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The John Wilkes Booth Exhumation Case

| Nov 7, 1996 | Legal Brief

Exposing the Myth that John Wilkes Booth Escaped

The most recent development in the history of the Lincoln Assassination is the 1995 trial on the petition to exhume John Wilkes Booth from Green Mount Cemetery. The name of the legal case is Kline v. The Green Mount Cemetery.

Like the lingering controversy over the assassination of President Kennedy, for 50 or more years after the assassination of President Lincoln there were theories and speculation that Booth escaped, including a popular book published in 1907. The official and accepted history, however, is that Booth is buried in Baltimore in an unmarked grave in the Booth family plot in Green Mount Cemetery. In 1991, NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries produced a TV show that depicted the escape theory, and the myth that Booth escaped was up and running again.

In 1993, a small group of “historians” pushed for the exhumation of Booth’s body. Green Mount Cemetery opposed the exhumation, so these historians filed a petition with the Circuit Court. The case was tried here in Baltimore before Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan. During the trial, the escape theory was presented, subject to the scrutiny of the legal process and the rigors of cross examination.

The case attracted national and international media attention. Judge Kaplan’s opinion recounts the evidence he found most important in denying the Petition. The appellate opinion of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirming Judge Kaplan is officially reported at 110 Md. App. 383 (1996). As of today, it is the last chapter in the history of the Lincoln Assassination.

This trial and appeal are a unique combination of law and history!

Rarely do history debates leave the confines of classrooms, academic journals, or meetings of amateur historians. In Maryland, however, an obscure history debate exploded into the courts. The debate involved John Wilkes Booth – America’s greatest villain – and the contention that he escaped in 1865. Most historians and history buffs consider the escape theory to be folly, or even fraud. Nevertheless, the reliability of the Booth escape story was litigated in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City and in the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.

The Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to the Union on April 9, 1865. A few days later, on Good Friday, April 14, President and Mrs. Lincoln went to a performance at Ford’s Theater in Washington. During the performance, John Wilkes Booth entered Lincoln’s box and shot the President in the back of his head. Booth and one of his accomplices, David Herold, then escaped from Washington.

Union troops commenced a widespread search for Booth. A unit of detectives assigned to the War Department, along with a detail of twenty-six troops from the 16th New York Calvary, tracked Booth and Herold through Southern Maryland, across the Potomac River, and to a barn on a farm located not far from Port Royal, Virginia.

The debate arises at this point. Some contend that Booth was either not in the barn when the troops arrived or that he escaped from the barn. For most people, however, the history goes on as follows: Booth and Herold were in the barn. The soldiers ordered them to come out and eventually threatened to set the barn on fire. Booth remained inside as the barn was set ablaze and was shot through the neck. Booth was taken from the burning barn to the steps of the farm house, where he died.

Green Mount Cemetery is located in Baltimore City. It is the burial site of some of the most famous and prominent Marylanders, including John Hopkins and Enoch Pratt. After interim interments at the Arsenal in Washington, John Wilkes Booth was buried in Green Mount Cemetery in an unmarked grave in the Booth family plot on June 26, 1869.

I soon realized that thousands of people around the world are interested and intrigued by this history. Most of these people have focused their interest on Lincoln. Some have focused on Booth. Their interests move beyond the obvious facts of history into details that can be full of ironies and fascinating coincidences. All of this is the grist of historians. The debate over whether Booth escaped, however, went far beyond a fascinating anecdote of history.

In October of 1994, amid media fanfare, a petition was filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City “to exhume the alleged remains of John Wilkes Booth from Green Mount Cemetery.” With the filing of this petition, the Booth escape theory became a hotly contested legal issue.

The case proceeded to trial on May 17, 18, 19 and 25, 1995. The presiding judge was Joseph H. H. Kaplan. In his opinion, Judge Kaplan reviewed the evidence and the controlling Maryland court decisions. He concluded that there was no compelling reason for exhumation.

Petitioners appealed Judge Kaplan’s decision to the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland. Oral argument was held on May 8, 1996, in Annapolis. The case was heard by Chief Judge Alan M. Wilner, Judge James R. Eyler, and retired Judge James S. Getty. The Court concluded that all of Judge Kaplan’s factual conclusions were supported by substantial evidence.

The debate will go on, of course, among history buffs, if only for the sake of intellectual curiosity and enjoyment.

This description of the case is taken from excerpts from an article by Frank entitled “The Petition to Exhume John Wilkes Booth: A View from the Inside” published in the University of Baltimore Law Forum.

This legal brief was written by the law firm of Gorman & Williams, which represented Green Mount Cemetery. The brief was successful in that the appellate Court affirmed Judge Kaplan’s decision not to order an exhumation. The debate will go on, of course, among historians and history buffs, but the law should let John Wilkes Booth rest in peace.