News

Vanished: John Wilkes Booth

Last year I was contacted by a couple of podcasters named Jen Taylor and Chris Williamson who asked me if I would like to appear on their show, Vanished. The podcast originated as a deep dive into the mystery behind Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in 1937 and the many different theories about what happened to her and Fred Noonan. The entire season on Earhart was widely praised and the pair were specifically complemented on their unique format. Not only do Jen and Chris present the evidence on the different theories proposed by their guests, but they then take it to court, with each host advocating for a specific side. Jen is an actual defense attorney and this allows the pair to put these theories to the test and try them in a court of their own making. While looking for different cases to pursue for their second season, Chris stumbled across the John Wilkes Booth escape theory which posits that another man was killed at the Garrett farm on April 26, 1865. The pair then went about looking for guests who would like to talk in favor of and against this theory in order to put it to the test.

At first, I was reluctant to agree to be on a podcast about the “Booth” mummy. Those of you who keep up with the different TV documentaries that have aired in recent years about the Lincoln assassination know that the escape theory has been played to death. Practically every show covers this topic, with many being based solely around it. As a person who studies this history, this is very frustrating for me because pretty much all of those TV shows portray the escape theory as credible when all the evidence I know says the complete opposite.

I mean…seriously…don’t get me started

Despite my hesitation to take part in this podcast however, in the end I found myself swayed by the format Jen and Chris use. Unlike a 45 minute docudrama on the “History” channel, Jen and Chris really wanted to get into the nitty gritty and explore the reliability of the evidence. I found this very refreshing and really the best way to present a theory such as this one. So, I signed on to discuss the true history (as close as we can ascertain it) with Jen, the talented lawyer, on my side.

I have to say that I had so much fun being on Vanished. I recorded multiple hours with Jen as we first explored the story of Booth’s escape and death and then addressed the problems with the escape theorists’ evidence. Vanished is a long form podcast and several of the Booth episodes are multiple hours long. I would definitely encourage you to start at the beginning and hear the evidence from all of the guests, but I also understand that it is a time commitment, especially if you are new to podcasts. However, if you are interested and willing to sit through at least one 4-hour episode (and remember you can absolutely start and stop it to digest it in parts), I wanted to really highlight the “trial episode” of the series which just dropped. In it you will hear Chris interview Nate Orlowek, who has been championing the Finis Bates / John St. Helen / David E. George theory for almost 50 years. Then you will hear Jen cross examine Nate and his evidence. Then I make my second appearance on the show where I discuss the problems with the escape theorists’ evidence. This episode also includes an interview with Mark Zaid, the attorney who represented Nate Orlowek during the Booth exhumation hearing that occurred in the 1990s. It’s a jam packed episode and includes both Chris and Jen’s closing arguments. In my mind, if you can only listen to one episode, this is the one to tune in for:

Click this image to listen to Vanished: John Wilkes Booth episode 4 “Trial by Jury”

That being said, the prior episodes are also very good with one of them featuring my original appearance where I discuss the escape of Booth and his death at the Garrett farm. Kate Clifford Larson, author of The Assassin’s Accomplice is featured on another of the episodes and, in my opinion, really steals the show with her knowledge on Mary Surratt. I really recommend you give the whole series a listen. I think, taken together, it really demonstrates the different ways people think about and conduct historical research. Even when I listened to the folks I vehemently disagreed with, it helped me understand why they believe what they believe.

If you like this series of Vanished, definitely check out the other cases they have done and subscribe so you can follow along with the next one. They are planning episodes in the near future on hijacker D. B. Cooper and dreaded pirate Henry Every. You can access the show online or through any normal podcast provider like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, etc.

Also if you want to hear more from Jen doing her defense attorney thing, I highly recommend her standalone podcast, In Defense of Liberty. Jen takes historic court cases and explains how they contributed to criminal law in America. She is really good at taking complex legal ideas and presenting them to everyday folks in a compelling way. I’ve learned a lot from Jen through our discussions and have been fascinated by each episode of In Defense of Liberty I have listened to. Definitely give her a follow.

I’d like to thank Jen and Chris for having me on their show. While I’ve done other podcasts before, I really appreciated how deep they were willing to go in this case. It really wasn’t something I’d ever seen done before.

So, now it’s your turn to go tune in and listen to the evidence being presented. Did John Wilkes Booth really escape justice in 1865 and live out his life in Texas and Oklahoma before ending it all and being turned into a mummy? What is the evidence that the escape theorists have for their beliefs? And how do people like myself evaluate and assess what they bring to the table? Check out Vanished it get the fullest accounting that has ever been told about one of the strangest tales in the Lincoln assassination story.

Categories: History, News | Tags: , , , , , | 13 Comments

The Assassin’s Doctor is Free Today!

I am a big fan of the work of author Robert Summers. Bob is a great-grandchild of Dr. Samuel Mudd and has done an extraordinary amount of research on his ancestor. He takes an honest approach relating Dr. Mudd’s connections to John Wilkes Booth’s plot to kidnap Lincoln and his subsequent assistance to the assassin on the run. Bob has released several books on specific aspects of Dr. Mudd’s life, but his magnum opus is his book, The Assassin’s Doctor: The Life and Letters of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. The book is not only a biography of Dr. Mudd, but also a valuable collection of primary sources about Dr. Mudd. I have a paperback copy of The Assassin’s Doctor and it weighs in at over 700 pages! It’s a priceless part of my library and I am constantly referring to it when I research and write about Dr. Mudd.

While I, of course, encourage you all to purchase Bob Summers’ wonderful physical book, for today only (12/5) you can get the ebook version of this book for FREE! Amazon is selling its Kindle ebook version of The Assassin’s Doctor for a whopping $0. It’s the same content of Bob’s 700+ page book, sent directly to your phone, tablet, or computer…for free! Please take advantage of this amazing offer by clicking here or on the picture below.

Even if you don’t have an Amazon Kindle (I don’t), you can still get this book. All you will have to do is install the free Kindle app on your smartphone or tablet. After that you can download the free ebook version of The Assassin’s Doctor from Amazon and read it right in the app. The ebook version has the added benefit of being completely searchable. It’s better than a traditional index!

As stated, this deal is only good for today, Saturday, December 5, 2020. If you are reading this after 12/5, I encourage you to still pick up Robert Summers book. It’s a great resource and worth far more than the regular list price.

Happy reading!

Dave

Categories: History, News | Tags: | 10 Comments

The Trial Today: Epilogue

If you have followed along during these last two months as the Trial of the Lincoln Conspirators project was published day by day, I would like to congratulate you! You have essentially reenacted and relived the same experience of those who lived through May and June of 1865. During those two months, the whole country was transfixed by the daily newspaper updates regarding the trial of the Lincoln conspirators. By coming to this site and reading the testimonies and arguments from each day, you have shared in that experience.

But this project was much more than just a reading of the trial transcript. It contextualized and clarified the different testimonies explaining how they related to each conspirator. This project brought in the diaries, articles, memoirs, and recollections of those who had actually been present in the room where it happened. Taken altogether, you now have a better understanding of the trial of the Lincoln conspirators than practically anyone from 1865, save for those select few who took part in the proceedings.

I hope you all have enjoyed this chronological exploration into the trial of the Lincoln conspirators and feel that the investment of time has been worthwhile. As I noted when I introduced this project, my goal was to make the trial of the conspirators more accessible and understandable to everyone (including myself). It’s a key part of understanding the complexity of Lincoln’s death, but is too often overlooked because of its own intimidating complexity.

The old proverb asks the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” with the answer being, “One bite at a time.” According to a trial statistics sheet found in the collection of commission member Lew Wallace, the testimony in the trial constituted 4,300 handwritten pages, “making a solid file of [manuscript] somewhat over 26 inches high”. In addition to the testimony, the pages of arguments in the case numbered 700, putting the whole trial at around 5,000 handwritten pages. William Edwards’ ebook version of the trial transcript which I utilized and summarized for this project clocks in at over 1,400 pages. Finally, the text alone for the project on this site is equivalent to over 300 pages. If you’ve read through all of the pages in this trial project you have, metaphorically, eaten an over 300 page elephant, one bite at a time.

While the daily updates regarding the conspiracy trial will now cease, I still have a few more posts scheduled for the future in order to make the project even more user friendly and accessible. I have gone through and created an index for each conspirator. These indexes provide descriptions and links to all of the testimony relating to that specific conspirator. In this way, those who are interested in looking only at the testimony concerning Dr. Mudd, for instance, can go to the standalone Dr. Mudd Testimony page which will give them links to all the applicable testimony concerning him. Specific conspirator index pages will be released sequentially in the coming weeks so stay tuned for that.

As I stated in the beginning, I have been working on this project for over two years – reading, researching, collecting, summarizing, writing and assembling. I have been told numerous times in the comments and elsewhere that I should publish this as a book. However, I feel that this project, as envisioned, would not work as a book. What makes this project valuable as an online feature is how so much of the testimony can be hyperlinked in order to provide readers access to the original transcripts and documents with ease. The project also links to previous testimony and outside resources and references. In my mind, a traditional book would fail to provide the interactivity that makes this project unique. Not to mention that if this project was turned into a book, at over 300 pages long, it would likely appear just as daunting and inaccessible to the general public as the original trial transcripts. I designed this project to be a helpful guide for students of the Lincoln assassination and would rather it be widely accessible to all on the internet rather than in the hands of only the select few who would want to purchase it in book form.

With that being said, I am still very proud of this project which was, in my eyes, the equivalent of writing a book. I appreciate all of the kind words that you have left for me in the comments and in emails over the past two months. If you really enjoyed this project and want to help support me in future research on this site, I would like to ever so shamelessly direct you to the new Donation button I have put up here on LincolnConspirators.com. The button can be found at the end of this paragraph as well as on the side menu (bottom menu for mobile users). As is obvious from my real world job as an elementary school teacher, I don’t do any of this for the money. Still, I know the content that I create for this site is informative and valuable. If you have the desire and the financial means to help me continue to research, learn, and share, I would be truly grateful. I can’t promise another big, book-sized research project anytime soon as I still have another year to go in my Master’s program, but I’m constantly looking for new information which I share here and on my Twitter account. Even small donations add up and help me in the purchasing of books, articles, and the annual renewals of expensive research subscription sites like Ancestry, Fold3, GenealogyBank, Newspapers.com, and others. Your donations will also help to pay for the upkeep of this site to ensure that LincolnConspirators.com will continue for years to come.

I truly hope you have enjoyed learning about the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Remember that the entire project will always be accessible by clicking on “The Trial” on the top menu or by visiting www.LincolnConspirators.com/the-trial. Thank you again for all of your support.

Sincerely,

Dave Taylor

Categories: History, News | Tags: | 23 Comments

BoothieBarn is now LincolnConspirators.com!

I’m very happy to share this big announcement with all of you. From now on, this website has a brand new name and web address! Welcome to LincolnConspirators.com!

LincolnConspirators.com is the perfect name for the content you’ve come to expect from this website. Under LincolnConspirators.com you will continue to learn about John Wilkes Booth, Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, Mary Surratt, Dr. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, Edman Spangler, John Surratt, and the countless other people who were involved, in some way, in the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. All the materials that this site provides – from its image galleries, maps, videos, projects, posts, and pages – are still here and easily accessible under the LincolnConspirators.com domain. Links, shortcuts, and favorites you might have under the old name will continue to work for the foreseeable future and will automatically redirect you.


I’m sure many of you are curious as to why I’ve decided to change the name of the site. To be honest, I’ve been unhappy with the name BoothieBarn for a while. When I started this blog in 2012, it was just a place for me to put up little tidbits of knowledge that I had learned while researching and interacting with experts in the field of Lincoln’s assassination. Back then, there were only a couple of online sites where people who focused on studying Lincoln’s death could share information. As a subject, Lincoln’s assassination has not always been accepted as a true form of Lincoln research. In fact, the term “Boothie” originated with more traditional Lincoln scholars as a disparaging moniker towards those who wasted their time studying John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators. Many Lincoln scholars found it unfathomable, or even sacrilegious, that anyone would spend more than the bare minimum amount of time learning about the man who killed our country’s greatest president. An understandable division arose between the Lincoln scholars and those they deemed “Boothies”. As a result of this division, most of our modern understanding of John Wilkes Booth and his plots against Lincoln has actually come from the work of amateur history buffs and researchers, rather than academic Lincoln scholars. When, as a college student, I started doing my first real research into the Lincoln assassination, I was surprised to find the Lincoln assassination field was populated by a welcoming group of everyday people who were willing to share information without hesitation. There was no pretense or snobbery, only generosity. When the time came to decide on the name to give my fledging blog, I made sure to include “Boothie” as a symbol of appreciation to the group of people who taught me, supported me, and the only ones I thought would ever want to read it. The latter half of the site’s name was much less thought out. I figured John Wilkes Booth was killed in a barn and, well, I like alliteration. Hence, BoothieBarn was born.

While I still appreciate and love the community of “Boothies” who continue to support me and share so much, the truth is, we’re no longer the isolated or disparaged group we once were. In the last few years, I’ve seen interest in Lincoln’s assassination grow and grow. The support of this site and the hundreds of hits I get everyday shows me that people are coming to understand that the study of John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators are legitimate parts of Lincoln’s legacy. Among the greatest honors of my life has been to speak at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library about Booth and his conspirators. Lincoln scholars, and the general public, are increasingly understanding that learning about Booth is not at all the same as agreeing with him. John Wilkes Booth was, and will always be, one of the greatest villains in our history. He was a racist, white supremacist coward who shot an unarmed man in the back of the head. Booth is not a man to admire, look up to, or to venerate in anyway. Yet, he is still a crucial part of Lincoln’s story. The study of Lincoln’s assassination is the study of one of the darker moments in our history. But sometimes the darker parts of history can shed the most light on the past. While I seek to understand Booth and those he interacted with, I will never support or advocate for the beliefs that he, or the Confederacy that he supported, stood for.

By changing this website’s name, I’m hoping to encourage more study into this important, yet tragic part of Lincoln’s legacy. This website has grown so much more beyond a haven for me and my colleagues. I want to continue to develop this website to add more educational resources like the recent Trial of the Conspirators project. As an educator myself, I want teachers to be able to send their students here to learn more about the events and people surrounding April 14, 1865. The name BoothieBarn requires too much explanation and lacks professionalism. While I will miss the alliteration of the old name, LincolnConspirators.com perfectly defines the content this site provides.

I’ve changed a lot from from the recent college graduate who decided to start up his own niche history blog. I’ve done a lot of growing to become a more understanding, compassionate, and empathetic person. Many things have come and gone in my life and changed me in immeasurable ways. Yet even through these periods of personal growth and reflection, my interest in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln has remained constant. It’s long overdue that my website change to reflect who I am and what I want to present to the world. I am in the process of getting my Master’s in American History. Even though I know I have done a lot of good work as BoothieBarn, I want to be able to say that I am a “real” historian, a professional. I’m proud of every piece I research and write on this website, and so I want it to have a name that I can be equally proud of.

I will continue to own the old BoothieBarn domain for the foreseeable future, so all of your old links will work for the time being. If you find an old link on social media or elsewhere, it will still work and just redirect you to the same page under the LincolnConspirators.com domain. For those of you who follow me on Twitter, I have changed my Twitter handle to @LinConspirators. However, if you are currently on Twitter and following me, you will still be following me after the change.

I’ve also updated the email address connected to this site to reflect the new name. Feel free to contact me at admin@lincolnconspirators.com with any questions, comments, or concerns you may have.

I’ve been honored by the over one million of you who have read, commented, and supported my efforts. This site has grown beyond what I ever imagined. I will continue to provide the same content that you have to come to expect, now under the better and more professional name, LincolnConspirators.com.

Thank you for continuing to join me on this journey!

Sincerely,

Dave Taylor

Categories: News | Tags: , , | 26 Comments

Looking at General Grant

Tonight marks the end of the History Channel’s three part miniseries about the life of Civil War lieutenant major general turned President, Ulysses S. Grant. Being without cable, I have yet to see to the miniseries myself, but I am looking forward to viewing it in the near future. However, thanks to the power of promos and Twitter, I have already been made aware of one part of the miniseries that airs tonight and deals with Grant’s connection to Lincoln’s assassination. The miniseries describes how General and Mrs. Grant declined the Lincolns’ invitation to join them at Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865. Instead, the Grants decided to travel by train to New Jersey in order to visit with their children. The miniseries shows the following scene of the Grants riding in a carriage on their way to the train depot when a mysterious stranger stops them.

After this promo was posted on Twitter, one of my followers there, Ilka, asked me if this story of an unfriednly glance between John Wilkes Booth and Gen. Grant on April 14th was true. While I had heard of it before, I always took it to be an apocryphal account with no evidence to support it other than Mrs. Grant’s lively imagination. However, as I researched it this morning, I found that the story has more evidence going for it than I thought. What follows is a Twitter thread I wrote this morning highlighting my research into this story.

Here’s the text from Col. Porter’s reminiscences as included in the above tweet:

Here is Julia Grant’s memory of the event as included in the above tweet:

In response to my thread, fellow tweeter Darin Weeks shared his skepticism regarding the story which I fully understand.

I’m not ready to 100% declare that it happened either, but I responded to Darin that at least this story (unlike a lot of others) has evidence to back it up.

After responding to Darin, I realized that, if the story was true, it might help to explain why Booth wasn’t better armed when he assassinated the President at Ford’s later that night.

In the end, we’ll never truly be sure that John Wilkes Booth was the man who gave Gen. and Mrs. Grant such an unfriendly glance on the afternoon of April 14th, but evidence shows that it could have been!

Categories: History, News | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

Prelude to a Project

Over two years ago, I came up with an idea for a project. I wanted to expand my knowledge of the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. While I was very familiar with the outcome of the trial and the big revelations that the different testimonies brought to light, my knowledge of the trial, as an event, had been lacking. The trial was such a large and inaccessible part of the assassination story to a person without any legal background. Even with my knowledge of the history of Lincoln’s assassination, attempting to read the trial transcript, and make sense of it all, was an intimidating prospect.

The original incarnation of this project still shied away from the transcript itself with my interest being drawn to learning more about the experiences of the individual conspirators while the trial was going on. While we have practically nothing from the 8 conspirators regarding their day to day thoughts on the proceedings, the daily newspapers of the time often contained descriptions of the conspirators’ appearances and little mentions of their actions on the prisoners’ dock. The first draft of this project was little more than a list of the witnesses who testified on each date, followed by these descriptions from the newspapers.

However, as I went on, I found that I needed to provide at least some summation, if only for myself, regarding what each witness was testifying about. Some of the witnesses, especially the important ones, were easy as I was already familiar with the relevance of their words. However the trial consisted of 347 unique witnesses and most of them gave testimony that is only comprehensible if you know the testimonies that preceded it.

With this in mind, the project expanded. I started reading the trial transcript, word for word. I am greatly indebted to the work of author William Edwards, who published the most detailed and accurate version of the trial transcript that exists. At over 1400 pages in length, I knew the task ahead of me was going to be long but I wanted to create a more interactive and, most importantly, accessible version of the trial. I took on the role of Benn Pitman, the court’s chief recorder who later published a one volume transcript of the trial using summarized testimonies. I wanted to do the same as Pitman but update it using the technology available to us. Over time, what started as a cheat sheet for myself, became an interactive resource for understanding and referencing the trial of the conspirators.

The end project, as you will soon see, consists of a day by day chronology of the trial of the Lincoln conspirators. For each day of the trial, I have documented the proceedings, summarized the testimony of each witness, and included the descriptions and recollections of the individuals who took part in or visited the trial on each day. I have painstakingly researched the 347 witnesses, rectifying misspelled names from the transcript and doing my best to find visuals that represent them and their lives. I have been assisted in this by many of my friends and colleagues whose names appear in the acknowledgement section at the bottom of the trial home page.

Each day of the trial exists as its own page here on LincolnConspirators.com and they will be released on their corresponding anniversary here in 2020. In this way you will be able to experience the trial, day by day, in the same way those in 1865 did. This post was published on May 1, 2020 and so the page for May 1, 1865 is now available to read. It contains the announcement that, 155 years ago today, President Andrew Johnson released the orders to create a military commission to try the Lincoln assassination conspirators. The decision to try the conspirators in a military court rather than a civilian trial was, and continues to be, a controversial decision with many arguments to be made about its constitutionality. However, my purpose in this project is not to debate the legality of the trial. I am more concerned about the testimony that was given at the trial and the ramifications it had on the conspirators.

Using my own limited computer abilities, I have worked to make this project as interactive as possible. Starting with May 9th, the day in which the proceedings of the trial actually began, each individual page contains a Table of Contents at the top. Using this you can click to jump down to a specific witness or conspirator. Clicking entries on the Table of Contents will also provide you with direct links to those places in the page, making it helpful if you want bookmark or share a specific testimony rather than the whole page. When reading my summarized version of a witness’s testimony, the full name of the witness is always hyperlinked. Clicking on their name will take you to their full testimony in the historical transcripts so that you can read them for yourself. In addition, when witnesses are recalled or make direct reference to the prior testimony of others, I have included hyperlinks to the corresponding testimony in question. In this way you can quickly review and/or cross reference the sometimes contrary statements being made.

A sample Table of Contents for a day of the trial.

At the beginning of the trial, the court was held in closed session. Public and private uproar over the secrecy of the court caused the doors to be opened up to outside press and visitors starting on May 13th. Starting on this date, the Table of Contents grows to include the newspaper descriptions of the conspirators and known visitors to the court room. As the trial goes on and interest in the individual conspirators’ appearances wanes, there are less descriptions available. Near the latter part of the trial an attempt has been made to supplement these areas with general descriptions of the conspirators from undated sources.

For each day of the trial, I will be publishing a corresponding post here on LincolnConspirators.com containing a teaser of what occurred on this date 155 years ago. The posts will also contain a link to newly released trial page. I apologize in advance for blowing up your inbox with nearly daily posts for the next two months. The home page for the trial project, which contains links to the individual days, will always be accessible and available, though the links will not work until that specific day has arrived. By the end of June 2020 every day of the trial project will be accessible and will remain so.

I’m very much looking forward to sharing with you this project that has occupied too much of my time over the past two years. My hope is that this project will be a helpful resource for all who seek to learn more about the trial of the conspirators.

So, while we are still about a week away before the trial of the Lincoln conspirators officially began, I invite you to visit the Home Page of the project and take a look at the Witness List for the days to come. If you’re so inclined you can even take a look at the project’s Bibliography and read through the Introduction (which is pretty much just this post again).

In the end, I hope you will come back as regularly as you can during May and June to see how the conspiracy trial plays out, day by day.

Sincerely,

Dave Taylor

Categories: History, News | Tags: | 70 Comments

2020 Surratt Conference Cancelled

Following the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control to limit group gatherings, the Surratt House Museum has decide to cancel this year’s Surratt Society Lincoln Assassination Conference. The conference was originally scheduled for April 3 – 5, 2020, but is now cancelled in order to lessen the spread and impact of COVID-19 (coronavirus).

I was scheduled to speak at this year’s conference on the imprisonment of Dr. Mudd and the other conspirators at Fort Jefferson. As disappointing as the cancellation is, I wholeheartedly agree with the Surratt Society’s decision to put the welfare of its attendees first.

Those who have already registered and paid for the conference will receive a refund of their registration fees, as well as the fees for the Friday and Sunday bus tours if applicable. The Surratt House Museum will be sending out more information in the following weeks about the refund process. You can also contact them directly with any questions. Their phone number is (301) 868-1121.

The decision to cancel the conference was not an easy one, but was done in solidarity with the hundreds of other historical institutions and organizations who are canceling events in order to decrease the spread of this virus. As an annual conference, the Surratt Society looks forward to 2021 when we may all, once again, come together to share in our love of history.

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An Update Regarding John Wilkes Booth’s Knife

Back in December, I put up a post here on BoothieBarn which contained my research on the knife John Wilkes Booth used to stab Major Rathbone following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. By consulting the period evidence that came out during the trial of the conspirators, it is my firm belief that Ford’s Theatre has been displaying the incorrect knife for years and that the correct knife is locked away at the NPS storage facility in Landover, MD.

If you haven’t read the piece, please take a few minutes to read the article and look at the evidence for yourself: https://boothiebarn.com/2018/12/31/cloak-and-daggers-cutting-through-the-confusion-of-the-assassination-knives/

The post itself was actually just a reprint of my original article on the subject which had been published in the Surratt Courier in March of 2012. Since that time, I have been trying to get Ford’s Theatre to acknowledge their unintentional error. In 2012 I sent the article to the National Park Service rangers at Ford’s and to representatives of the Ford’s Theatre Society. While I had a few individuals tell me that they found the evidence compelling, none felt they had the authority to make any changes. And so, for the past seven years, each time I take a group or a bus tour to Ford’s Theatre I am compelled to point out to the group that they should disregard the knife on display. When asked why Ford’s Theatre doesn’t make an effort to correct their mistake, I can only shrug my shoulders in reply.

Recently, however, there has actually been some progress regarding John Wilkes Booth’s knife. The Ford’s Theatre Society and the National Park Service felt motivated to do their own investigating and last month they published an article on their blog regarding their exploration into the knives. I highly recommend you read their post before continuing with this one: https://www.fords.org/blog/post/which-knife-did-john-wilkes-booth-use-disentangling-the-lincoln-assassination-knives/

By looking at their accession and cataloging records the Ford’s Theatre team discovered what those of us who study some of these artifacts already knew – their records are incomplete and, at times, incorrect. Remember that after the trials of the conspirators, John Surratt, and the impeachment proceedings against President Johnson, the pieces of evidence (like the knives) were locked away in the Judge Advocate General’s office. They stayed in the possession of the JAG for over 70 years but there was a distinct lack of orderly care and documentation of those artifacts. The items were regularly removed from their boxes in the JAG and shown off to visitors and reporters. When moths were discovered infesting some of the trial exhibits, the JAG carted the clothing of the assassins into a courtyard and burned it. Some pieces, such as Booth’s diamond stick pin, just mysteriously disappeared from the collection. The JAG was simply not a good steward of the trial exhibits. When the artifacts were finally turned over to The Lincoln Museum (Ford’s) in 1940, the people in the JAG didn’t really know what they had anymore. They wrote up a list which was filled with inaccuracies and that is what Ford’s has had to rely on for many years. Ford’s inherited messy records and a faulty catalog through no fault of their own.

My research, however, doesn’t rely on those faulty records. I drew my conclusions based on the period evidence of 1865 and 1867 which describes the knife Booth used on Major Rathbone. Those descriptions clearly show that the Liberty knife on display at Ford’s Theatre is not correct. Even the two authors of Ford’s article, David McKenzie and Janet Folkerts, seem to accept that my research on this is sound:

“In his post, Taylor presents additional evidence that the knife currently on display at the Ford’s Theatre Museum, FOTH 3235 (the Liberty knife), is not the actual knife. He cites testimony of witnesses in the assassination investigation, the 1865 military tribunal and the 1867 trial of John Surratt to argue that FOTH 3218 (the Rio Grande knife) is the knife that Booth used to stab Rathbone, and not FOTH 3235 (the Liberty knife), the knife that is currently on display at the Ford’s Theatre Museum.

Between that evidence and what is in the curatorial files described above, we’re inclined to say, at the very least, that a good amount of evidence points to that conclusion.”

The Ford’s Theatre blog post addresses their messy records (which, again, is not their fault as they were originally given erroneous records regarding these artifacts) and acknowledges that the period evidence regarding the knives points to the conclusion that they have the incorrect knife on display.

And yet, the very next sentence in the post is, “But because the evidence is so messy, as Taylor notes, we aren’t prepared to make a definitive declaration.” I have a couple of problems with this sentence. First of all, as I have already stated, the evidence that is “messy” is not historical but curatorial. The accession records regarding the artifacts are inherently messy due to the manner in which they were stored for over 70 years. That is why it is so crucial to take the time to return to the historical evidence for these artifacts. While my article addresses the messy curatorial records, all of my conclusions are based on the historical records which are clear. John Wilkes Booth stabbed Major Rathbone with a Rio Grande Camp Knife that bore a small spot of rust that looked like blood on the blade.

The Liberty knife (shown below) currently on display at Ford’s Theatre does not fit that description. The Rio Grande Camp knife, known as FOTH 3218, currently in storage in the Museum Resource Center in Landover, does fit this description. While there is a bit of uncertainty regarding where the Liberty knife came from and its place in the trial exhibits, it is clear that it was not the knife Booth used to stab Rathbone.

Secondly, the claim that they, “aren’t prepared to make a definitive declaration” is, in itself, a declaration. It’s a declaration that when faced with choosing between incomplete accession and cataloging records or compelling historical evidence Ford’s Theatre will choose the former if it keeps the status quo. In the course of their post, Ford’s Theatre does not provide any historical evidence to support the Liberty knife as being the one that Booth used. Other than some newspaper accounts from the 1900s from journalists who went to see the artifacts in storage and were told inaccurate information from the clerks in the JAG office, I have never come across any historical evidence that attributes the Liberty knife to Booth. Without true historical evidence, how can Ford’s Theatre only commit that at some unspecified “future” the “on-site and online labels at Ford’s Theatre will reflect the ambiguity of the knives”? Even their claim that “Perhaps a future display could, like Taylor’s post and ours suggest, showcase both knives and lay out evidence to show our visitors how ambiguous historical evidence often is,” creates a false equivalency between Ford’s messy curatorial records and actual historical evidence from the period.

The historical evidence in support of FOTH 3218 as being the knife John Wilkes Booth used on the night of Lincoln’s assassination and as the one that was recovered from his body at the Garrett farm is not ambiguous. Messy accession and cataloging records should not supersede historical evidence at an institution committed to educating the public on the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. While John Wilkes Booth’s knife may not rise to the same level of other artifacts like Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, the weapons and possessions of the assassins tell a crucial story of Lincoln’s effect on his fellow man.

I know that the employees of the Ford’s Theatre NPS and the Ford’s Theatre Society are good people. I have worked with them on projects and on Booth tours. I follow many of them on Twitter and know that they are professionals who value education and public history. I appreciate greatly that Ford’s Theatre has chosen to address this part of their collection in such a public way. As David and Janet state in their closing line, “transparency about artifacts like these knives can lead to discussions about what makes visitor experiences in museums ‘real’ and how the history of objects and places affect us in the present day.” Ford’s is to be commended for their professionalism and their ongoing work in acknowledging the complications in their own collection. But acknowledgement without subsequent action is meaningless. It’s the “thoughts and prayers” of the museum world.

To my friends at Ford’s Theatre NPS and the Ford’s Theatre Society: The wrong artifact is on display and has been for many years. With the historical evidence solely in favor of FOTH 3218 and your cataloging records expectantly inconclusive, the correct remedy is to remove the Liberty knife from display and replace it with FOTH 3218. By doing so you will show your visitors that Ford’s Theatre is an institution that actively improves its exhibits based on sound research, is open about the history of its collection and the uncertainties that exist, and demonstrates a commitment to using historical evidence to guide your public outreach.

In September, I will be taking my next busload of guests to Ford’s Theatre for the John Wilkes Booth escape route tour. My sincerest hope is that I will finally be able to point to FOTH 3218 in the case and rave about the wonderful professionals at Ford’s Theatre who acknowledged an error in their collection and used historical evidence to rectify it. The research has been done and the error has been acknowledged. All that’s left to do now is to fix it.


For those who are interested, what follows is the fairly long series of tweets I wrote shortly after I read the Ford’s Theatre blog post in May. I have expressed much of the same sentiments in what I wrote above, but I thought I’d include my original thoughts as well.





























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