Posts Tagged With: JWB

John Wilkes Booth in the Woods: Part 8

John Wilkes Booth in the Woods

Part 8 of my series “John Wilkes Booth in the Woods” is now complete and available for viewing.

In this part I discuss Booth’s comfort and the ways he could have passed the hours of waiting.

To watch the video, you can either click on the image above and scroll down, click HERE to watch the video on YouTube, or play the embedded video below.

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St. Clement’s Island and the Forgotten Tragedy on the Potomac

A half mile from Colton’s Point, Maryland, located in the Potomac River, lies St. Clement’s Island.

St Clements island

St. Clement’s Island is the site of the first landing of European settlers in Maryland.  The landing occurred on March 25, 1634, when the 150 or so colonists aboard the ships The Ark and The Dove made landfall here having departed England four months earlier.  St. Clement’s is, essentially, Maryland’s birthplace and the anniversary of the landing, March 25, is a state holiday known as Maryland Day.

In a few days, most of the colonists would move off of St. Clement’s Island, after having negotiated with the Yaocomico Native American tribe to create a permanent settlement on the mainland.  That settlement would become St. Mary’s City, the first capital of Maryland.

During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the British captured St. Clement’s Island using it as a base for their operations.  It was known then as Blackistone Island.  The Blackistone family had inherited the island in 1669 and continued to own it until 1831. In 1848, the U.S. Congress appropriated $3,500 to build a lighthouse on the island, which was finally completed in 1851.

Blackistone lighthouse 1928 Coast Guard

The Blackistone Island Light in 1928

During the Civil War, the lighthouse became a target for the Confederacy. On the night of May 19, 1864, Confederate Captain John W. Goldsmith and his men landed on the island. It was Goldsmith’s intention to dynamite the lighthouse. The keeper of the lighthouse, Jerome McWilliams, begged the Captain not to destroy the building as his wife was pregnant and her life would be in danger if they had to go back to the mainland before the baby came. Goldsmith was a St. Mary’s county native who had crossed the Potomac to fight for the Confederacy and he knew McWilliams. In sympathy to McWilliams’ circumstances, instead of destroying the building Goldsmith destroyed the lighthouse’s lens and lamp, and took all of the oil. Union troops eventually were able to repair the light and stationed a unit of guardsmen on the island.

The aborted destruction of the lighthouse on St. Clement’s was not the only Civil War era event to happen near the island.  A largely forgotten naval incident also occurred there during the night of April 23 and 24, 1865.  This tragedy has a connection to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the search for his assassin.

The incident involves two steamer ships, the USS Massachusetts and the Black Diamond.  The Massachusetts was a steam ship built in Boston in 1860.  She was purchased by the U.S. Navy in May of 1861 and became the USS Massachusetts.  During the Civil War, the Massachusetts was involved in enforcing the blockade of Confederacy and later worked as a supply carrier between the Northern ports and the other blockading forces.

An engraving from Harper's Weekly showing the naval forces at Ship Island, Louisiana.  The Massachusetts is the ship on the far right.

An engraving from Harper’s Weekly showing the naval forces at Ship Island, Louisiana. The Massachusetts is the ship on the far right.

A close up view of the USS Massachusetts at Ship Island, Louisiana.

A close up view of the USS Massachusetts at Ship Island, Louisiana.

On April 23, 1865, the Massachusetts was assigned the task of ferrying Union troops from Alexandria to Norfolk, Virginia.  At 5 o’clock p.m., about 400 men boarded the Massachusetts at Alexandria, with one soldier recalling later that the boat was “unfit to carry more than half the number she had on board”.  The troops on board had lived through the darkest parts of the war.  There were men on the Massachusetts who had survived the deadliest day in American history at the battle of Antietam.  Many had been prisoners of war in the horrible prison camps of North Carolina and Georgia.  Too many had witnessed their comrades perish at Andersonville prison.  These men had been through the worst circumstances and had managed to survive.

As the Massachusetts steamed on one soldier remembered,  “We glided along down the river very nicely until a little after dark, when a strong wind began to blow and the river became very rough…”  They were nearing St. Clement’s Island.

The Black Diamond was an iron hull steam propeller canal boat built in 1842.  At the time of the Civil War, the Black Diamond was being chartered by the U.S. Quartermaster Department.  She regularly transported coal between Washington, D.C. and Alexandria, which was a Union occupied city.  Her crew consisted of men from the Alexandria fire department.

After the assassination of President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, the Black Diamond was assigned picket duty on the Potomac River.  Her job was to patrol the Potomac, keeping an eye out for the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, if he attempted to cross the river.  On the night of April 23, the world was unaware that Booth and his conspirator David Herold had already crossed the Potomac and were that night sleeping in the cabin of William Lucas in King George County, Virginia.  The Black Diamond lay at anchor about a mile south of St. Clement’s Island.

It was a clear night but there was no moon.  The Black Diamond was said to have had only had one light showing.  Somehow, it wasn’t seen in the darkness.  At around 10 o’clock p.m. on April 23, the Massachusetts and its 400 passengers collided with the Black Diamond and her twenty crew.

What follows is a newspaper account of the incident recalled by Corporal George Hollands in 1914.  Hollands was one of the soldiers aboard the Massachusetts who had spent time at Andersonville prison.  His account provides a vivid description of the tragedy:

“…About 10 o’clock at night, when we were all cuddled down for a night’s sleep, part on the upper deck and part below — myself and my bunkmates were stretched out on the lower deck — we heard an awful crash and felt a sudden jar. We all sprang to our feet, pulled on our coats and ran up on deck to see what the trouble was. All was confusion and excitement, as we discovered we had crashed into the side of another boat, striking her amidship.

I ran to the bow of our boat, as most of the others had done, and found her bow was settling fast. The Captain was shouting to us to go aft, so as to keep her bow out of the water as much as possible. In the meantime we were shouting to the boat we had run into — the Black Diamond — to come to our assistance. She circled around and came up alongside of us, and about 150 jumped from the Massachusetts to the deck of the Black Diamond. I was among the first to board her, and I ran immediately to the man at the wheel and asked him if the boat was all right. He said: “No; she is sinking.” I then made up my mind that we had “jumped out of the frying-pan into the fire.” I immediately turned to go toward the stern of the boat, and in going I stumbled onto a stepladder which had been torn from the hurricane deck. I grabbed up the ladder and was about to jump overboard with it — scores of the boys had already jumped overboard to avoid the suction of the boat as she went down — when all of a sudden the thought came to me that the river was not deep enough to engulf the masts and all, so I threw down the ladder, grabbed one of the guyropes and began climbing up toward the mast.

I soon landed my foot on the yard-arm and got my arms around the mast, and about that time the boat struck bottom, with her deck only about two feet under water. I found three or four of the crew among the rigging, so they evidently were of the same mind as I concerning the depth of the river.

We clung to our positions all night, and could hear the cries for help in all directions from the boys who had jumped overboard.

A drummer boy of the 16th Conn. had been washed overboard and had grasped hold of the keel of the boat, or something else, and was hanging on for dear life and calling for help. One of the crew up in the rigging got hold of a rope and time and time again threw it to where the boy was, telling him to grab for it. The boy couldn’t get hold of it. Every now and then a wave would wash over him and strangle him, and as he would emerge from it he would call for the rope. He finally became exhausted and cried out to us that he could hold out no longer. He told us his name, but I have forgotten it. [George W. Carter] He said he was a drummer of Co. D, 16th Conn., and asked us to inform his mother that he was drowned. He bade us goodby, and as the next wave washed over him he loosened his hold and sank beneath the waves.

We clung to our position until daylight, when we were discovered and picked up by a small United States gunboat or revenue cutter and transferred to our old boat, the Massachusetts, which, with one wheel out of commission and part of her bow carried away, had floated about in the vicinity during the night and picked up those she could of our comrades who had jumped overboard.

After we were safe onboard the Massachusetts made her way slowly down the river, and about 11 o’clock a.m. she sighted a large steamer lying at anchor. She steered for her and ran alongside, and we were immediately transferred to the larger boat…”

As recalled by Hollands, in the moments after the collision many aboard the Massachusetts thought that it was their ship that was going to sink.  The panicked soldiers, who had already experienced hardship and fear far beyond their years, jumped into the river with anything that would float.  Many, like Hollands, sought sanctuary on the Black Diamond.  However, the impact of the Massachusetts had struck the Black Diamond in the boiler and she quickly took on water.  It was said the Black Diamond sank in about three minutes.

In the immediate aftermath, the death toll was estimated to be about 50 people drowned.  While the newspapers of the day contained reports of the collision and the presumed number of dead, the killing of John Wilkes Booth on April 26 ensured that the focus on the crash was fleeting.  Only local Alexandria and Washington, D.C. newspapers continued to report on the accident a week after it occurred.  What they did report, however, showed the grim aftermath and growing number of dead that washed up on shore of St. Clement’s Island:

Sinking of the black diamond Evening Star 5 -1- 1865

Bodies Recovered Alexandria Gazette 5 - 6 - 1865

87 victims Alexandria Gazette 5-12-1865

Out of the eighty-seven people who died when the Massachusetts crashed into the Black Diamond, only four of them were from the Black Diamond‘s twenty person crew.  They were Peter Carroll, Christopher Farley, Samuel Gosnell, and George Huntington.  The bodies of these four men received special treatment when they were returned to their native Alexandria:

Black Diamond deaths Alexandria Gazette 5-10-1865These four men, though employed by the Quartermaster’s Department through its charter of the Black Diamond, were civilians and yet they received a high honor and were buried together in the Soldier’s Cemetery in Alexandria, now known as Alexandria National Cemetery.

Alexandria National Cemetery

One source states that President Andrew Johnson gave authorization for these civilians to be buried in the Soldier’s Cemetery, although substantiating evidence has yet to be found by this author.  In November of 1865, some of the fallen men’s comrades erected a monument to their memory in the cemetery.

Monument to Black Diamond Alexandria Gazette 11-11-1865

Over the years, this first monument to the lost crew of the Black Diamond deteriorated.  On July 7, 1922, a new granite monument with a bronze plaque was unveiled to honor the men:

Modern monument to Black Diamond victims

Black Diamond victims plaque

In the 1950’s the headstones for each of the four men were also quite deteriorated.  They were replaced around 1955 with the new ones being of the same design as those used for Union soldiers:

Black Diamond victims graves

The other victims of the Massachusetts – Black Diamond collision are buried all over the country but many of the bodies of those who drowned were never recovered.  For example, the body of George Carter, the regimental drummer who drowned after several attempts to throw him a rope, was never found.  He has a memorial cenotaph in West Suffield Cemetery in Suffield, Connecticut.  It states that he “died April 24, 1865, age 20 yrs.” and that he, “Drowned near the mouth of the Potomac River”.

Today, seasonal visitors can take a quick ferry ride to St. Clement’s Island from its museum at Colton’s Point.  The island is home to a recreated Blackistone Lighthouse (the original was destroyed by fire in 1956).  It also boasts a 40 foot tall commemorative cross which was dedicated on Maryland Day in 1934.

Many people come to the island to tour the lighthouse, go birdwatching, hike, or just relax on the beach.  Like most beaches, the sands of St. Clement’s Island are spotted with pieces of beach glass – fragments of broken glass containers that have been weathered by the wind and the waves.  During my visit yesterday, I filled my pocket with pieces of the smooth glass.  After taking the ferry back to the mainland, I drove straight to Alexandria, Virginia to see the graves of four men who lost their lives near the shore I had visited.  On each grave I placed a small piece of my St. Clement’s Island beach glass as a reunion of sorts between the men and the place where they lost their lives.

Beach glass on Black Diamond graves

If you visit St. Clement’s Island, you will not find any mention of the collision between the Massachusetts and the Black Diamond.  The story is not told on any of the historical markers on the island nor is it mentioned (or seemingly known) in its museum on the mainland.  It truly is a forgotten tragedy and its victims are more blood upon the hands of John Wilkes Booth.  Had he not assassinated President Lincoln, there would have been no need for the Black Diamond to perform picket duty off of St. Clement’s.  The men on the Massachusetts, who had already experienced the worst of war, would have steamed into Norfolk without incident.  The shot in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, killed far more than the President; it also created a ripple effect that caused eighty-seven men to lose their lives.

If you’re ever at St. Clement’s Island, take the spiral staircase up the recreated Blackistone Lighthouse.  At the top of the stairs ascend the ladder into the cupola.  Take your pictures and enjoy the view for a bit.  Then, turn your eyes to the water in the south.  It was there on the night of April 23 and early morning of April 24 that eighty seven men lost their lives, collateral damage of John Wilkes Booth.

South of St Clement's Island

A History of St. Clement’s Island by Edwin W. Beitzell
Slipped into Oblivion: A Connecticut Tragedy on the Potomac by John Banks
George Hollands’ account “On the Massachusetts“, National Tribune, 5-14-1914
American Canals, No. 48 – February, 1984, Page 9
Alexandria National Cemetery
St. Clement’s Island Museum
Newspaper articles from

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John Wilkes Booth in the Woods: Part 7

John Wilkes Booth in the Woods

Part 7 of my series “John Wilkes Booth in the Woods” is now complete and available for viewing. In this part, I practice walking with a crutch and experience my second night sleeping in the woods.

To watch the video, you can either click on the image above and scroll down, click HERE to watch the video on YouTube, or play the embedded video below.

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John Wilkes Booth’s Movements at Ford’s Theatre

It is well known that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in his theater box, jumped to the stage, and escaped out of the back door of Ford’s Theatre.  These hurried moments at Ford’s instigated a massive manhunt that lasted twelve days and ended with the death of the assassin.

The moments that preceded John Wilkes Booth’s firing of his derringer are not as well known.  John Wilkes Booth was intimately familiar with the layout, and people, of Ford’s Theatre.  It was like a second home to him insomuch that he even had his mail delivered to Ford’s when he was in Washington.  This familiarity allowed Booth to move about Ford’s Theatre without arousing suspicion.  What follows is an account of Booth’s movements at Ford’s Theatre in the time before he shot the president.

Ground Floor of Ford's Theatre and Baptist Alley plan

John Wilkes Booth had a busy day on April 14th.  His preparations to assassinate the President took him to the Herndon House hotel to alert his conspirators, the Kirkwood House hotel to leave a suspicious note for Vice President Johnson, and near Willard’s hotel to give a note to John Mathews which would justify his later actions.  Booth also visited Mary Surratt’s boarding house on H street three times that day.  It was after his third visit, where Mrs. Surratt confirmed she had given John Lloyd the message that parties would be calling for the hidden weapons tonight, that John Wilkes Booth walked to Ford’s Theatre.  He first went into the Star Saloon owned by Peter Taltavul. It was located right next door to Ford’s Theatre.  He briefly drank there with some of the stagehands from Ford’s, including Edman Spangler, since the play for that night, “Our American Cousin“, was at an intermission.  He found himself drinking alone when the men we called to curtain.

From the Star Saloon, Booth made his way to Baptist Alley behind Ford’s Theatre and got his horse, a bay mare, out of her stable. Spangler built the stable for Booth and took care of it for him.  Booth walked his horse to the back door of Ford’s Theatre. At the back door, Booth called for Spangler, who he hoped would hold his horse until he would need it.   Booth was told by another stagehand that Spangler was needed for an upcoming scene change and so Booth waited with his horse.  After the change, Spangler came out and agreed to hold Booth’s horse.  Booth entered the back door of Ford’s.  The current scene of the play left Booth with no room to sneak across.

The back wall of Ford's Theatre from backstage.  When Booth tried to go across here, there was not enough room.

The back wall of Ford’s Theatre from backstage. When Booth tried to go across here, there was not enough room.

Instead, he lifted a trap door and descended a staircase that led under the stage.  This was a T shaped passageway that was used by stagehands to cross the stage underground and for the musicians to reach the orchestra pit.  Booth emerged by ascending another flight of stairs and opening a trap door on the opposite side.

From there, Booth exited a stage door and into a covered alleyway between Ford’s Theatre and the Star Saloon.  He exited the passageway right out onto Tenth St.  Various witnesses put Booth in the theater lobby and at the Star Saloon at different times which makes knowing his precise course impossible.  However, a likely scenario would have Booth entering the lobby of Ford’s Theatre after exiting the alleyway.  He walked past the ticket taker, John Buckingham, who instinctively held out his hand for a ticket until he realized it was Booth.  Buckingham said that Booth entered the theater and stood behind the seats watching the production (and the President’s box) for some time.

As this was going on, Spangler had grown tired of caring for Booth’s horse.  He called for Peanut John, a young man who acted as an errand boy for the theater, to come out and take his place.  With Peanut holding the reigns, Spangler returned to work.


An animated clip showing, approximately, Booth’s movements at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

Booth exited the theater and walked next door to the Star Saloon.  Here he had a glass of whiskey and some water to chase it down.  He also acquired a cigar and began puffing away.  Cigar in mouth, Booth returned to the lobby of Ford’s.   Booth entered the main floor of the theater again and watched the production some more.  Upon exiting, he conversed with Harry Ford who was in the ticket office counting receipts.  Booth placed his half smoked cigar down on the window’s ledge and joked with Ford that no man should disturb his cigar.

As stated before, Booth’s movements are not an exact science.  It is likely that Booth, anxiously passing the time while waiting to strike, repeatedly traveled between Ford’s Theatre and the Star Saloon, attempting to gain courage with every drink.  Eventually, however, Booth realized that it was time to strike.  From the lobby of Ford’s Theatre, Booth ascended the staircase which led him to the balcony level.

Booth crept across the back of the dress circle level.  As he approached closer to the president’s box he stopped and noticed a guard sitting in front of the entryway to the boxes.  He removed his hat, and took out something, probably a calling card, from his pocket.  He then approached the man and presented the card to him.  He was allowed to pass and entered the vestibule with led to the boxes.  Booth closed the door and, using a bar he had hidden there earlier, he wedged the door shut.  The door to Box 8, which was at the end of the passageway, was open.  With his single shot derringer in hand and a large Rio Grande Camp knife at the ready, Booth entered the President’s box through door 8, turned left, and shot Abraham Lincoln in the head at close range.

The Shot 14 National Police Gazette 4-22-1865

Booth cried out “Sic Semper Tyrannis” and dropped the gun.  He raised the knife in his hand as Major Rathbone, one of the President’s guests that night, rushed at him.  Booth tried to stab Rathbone in the chest but Rathbone parried the strike and took it in his left arm instead.  Booth then ran to the front of the box, put his hands on the railing, and leaped over.  He fell almost twelve feet to the stage below.  He landed awkwardly, either due to a last minute grab by Rathbone or his spur catching one of the decorative flags adorning the box.  In a moment he raised himself up and with quick speed made his way across the stage, perhaps pausing briefly at center stage to raise his knife and shout “The South shall be Free!”  Booth ran into the wings and towards the back door he originally entered through.  William Withers, the orchestra director, unknowingly got in his way and Booth pushed him away, cutting his vest in the process.  Booth reached the back door, rushed through it, and shut the door close behind him.

In the alley, Booth shouted at Peanut John to, “Give me the horse!”  Booth knocked Peanut away using the butt of his knife and a firm kick.  He swiftly mounted the horse and put spurs to her.  She dashed down Baptist Alley.  Booth turned her northward and exited out onto F Street.  He would soon escape D.C. via the Navy Yard bridge and America’s largest manhunt would begin.

Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Thomas A. Bogar
Restoration of Ford’s Theatre by George Olszewski
American Brutus by Michael W. Kauffman
The Art Loux Archive

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John Wilkes Booth in the Woods: Part 6

I just completed Part 6 of my series “John Wilkes Booth in the Woods“. In this part, I discuss the fate of John Wilkes Booth and David Herold’s horses while the pair hid in the pine thicket.

To watch the video, click on the image below and scroll down, or click HERE to watch the video on YouTube.

John Wilkes Booth in the Woods

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John Wilkes Booth in the Woods: Part 5

Part 5 of my series John Wilkes Booth in the Woods is edited and uploaded!  To watch it, click on the image below and scroll down, or, to watch the video right on YouTube, click HERE.

John Wilkes Booth in the Woods

I apologize for the delay between the previous installments and this one.  I was having computer issues which prevented me from editing and rendering videos.  Now, thanks to my brother, my computer is fixed and the rest of the videos should be completed and shared in a more timely manner.  Thank you for understanding.


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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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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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