The National Museum of Health and Medicine and the Lincoln Assassination

The National Museum of Health and Medicine is a medical museum located in Silver Spring, Maryland.  The museum has a long history and was originally founded during the Civil War as the Army Medical Museum.  Its original purpose was to be a repository for, “all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable; together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed, and such other matters as may prove of interest in the study of military medicine or surgery.” Since its founding to today, the museum has amassed a collection of nearly 25 million medical artifacts.  Though less than 1% of the collection is on display at the Silver Spring facility due to space constraints, the museum is, nevertheless, filled to the brim.  Walking into the museum, guests quickly come face to face with medical oddities and fascinating exhibits.  A wonderful museum in its own right, the NMHM has also become intimately connected with the story Lincoln’s assassination through the years.

A Place to Rest My Bones

Having been founded during the Civil War, the collection grew rapidly during its first few years as surgeons on the field of battle began sending in specimens.  By 1866, the museum was on its third home in Washington, D.C. and required even more space.  Luckily for them, on April 6, 1866, an Act of Congress was passed providing for the purchase of a building “for the deposit and safekeeping of documentary papers relative to the soldiers of the army of the United States and of the Museum of the Medical and Surgical Department of the Army.”  The chosen building was Ford’s Theatre the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination almost a year before.

Ford's Theatre Army Medical Museum Label

The building was closed down by the U.S. government in the aftermath of the assassination.  Though the building was returned to John T. Ford for a time, public outcry and threats to burn the building if it was once again opened as a theater forced the government to seize the building permanently.  At first they rented it from Ford before buying it straight out thanks to the approval of the above mentioned Act of Congress.  The interior of the building was remodeled from a theater into a three story office building.  On December 22, 1866, the top floor of Ford’s Theatre officially became the Army Medical Museum’s fourth home.

Here are some pictures of the interior of the Army Medical Museum when it was held on the third floor of Ford’s Theatre.  Most of these come from the blog “A Repository for Bottled Monsters” which is written by a former archivist of the museum:

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By 1887, the museum had once again outgrown its surroundings and moved into a building made solely for its purpose. This brought an end to the Army Medical Museum’s occupation of Ford’s Theatre. In hindsight the move in 1887 proved lucky. Six years later, in 1893, poor workmanship by a crew excavating in the basement of Ford’s caused a structural pier to give way, causing a 40 foot section of all three floors to come crashing down, killing over 20 government clerks and wounding many others.

Booth’s Spine Tingling Return

When it was housed inside Ford’s Theatre, the Army Medical Museum was a popular tourist destination in Washington. The museum saw about 40,000 visitors in 1881 alone.  In 1873, a book was published called, Ten Years in Washington: Life and Scenes in the National Capital as a Woman Sees Them by Mary Clemmer Ames.  In her book, Ms. Ames described a visit to the Army Medical Museum and points out the many oddities on display.  The book also contains this engraving of the museum inside of Ford’s:

Army Medical Museum in Ford's Theatre engraving 1873

As part of her description of some of the artifacts, Ms. Ames states the following:

“Amid the thousands of mounted specimens in glass cases, which reveal the freaks of bullets and cannon-shot, we come to one which would scarcely arrest the attention of a casual observer. It is simply three human vertebra mounted on a stand and numbered 4,086. Beside it hangs a glass phial, marked 4,087, filled with alcohol, in which floats a nebulse of white matter. The official catalogue contains the following records of these apparently uninteresting specimens:

‘No. 4,086. — The third, fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. A conoidal carbine [sic] ball entered the right side, comminuting the base of the right lamina of the fourth vertebrae, fracturing it longitudinally and separating it from the spinous process, at the same time fracturing the fifth through its pedicles, and involving that transverse process. The missile passed directly through the canal, with a slight inclination downward and to the rear, emerging through the left bases of the fourth and fifth laminse, which are comminuted, and from which fragments were embedded in the muscles of the neck. The bullet, in its course, avoided the large cervical vessels. From a case where death occurred in a few hours after injury, April 26, 1865.’

‘No. 4,087.— A portion of the spinal-cord from the cervical region, transversely perforated from right to left by a carbine [sic] bullet, which fractured the laminse of the fourth and fifth vertebrae. The cord is much torn and is discolored by blood. From a case where death occurred a few hours after injury, April 26, 1865.’

Such are the colorless scientific records of the death wounds of John Wilkes Booth. All that remains of him above the grave finds its perpetual place a few feet above the spot where he shot down his illustrious victim.”

After John Wilkes Booth was killed at the Garrett farm, his body was brought back to Washington and deposited aboard the ironclad ship, the U.S.S. Montauk. It was there that Booth’s autopsy was performed. The body was thoroughly identified and the section of Booth’s vertebrae, through which Boston Corbett’s pistol ball had passed, was removed. In addition, an inspection of Booth’s broken leg was made and, for some reason, his thoracic cavity was opened. Shortly after the autopsy was performed, Booth’s body was taken to the Arsenal Penitentiary and secretly buried. In 1869, Booth’s body and the bodies of the executed conspirators were released to their families.  Booth’s vertebrae along with a piece of his spinal cord, however, found their way into the collection of the Army Medical Museum and were in the collection by 1866 according to one of the museum’s collection catalogs. John Wilkes Booth’s vertebrae and spinal cord were publicly on display at Ford’s Theatre in 1873 when Ms. Ames visited. Here is an 1873 engraving of the bones that she included in her book:

Booth's Vertebrae drawing Ten Years in Washington

The vertebrae and spinal cord of John Wilkes Booth are still part of the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine though they are not currently on display at the Silver Spring facility.  Here is a picture of the specimens taken a few years ago by the AP:

Booth vertebrae spine AP

I am hoping to make an appointment to view the vertebrae and piece of spinal cord in person and to look through the NMHM’s records regarding this artifact.  Hopefully a follow up will be posted at a later date. UPDATE: Click here to read about my research visit with John Wilkes Booth’s vertebrae.

When Powell Lost his Head

At the same time that John Wilkes Booth was assassinating President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, conspirator Lewis Powell was attacking William Seward, the Secretary of State, in his home.  Powell stabbed and bludgeoned five people in the Secretary’s home, but, miraculously, they all survived their brushes with death.  Powell was tried with the other conspirators and executed on July 7, 1865.  His body was immediately buried next to the gallows on the Arsenal Penitentiary grounds.

9 The Pine Boxes

In 1867, Powell’s body was disinterred and reburied in a trench that was dug inside a warehouse on the Aresnal property.  There he was joined by the bodies of fellow conspirators John Wilkes Booth (minus his vertebrae), David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt.  The trench also contained the remains of Andersonville Prison commandant Henry Wirz who had been executed for his wartime crimes in November of 1865.  In the waning hours of Andrew Johnson’s presidency in February of 1869, Johnson finally consented to the release of the conspirators’ bodies to their respective families.  The bodies of Booth, Herold, Surratt, Atzerodt, and Wirz were all claimed and reburied by their families.  Powell’s family, who had previously tried to claim the remains and had been denied, were not made aware that they could now take possession of their kin.  For a year, Powell’s body remained the only one still buried on the Arsenal grounds.  Finally, in February of 1870, an undertaker named Joseph Gawler (who also handled the reburial of David Herold) took possession of Powell’s body and had it buried secretly in one of D.C.’s cemeteries.  1870 newspaper accounts stated that, “family and friends could find his grave by contacting him [Gawler] as he had a record of where he is buried.”  The Powell family, who had moved a few times in Florida since Lewis’ death, apparently never heard the news.

The location of Powell’s remains from 1870 onward is a little fuzzy, but an extremely probable series of events was determined by Lewis Powell’s biographer, Betty Ownsbey, in an article she wrote for the October 2012 edition of the Surratt Courier entitled, “And Now – The Rest of the Story: The Search for the Rest of the Remains of Lewis “Paine” Powell“.  Using newspaper sources and cemetery records, it appears that Powell was originally transported from the Arsenal and interred in Graceland Cemetery.  At some point between 1870 and 1884 Powell was removed from Graceland and placed in Holmead Cemetery.  Not long after he was placed there, Holmead Cemetery was discontinued as it was considered a public health hazard.  The land was slated to be sold and developed in January of 1885.  Families with means disinterred their loved ones from Holmead and reburied them elsewhere.  All the unclaimed bodies still left in Holmead were exhumed in December of  1884 and dumped into a mass grave at nearby Rock Creek Cemetery.  Joseph Gawler was one of the undertakers who assisted with this endeavor.  By 1884 it had been almost 20 years since Lewis Powell’s death and it must have been very clear to Gawler that no one was coming for the body and that he was not going to be paid for the work he had done keeping track of it over the years.  It is with a very high likelihood that Gawler added Lewis Powell’s remains to the mass grave at Rock Creek and his body is there today in Section K, Lot 23.

The assumed resting place of Lewis Powell's body, Section K, Lot 23 in D.C.'s Rock Creek Cemetery

The assumed resting place of Lewis Powell’s body, Section K, Lot 23 in D.C.’s Rock Creek Cemetery (approximate location)

While Lewis Powell’s body may be at Rock Creek Cemetery, his head definitely isn’t.  The conspirators were not embalmed upon their deaths and through their subsequently reburials, their bodies were consistently exposed to oxygen which accelerated their decay.  The connective tissues of Powell’s head and neck, likely damaged by his hanging in 1865, would have quickly decomposed away separating his head from the body.  According to newspaper accounts, a few of the conspirator’s heads were separated from their bodies when they were disinterred in 1869.  Almost 20 years of decomposition later would have essentially stripped the bone of all tissues.  Therefore, when Joseph Gawler or his associates opened Powell’s casket at Holmead in 1884, it would have been a very easy task for them to collect the skull and take it.  That is exactly what occurred for on January 13, 1885, the Army Medical Museum added a new artifact to their collection.  Numbered 2244, the anonymous donation was entered into their catalog as a, “Skull of a white male.” A short description followed:

“P. Hung at Washington, D.C., for the attempted assassination of Secretary of State, W. H. Seward, in April, 1865.”

Powell's skull entry Army Medical Museum catalog

The museum, still located inside of Ford’s Theatre in 1885, now held the remains of not only the assassin of President Lincoln, but the would be assassin of his Secretary of State.

Lewis Powell's Skull Ownsbey

Unlike John Wilkes Booth’s vertebrae and spinal cord, Lewis Powell’s skull is no longer in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.  In 1898, the skull was transferred, along with many Native American remains, to the Smithsonian Institution.  For about 94 years the skull sat in storage in the Smithsonian’s Anthropology department.  In 1990, the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act became law.  The act required any institutions that accepted federal funding to return Native American cultural items, including remains, to their appropriate tribes.  In adherence to this law, the Smithsonian began the process of going through their collections.  In 1993, a government anthropologist named Stuart Speaker, who had once worked at Ford’s Theatre, discovered Lewis Powell’s skull among a collection of Native American remains.  Assassination researchers Michael Kauffman, Betty Ownsbey, and James O. Hall were brought in to help identify the skull:

Authors Michael Kauffman and Betty Ownsbey with Lewis Powell's skull

Authors Michael Kauffman and Betty Ownsbey with Lewis Powell’s skull

On November 11, 1994, one hundred and twenty-nine years after his death, a part of Lewis Powell was finally buried by his living relatives.  His skull rests today at Geneva Cemetery in Geneva, FL, next to the grave of his mother.

Relics of a Martyr

If you were to take a  visit to the National Museum of Health and Medicine today, you would come across an exhibit case entitled, Lincoln’s Last Hours.

NMHM Lincoln's Last Hours exhibit

This exhibit contains several artifacts relating to the death and autopsy of President Lincoln.  The items on display include the Nélaton probe used on the dying president to trace the path and depth of his wound, a snippet of his hair taken at his deathbed, fragments of his skull taken at his autopsy, a shirt cuffed stained with Lincoln’s blood, and  the bullet that ended his life.  The exhibit case also contains a plate that was given to Surgeon General Barnes by William Seward as a thank you for tending to his wounds at the hands of Lewis Powell.  Here is a slideshow of the artifacts on display:

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Most of these Lincoln relics did not come into the collection of the medical museum until around WWII. Prior to that, the pieces were held by the War Department as the bullet which killed the president had actually been an exhibit at the trial of the conspirators in 1865. In 1940 the bullet, skull fragments, and probe were transferred from the Judge Advocate General’s office to the newly created “Lincoln Museum”. This museum was housed inside of Ford’s Theatre and contained Osborn Oldroyd’s collection of Lincolniana. While the Lincoln Museum kept most of the items given to them by the JAG office (including the murder weapon), they decided against retaining these, almost literal, blood relics of Abraham Lincoln. They were transferred from Ford’s to the Army Medical Museum. Further research is needed to determine exactly when they entered the collection but it is likely that, for the briefest of time, these pieces of Abraham Lincoln were housed at Ford’s Theatre.


The National Museum of Health and Medicine is a modern treasure that tells the story of America’s medical past, present, and future. If you get a chance, visit the NMHM.  They are a free museum open every single day (except Christmas) from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm. During its lifetime, the museum has crossed paths with the Lincoln assassination story several times.  It was the first museum to be housed inside of Ford’s Theatre, it reunited a piece of the assassin with one of his conspirators at the scene of the crime, and, today, it displays relics of our 16th President.

National Museum of Health and Medicine History
A Repository for Bottled Monsters
NMHM’s Flicker page
Ten Years in Washington: Life and Scenes in the National Capital as a Woman Sees Them by Mary Clemmer Ames
Alias “Paine”: Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy by Betty Ownsbey
And Now – The Rest of the Story: The Search for the Rest of the Remains of Lewis “Paine” Powell” by Betty Ownsbey, Surratt Courier, Oct. 2012
Army Medical Museum Collection, Anatomical Section IV Logbook (MM 8759-3)
The Lincoln Assassination: Where are They Now? A Guide to the Burial Places of Individuals Connected to the Lincoln Assassination in Washington, D.C. by Jim Garrett and Richard Smyth

A very special thanks to Betty Ownsbey for talking me through the saga of Lewis Powell’s burials and for providing the pictures of his skull.

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18 thoughts on “The National Museum of Health and Medicine and the Lincoln Assassination

  1. Rich smyth

    Dave, excellent story! Betty, the photograph of you holding Powell’s skull is as close to history as you can come without living it.

    • Rich, when Betty sent me that picture I instantly emailed her back telling her how cool I thought it was. You sum up my views perfectly.

      • Thanks! Yes, I realize what a fragile experience that was….how often does a biographer get to “meet” face to face her subject – especially after he’s been deceased for the past (then) 127 years?

  2. Heath

    Dave, is there any story behind the fractures of the face on Powell’s skull? One would think that would have have been a result of the hanging.

    • Heath,

      I’m hoping Betty might know something about the fractures but I don’t think they would have been the result of the hanging. My guess is that they are post mortem injuries from Powell’s numerous disinterments and handling.

      • I, too asked bout those holes and fractures. Two possible answers – the anthropologist, Stuart Speaker, told me when I asked about them that that they were more than likely the possible result of repeated sinus infections. I also asked Blaine Houmes about these. He stated that it could indicate fragile bone from sinus infections, but it was more than like also more probable that somehow, at some time that Powell’s skull was dropped and that resulted in the fractures.

        Mr. Speaker at the time told us about certain marks on the back and underside of the skull which were more than likely the result of the hanging.

  3. Jim Jett

    excellent dave! my 4th grade elementary class took a field trip there in 1964. it scared the c@#p out of all of us.

  4. Laurie Verge

    The medical museum of yore was much more intriguing and scary than what it has become. To use a medical term, the new one is so “antiseptic” that it is not interesting. When I first went, the collection was housed in a WWII temporary on the grounds of the Smithsonian. It was literally stuffed to the ceilings with everything unusual and bizarre. We loved every minute of the tour.

  5. Pingback: John Wilkes Booth’s Vertebrae | BoothieBarn

  6. Pingback: Graves of the Conspirators | BoothieBarn

  7. Pingback: Photos from the Archives: John Wilkes Booth Comes Back to Ford’s Theatre | FORD'S THEATRE | BLOG

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  9. Paul Fisher

    Hello all,

    I have an explanation for the so-called fractures and holes seen on Powell’s skull. The holes below the orbits are called the infraorbital foramina, though which pass the infraorbital nerve and blood vessels. The hole in the forehead is most likely, as Dave stated, from repeated disinterments. The fracture lines are not really fractures at all, but rather are the points where two bones meet known as sutures. The lines below the orbits are where the zygomatic and maxillary bones meet. Likewise the lines between the orbits are where the maxillary, nasal, and frontal bones meet. In a fresh skull, these sutures are filled with fibrous connective tissue that spans the minute space between the bones. In a desiccated skull such as Powell’s, that tissue is no longer present. This can have the effect of making the sutures appear more pronounced. It’s quite possible that the suture lines could have been widened if the skull had been handled without care. Another point to note is the missing maxillary teeth. Judging by the pictures that we have of Powell, I think it’s safe to assume that he still had most of his upper teeth at the time of his execution. The teeth were likely lost post-mortem as a result of the loss of the periodontal ligament that serves to hold the teeth within the jawbones during life. I think that the best evidence of injury due to hanging would be from the cervical vertebrae as well as the hyoid bone, which are very often fractured in case of hanging/strangulation. Unfortunately, I don’t think that we will be seeing those any time soon! Well, there you have my two cents. Don’t spend it all in one place!

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  11. Paul

    Im curious to know if the hangings of the 4 conspirators would be considered a short drop or a long drop. They didnt fall as far as their body height. The heads were still above the level of the trap door (floor) they stood on. If considered a short drop then a broken neck was not the consideration but rather slow strangulation. And that could be the reason they were left hanging for 25 minutes.

  12. Pingback: The Execution and Burial of Lewis Powell |

  13. Pingback: Lewis Powell’s Life in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida |

  14. Pingback: Lincoln Assassination Ephemera |

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