Body of Wilkes Booth
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, January 5, 1907 [pt. 3, p. 1]
Since the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater the night of April 14, 1865, there have been questions raised as to the identity of the assassin and of the body which, after interment for four years in the grounds of the Washington arsenal, in 1869 found a permanent resting place with his kindred in Greenmount cemetery Baltimore. And now, after nearly forty years, the story that Booth in some manner made his escape and under another name lived for many years is again revived. This time it appears in the form of a letter to Speaker Cannon asking a congressional investigation of the subject to determine whether the body of John D. Heley, who committed suicide at Enid, Okla., in 1903 is not the body of the assassin. The suggestion is made that if such is the case the body be placed on exhibition in a museum as an object lesson.
That this story has perhaps, no other foundation than that the party in question may have borne a striking resemblance to Booth and had woven an air of mystery around him by his reticence as to his antecedents is evident. From time to time such stories have been put forth, one from South America, another from Texas and still another from Georgia. Were they true, Booth resided in several far distant localities at the same time. It is said that in the Georgia case the people who associated with the party suspected as the assassin were so well satisfied that he (a school master) was the real Booth that to this day they repeat the assertion.
That Booth escaped from the theater after firing the shot and rode across the Navy Yard bridge, through Prince George and into Charles county, MD and later crossed the Potomac; that he was pursued and wounded during this attempt to capture him near Bowling Green, Va., are facts which cannot be controverted.
Identity of Assassin
The ironclads were the Montauk and the Saugus, then lying in the stream on which some of the workmen were employed, and they from April 18 to the 29th were used as prison ships.
Escaped Into Virginia
There were two or three others brought along by the party, and, with the body of Booth, came on the steamer from Acquia creek. It was shortly before 2 o’clock on the morning of April 27 that the members reached the navy yard, and the members of the party were transferred to the monitors. The prisoners were placed in confinement on a monitor and in the yard, and the body of Booth, wrapped in an army blanket, was placed on the Saugus.
That the news of the arrival of the body caused excitement is evident, and in the yard it was difficult for the many workmen to perform their tasks, and there were hundreds who endeavored from the wharf to secure a look at the body, while every one believed to possess information was held up.
Commodore Montgomery gave orders for the making of a box for the remains, and when it became known that such was the case there were men who expressed a wish to drive a nail in it.
Communication with the monitors was restricted to those bearing a pass signed by both Secretaries Stanton and Welles. Lieut Frank Munroe, with a guard of marines enforced the orders.
Surgeons Examine Body
The government being satisfied with the identification of the body, its disposition claimed attention. It was left sewed up in the army blanket on the bench, and as Gen. Barnes and party departed some mysterious movements were observed. A report was prevalent in the yard and elsewhere that a vessel of war and the U. S. S. Wachusetts, then lying in the river, would take the body to sea and consign it to oblivion. There is no doubt that the story emanated from Gen. L. C. Baker’s force, as in his published history of his life such a disposition of the corpse is related and pictured. And although there were some movements calculated to bear out the story, The Star announced within a few days that the body had been buried at the arsenal.
It was about 2:30 o’clock when one of the small steamers of the quartermaster’s department moved up the Eastern branch and made fast to one of the monitors. Then a boat was rowed out from the yard and about the monitors and finally to the steamer. From the shore spectators were straining their eyes to decipher what was going on, and soon saw what had the appearance of a body carried to the steamer, and a few minutes later a similar looking object followed. The steamer immediately cast off and soon rounded Glesboro Point and steamed southward.
Proceeded to Arsenal
The old penitentiary building extending across 4½ street was then used by the ordnance department and it was determined that a grave be dug in one of the cells for the reception of the body. Two stalwart laborers with pick and shovel made the attempt, but in an hour or two reported the difficulty of the work and a new site was selected. It was in the old store room of the building, which, being paved only with brick, facilitated the digging of a grave. After nightfall the body was removed from the wharf, after being placed in an ordnance or musket box or case, and carried into the penitentiary inclosure to the place prepared and buried without ceremony. There were present a representative of the War Department, who took the key of the room when the door had been closed; Col. Benton, the commandant, some of Baker’s men and three or four of the arsenal workmen.
When in 1867 the central portion of the penitentiary was about to be razed the remains were exhumed and placed in the north end of No. 1 storehouse of the arsenal.
In February, 1869, as the administration of President Johnson was drawing to a close, Edwin Booth secured from him an order for the body that it might be interred in the family lot at Greenmount cemetery, Baltimore. That day a Star reporter was approached by Mr. R. F. Harvey of Harvey and Marr, undertakers, who remarked:
Promised to Be There
Mr. W. R. Speare, then a boy, had just entered the service of the firm to learn the business. An hour or so before Mr. Edwin Booth and Mr. J. H. Weaver, a Baltimore undertaker, were there consulting with Mr. Harvey, and the latter told Mr. Speare to go to the avenue and hire a furniture wagon to go to the arsenal to get something and to meet them at the arsenal gate. Mr. Speare did so. Messrs. Weaver and Harvey going down in a carriage. They proceeded to the store house and workmen brought out the box. Then it dawned upon Mr. Speare’s mind that the fact that the undertaker’s wagon was not taken was to ward off suspicion. A receipt was given to an officer and in a little time the wagon with the corpse was in the alley from which Booth had rode four years before. The little company in the shop were in waiting and the rumble of wheels was hailed with the remark, “There they are,” simultaneously with Rich Harvey’s call: “Come, here, now!” as the wagon was backed to a stable.
The box was removed by the assistants, including the volunteer, and placed on trestles, as was also an ordinary coffin brought from the shop. The arms chest was quite light. When a lantern had been produced the scene was a weird, uncanny one. The box was somewhat decayed about the joints, but when with little difficulty the lid was removed the blanket with which the corpse had been covered showed but little evidence of decay.
Blanket Thrown Aside
Mr. Weaver seemed anxious that the remains be identified and picked up the head, examining it carefully. Some blotches of flesh and skin adhered to the cheek and jawbones, and the fine suit of hair for which Booth was noted was still on the head. Except for the mildew and clamminess it was in fine order, and the remark was made by some who had known Booth that it was an instance of hair growing after death, for it was an inch or more longer than it had been his custom to wear. The head was resting on decayed shavings, and one of the party plucked what he thought to be a loose lock of hair, which afterward was found to be a shaving. The head was taken up by Mr. Weaver, who examined it with interest, and a dentist from Baltimore being called from the front office in which Edwin Booth was awaiting developments next examined it. After looking intently at the teeth, he said: “This is Wilkes Booth, for this is some of my work.”
Head Passed Around
Edwin Booth having secured the report of the dentist, as well as that of Messrs. Weaver and Harvey as to the identification, left with the dentist. The sides of the blanket in which were the remains were lifted gently to the coffin, a temporary affair, and in a few hours they were in Baltimore, where they were interred at Greenmount. Of the company who were present when the transfer was made from box to coffin only Mr. Speare and the writer survive.
This statement should be sufficient to dispel all remaining doubts. Booth was recognized at the time he fired the shot, traced to the place of his capture, was known personally by some of the captors, his body identified by several as it laid at the navy yard. And, though a mystery surrounded the disposition of the body – and the current rumor was that it was buried at sea – The Star, the Monday following, announced the place of burial; and when the body, thirty-seven years ago, was disinterred and delivered to the family, the identification was complete.