkes Booth had petitioned Judge Joseph Kaplan to allow the remains in the grave in Baltimore, Md., marked as Booth's to be dug up and examined.   They had accepted the claim of historians who contended that Booth successfully escaped while another man was buried in the family plot.  Instead of being shot and killed in Garrett's barn eleven days after the 1865 assassination, as history indicates, Booth supposedly lived another 38 years.  The theory, Starrs states, was based on a hoax perpetrated in 1907 by a man who claimed he owned Booth's mummified body, as well as on disputes involving inconsistent details: The man shot in Garrett's barn had the initials JWB tattooed on his left wrist, while Booth's were said to have been on the right wrist. 

"The eminent Dr. May," says Starrs, "called to witness the autopsy of J.W.B. because he had once removed a tumor from Booth's neck, was said to have found no resemblance to Booth and wrote about the right leg being fractured.  However, it was 'reliably reported' that Booth had broken his left leg in his attempt to escape from Ford's Theater.   Dr. Mudd, who had treated the fracture, said that it was 'a straight fracture of the tibia,' but Dr. May said that the leg of the autopsied J.W.B. had a fracture of the fibula, although neither had X-rayed the bone.  And no familiars of Booth were brought to identify the slain J.W.B., so it was suggested that there was a conspiracy afoot to pass J.W.B. off as Booth."

So, as the story goes, this J.W.B. was buried in Baltimore as John Wilkes Booth, but some people claimed that it was not Booth and they sought to learn his true identity. 

"Yet how does a misidentification deserve an exhumation?" Starrs asked in an article he wrote on the case.  "Might it not be more productive for historical purposes to investigate why there was such a conscious and conspiratorially motivated misidentification?  What role would an exhumation play in solving that riddle?  In addition, since DNA testing and comparison of dental records would be unsuccessful, there was little point in such an exhumation.  No one knows if there exists a female descendant of Booth's mother through whom the mitochondrial DNA could be analyzed and compared."

Starrs presented these points for over three hours during the 1995 hearing, and several historians affirmed the pointlessness of such an exhumation.  The court concluded that there was insufficient reason to exhume the remains, so JWB lies undisturbed.

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