John Wilkes Booth’s Vertebrae

Not long ago, I visited the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.  I wrote a post for this site which highlighted the connection between the museum (which at one time was called the Army Medical Museum and housed inside of Ford’s Theatre) and the assassination story, including the assassination related artifacts contained in the museum.  You can read that article by clicking HERE.  There were a couple of items that I was very interested in seeing, but they were not on display during my initial visit.  I made a return trip to the NMHM, having secured a research appointment to see some artifacts in storage there.  The artifacts I saw consisted of John Wilkes Booth’s third, fourth, and fifth cervical vertebrae, along with a piece of his spinal cord and tissue:

John Wilkes Booth Vertebrae and Spinal Cord

John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae 5

John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae 3

John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae 2

John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae 4

John Wilkes Booth's Spinal Cord 1

John Wilkes Booth's Spinal Cord 2

These pieces were removed from John Wilkes Booth during his autopsy aboard the USS Montauk.  The autopsy was preformed by Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes and Dr. Janiver Woodward on April 27.  Two days later, on April 29, Dr. Barnes donated these pieces of Booth to the Army Medical Museum.  Here is some paperwork that went along with them:

Booth vertebrae paperwork

Description of Booth's Vertebrae

For convenience, here’s a transcript of the autopsy report written by Surgeon General Barnes.  The original is in the National Archives.

“Surgeon General’s Office
Washington City, D.C.
April 27th, 1865
Hon: E.M. Stanton
Secretary of War

I have the honor to report that in compliance with your orders, assisted by Dr. Woodward, USA, I made at 2 pm this day, a postmortem examination of the body of J. Wilkes Booth, lying on board the Monitor Montauk off the Navy Yard.

The left leg and foot were encased in an appliance of splints and bandages, upon the removal of which, a fracture of the fibula (small bone of the leg) 3 inches above the ankle joint, accompanied by considerable ecchymosis, was discovered.

The cause of death was a gun shot wound in the neck – the ball entering just behind the sterno-cleido muscle – 2-1/2 inches above the clavicle – passing through the bony bridge of fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae – severing the spinal chord and passing out through the body of the sterno-cleido of the right side, 3 inches above the clavicle.

Paralysis of the entire body was immediate, and all the horrors of consciousness of suffering and death must have been present to the assassin during the two hours he lingered.

Very respectfully
Your obt servt.
J. K. Barnes
Surgeon General”

Those with medical expertise might have noticed that Booth’s vertebrae don’t look quite right. That is because, at some point after the 1950’s or so, the specimen broke. A piece of the fourth cervical vertebra broke off and it is likely that even when it was improperly repaired, a piece was still missing.

John Wilkes Booth's broken vetebrae

Here are two other pictures, one which shows the vertebrae before the break occurred and how it appears today for comparison.  Unfortunately, the angles are not the same between the two pictures:

John Wilkes Booth Vertebrae pre-break

John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae 1

While the National Museum of Health and Medicine expertly safeguards the artifact in order to prevent any future damage, there are those who are determined to destroy it further.  The advocates of this are the misguided escape theorists who believe that John Wilkes Booth did not die on April 26, 1865 and, instead, believe an impractical conspiracy was expertly enacted by “the government”.  Most of them have fallen for Finis Bates’ book and mummy sideshow which, while interesting in their own rights, are easily disproved.  Still, certain forces continually seek to gain approval from the NMHM to “sample” (i.e. drill a piece out of) the vertebrae in an attempt to extract DNA from it.  From there they hope to commit an even bigger moral crime  by exhuming the body of Edwin Booth, the greatest actor of the 19th century, in order to get a sample from him to compare the two.  To me, the proposed exhumation of Edwin, a man who suffered immense tragedy due to his brother’s crime and for the rest of his days was plagued with guilt and melancholy, is nothing short of morally reprehensible.  Desecrating the final resting place of the greatest Hamlet of all time just to appease those who refuse to acknowledge the mountain of evidence against them, is even worse than the destruction of this priceless artifact.  Even so, vertebrae are not good candidates for DNA extraction due to the type of bone desired for such an analysis.  In order to get a viable DNA sample, one cannot simply chip off a small piece from the side, but, instead, would need to drill into the thickest part of the vertebrae a good distance, causing severe damage to the specimen.  Luckily the National Museum for Health and Medicine understands this fully and continues to refuse any proposals that would place this artifact at risk, even when the escape theorists try to get their congressmen involved.  One of the more recent attempts occurred last year and was covered by newspapers and online articles which tricked unknowing individuals into thinking the case had merit.  Did people claim to have seen, or even been, John Wilkes Booth after his death in April of 1865? Of course, but people have also claimed to have seen (or been) Louis XVII, Elvis and even Adolf Hitler long after their deaths.  The John Wilkes Booth escape theory is an interesting sidebar, a form of pseudo-history as it were, that can be studied and enjoyed as the fanciful story it is.  However, when people actually start believing this pseudo-history and attempt to desecrate the grave of an innocent man or destroy a one-of-a-kind artifact in our nation’s museums, they are not to be humored any longer.

According to the National Museum of Health and Medicine they are not expecting to put the Booth items on display any time in the near future.  They remain in storage, in a drawer close to the near complete skeleton (and brain) of Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield:

Charles Guiteau's skeleton NMHM

Charles Guiteau's brain NMHM

National Museum of Health and Medicine
The Body in the Barn: The Controversy Over the Death of John Wilkes Booth by the Surratt Society 

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14 thoughts on “John Wilkes Booth’s Vertebrae

  1. John C. Fazio


    Nice work, as always. I observe that you do nothing by halves. I agree with your sentiments re the outliers (not to say outliars). There is still the question of who shot him. I favor Boston Corbett, but those who favor suicide have an argument. The great likelihood, it seems to me, is that Corbett shot him, but that he would have shot himself in a matter of seconds later if Corbett hadn’t deferred to Providence. He had said many times that he would not be taken alive (“…he will bullet himself first”), and for good reason; he obviously did not want to be put in a postion where he would have to reveal who his handlers and paymasters were, perhaps under torture. Many surely breathed a sigh of relief when they heard he was no longer among the lving, which is why the grunts and the hatchet men went to the gallows and the Dry Tortugas while the masterminds walked. When has it ever been otherwise?


    • While the possibility exists that Booth could have shot himself, though the location seems oddly chosen and angled in an inconvenient way, I also believe Boston Corbett was in earnest when he admired to firing the shot. If I recall correctly one of the leaders of the detachment checked his pistol and saw that, indeed, a round had been fired. It’s safe to say that Corbett was the “avenger” of President Lincoln.

      Of course, you and I have far different interpretations into the scope of Booth’s conspiracy and those involved. While I believe Booth may have flirted with those in the Confederacy and received perhaps some assistance with the abduction plot, the hard evidence points to the assassination being of his own design.

  2. Laurie Verge

    Thank you, Dave, for taking a hard stand here on the side of historical fact in denouncing the attempts to disprove that Booth died on the Garretts’ porch. I recently had to recite many of those facts to a visitor at Surratt House who was adamant that Booth escaped. When push came to shove, his only source was that wretched movie, The Lincoln Conspiracy, which later became a book.

    It does get frustrating at times…

  3. Rich smyth

    Great post Dave! You were lucky enough to view history. Even if they are now specimens. Thanks!

  4. John C. Fazio


    In the same way that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to historical error is paved with “hard evidence”, so, respectfully, please be careful of the same. My book has been accepted for publication. The theme throughout is the conspiracy to decapitate the Federal Government, with one chapter of 90+ pages devoted exclusively to the subject. I believe you will be convinced, when you have read it, that the simple conspiracy theory is nonsense, that the highest levels of the Confederate Government were complicit (there was nothing else left to them) and that there never was a kidnapping plot, that such a plot was a gigantic ruse to conceal the plot to decapitate. Thomas Harris, the Commissioner, and John Bingham, the Judge Advocate, came to the same conclusion: the first in his book and the second in his summation to the Commission. The “Johnston” letter and the “T.I.O.S.” letter practically make the case by themselves. If Booth were REALLY intent on kidnapping Lincoln, why did he urge Powell, on three well-documented occasions, to murder him?

    Stay tuned.


  5. Pingback: The National Museum of Health and Medicine and the Lincoln Assassination | BoothieBarn

  6. Pingback: Photos from the Archives: John Wilkes Booth Comes Back to Ford’s Theatre | BoothieBarn

  7. Interesting except for one small detail among the theories out there and there are many one in particular (Nat Orlowek) has convinced the Smithsonian, the academia world, and others to support the test.

    • Mr. Orlowek would like his followers to believe he has convinced institutions to approve DNA testing, but this is not true. Mr. Orlowek has no credible evidence to support his crusade. Everything the escape theorists expose can be easily disproved with evidence and common sense.

  8. jet jett

    there is NO good reason for us not to perform the dna test. knowing the truth about booth and his death is the ONLY thing of importance. using the weak argument that “proposed exhumation of Edwin, is nothing short of morally reprehensible.” is of no significance compared to knowing the truth about one histories most notorious figures. worrying about “severe damage to the specimen;” that was already accomplished when the specimen was carelessly broken and glued back on incorrectly by someone of zero knowledge of human anatomy. so instead of holding on dearly, to something that is POSSIBLY not what it seems, it’s foolish to languish in ignorance. accurate history is at stake. we have the benefit of technology for a reason.

    • Laurie Verge

      I just have to ask if you have seriously studied all the facts as to how Booth was identified as he lay dying as well as identifications done while his body was on the monitor off the Washington Navy Yard and then in 1869, when his remains were returned to the Booth family for reinterment in Green Mount Cemetery? Have you also read the multitude of pages resulting from the court case in Baltimore in the early-1990s?

  9. Paul T Fisher

    I’m absolutely befuddled as as to why the broken piece of the vertebrae was not placed back into the proper position. Any anatomist or anthropologist, of which the museum should have access to many, would be able to piece it back together. Details, people. Details. And, to throw my weight to the above comments regarding Booth’s “escape”, John Wilkes Booth died on Richard Garrett’s porch on the morning of April 26, 1865. Too many positive identifications to be mistaken as to his identity.

  10. Bruce MacMaster, Jr

    There are actions one will regret forever, others
    That one will be glad just as long for having taken
    One of the latter was my signing for LINCOLNCONSPIRATORS.COM
    Thanks for all you do!

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