John Wilkes Booth – investigations and possessions


There are many conspiracy theories concerning whether someone high in the Confederate government ordered the assassination of President Lincoln and of course whether or not Booth was actually captured and killed, or if, in fact, Booth escaped. Some of these depend on the reader not knowing the actual details of the crime and the capture, which can be manipulated to a different conclusion. When you do know the details, the alleged conspiracies fall apart.


John Wilkes Booth and David E. Herold were sleeping in a tobacco barn owned by Richard H. Garrett, located about 60 miles south of Ford’s Theatre near Port Royal, Virginia on the morning of Wednesday, April 26, 1865.  Union cavalry commanded by Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty had caught up with them at around 2 AM.  The soldiers surrounded the barn. Lieutenant Luther Baker (a detective) yelled, “Surrender, or we’ll fire the barn and smoke you out like rats! We’ll give you five minutes more to make up your minds.” Booth asked for time to decide and tried to carry on a conversation to stall for time. Finally, Booth said, “Well, my brave boys, you can prepare a stretcher for me! I will never surrender!”

Booth after a while then said, “Oh, Captain, there’s a man in here who wants to surrender awful bad.” The barn door rattled, and David Herold said he wanted to give up. Herold came out and was captured. He was tied up with rope to a nearby tree.


John Wilkes Booth would not come out. Using straw and brush, detective Everton J. Conger set the barn on fire. John Wilkes Booth was apparently visible to the soldiers because the barn was full of cracks and knotholes. They could see him moving about the burning barn. Sergeant Boston Corbett shot Booth through the neck at this time. Booth was paralyzed and was mortally wounded. Booth was able to say only with difficulty, “Tell Mother I died for my country.” A local doctor, Dr. Charles Urquhart, Jr., arrived and confirmed that the wound which had pierced Booth’s spinal cord was fatal. At around 7 AM John Wilkes Booth looked at his hands and moaned, “Useless! Useless!” which were the final reported words Booth spoke.

Subsequent Transportation

Booth’s remains were sewn up in a horse blanket and placed on a wide plank. An old market wagon was obtained nearby, and the body was placed in the wagon. Using the wagon, the body was taken to Belle Plain. There it was hoisted up the side and swung upon the deck of a steamer named the John S. Ide and transported up the Potomac River to Alexandria where it was transferred to a government tugboat. The tugboat carried the remains to the Washington Navy Yard, and the corpse was placed aboard the monitor Montauk at 1:45 A.M. on Thursday, April 27. Once aboard the Montauk Booth’s remains were laid out on a rough carpenter’s bench. The horse blanket was removed, and a tarpaulin was placed over the body. A number of witnesses were called to identify the body.

John Wilkes Booth’s Body

Five people who knew Booth personally are known to have identified the body. One was Dr. John Frederick May, a surgeon who had removed a large fibroid tumor from Booth’s neck. Dr. May found a scar from his operation on the corpse’s neck exactly where it should have been.

Charles Dawson, the clerk at the National Hotel where Booth was staying, identified the initials “J.W.B” pricked in India ink on the corpse’s hand. As a boy Booth had his initials indelibly tattooed on the back of his left hand between his thumb and forefinger.

Alexander Gardner, the photographer, was among those who positively identified the remains of John Wilkes Booth, as was his assistant Timothy O’Sullivan. Seaton Munroe, a prominent Washington attorney, did as well.

Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes, Dr. Joseph Janvier Woodward, and Dr. George Brainard Todd performed John Wilkes Booth’s autopsy aboard the Montauk. Booth’s third, fourth, and fifth cervical vertebrae, which were removed during his autopsy, are housed (not on public display) at the National Museum of Health and Medicine at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. An additional fragment from Booth’s autopsy (tissue possibly cleaned off the cervical vertebrae) is in a bottle in the Mütter Medical Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The autopsy report reads in part: “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.” Somebody with a broken left leg was shot in the neck, that is for sure.

What personal effects were recovered?

At the time he was shot, Booth had a number of items in his pocket. Parenthetically, these items in themselves are so personal that conspiracy theories that Booth was never caught become absurd. A search of his body turned up a pair of revolvers, a belt, and holster, two knives, some cartridges, a file, a war map of the Southern States, a spur, a pipe, 3 Canadian bills of exchange, a compass with a leather case, a signal whistle, and almost burned up a candle, pictures of five women – four actresses (Alice Grey, Helen Western, Effie Germon, and Fanny Brown) and his fiancée, Lucy Hale (the daughter of ex-Senator John P. Hale from New Hampshire), and an 1864 date book kept as a diary.

The photographs are interesting. If you didn’t know he was engaged to be married at the time of the assassination, you are not alone. Lucy Hale was the daughter of U.S. Senator John Parker Hale of New Hampshire. She was also John Wilkes Booth’s secret fiancée. Prior to the assassination, Lucy’s father, Senator Hale, had been appointed as a minister to Spain.  All of the Hales were in earnest to learn some Spanish before heading abroad with their father. Lucy vowed to John Wilkes that she would return in a year, with or without her father’s permission, to marry him. His personal belongings also contain an envelope that both he and Lucy wrote on, you can read about it here. The other four women are also of interest. They were actresses Booth had known. One might speculate why he was carrying their photos; he was a reputed ladies’ man. Read more here and here.

Several other of these objects are of interest.

Other Objects of Interest

  1. the bills of exchange from Montreal’s Ontario Bank and dated Oct. 27, 1864. A bankbook from the same institution, stamped with the same date, was also discovered among his belongings. These dates correlate with a point in time when he was definitely in Montreal.

The three Bank of Ontario Credits is of interest. There is some suggestion that the money came from Trenholm, Fraser, and Company in Liverpool.  That would be strong evidence of CSA involvement on some level since Trenholm was the Foreign Agency of the CSA. A bank book from the same institution, stamped with the same date, was also discovered among his belongings. He had cashed a good deal of money and he had a banker’s draft when they captured him. 

Many have pointed to Booth’s mysterious trip to Montreal as a precursor to Lincoln’s April 1865 assassination. The possibility, never proved, that Trenholm, Fraser had sent a check to be cashed by Booth, remains an open question. At the time, the pro-Southern cause enjoyed considerable sympathy in Montreal, which was also known as a haunt for agents of the Confederacy.

Booth checked in on October 18, 1864, at the prestigious St. Lawrence Hall, an Old Montreal hotel widely known as the Confederacy’s Canadian headquarters. Witnesses reported that he spoke openly of his disdain for Lincoln. He may well have spoken of a kidnapping plot. The obvious point would be that the Confederate government paid for Lincoln’s assassination. The implication of such action would have changed the entire Reconstruction concept.

What he did in Montreal is still a matter of dispute. Witnesses in 1865 told of seeing Booth with various officials, talking openly about their plot against Lincoln. Jacob Thompson, chief of the Confederate secret service in Canada, also kept an account at the Ontario Bank. Witnesses testified at the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators that Thompson had been spotted with Booth at St. Lawrence Hall. He was said to have openly discussed kidnapping and his hatred of Lincoln. Not everyone has taken this testimony at face value; after all, it describes a level of recklessness that defies common sense.

His account at the Ontario Bank, an institution acquired by the Bank of Montreal in 1906, stayed open with a balance of $455 for an undetermined length of time following his death. The Booth family refused or didn’t want to have anything to do with that account, the cash had been described anecdotally over the years as “blood money.”

  1. His pocket diary is also on display. Booth recorded some of his thoughts in a small leather datebook that he had in his possession. This historic artifact provides a glimpse into his thinking, and his reactions, to the country’s response to his deadly act.

The diary is described in the museum collection at Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site as “a small book, which was actually an 1864 appointment book kept as a diary, found on the body of John Wilkes Booth on April 26, 1865. The datebook was printed and sold by a St. Louis stationer named James M. Crawford. The book measured 6 by 3 1/2 inches and the pictures of the 5 women were found in the diary pockets. Booth’s entries in the diary were probably written between April 17 and April 22, 1865.

In the diary, which was started while he was on the run after the assassination, Booth describes a number of well-known highlights of that moment, including what he yelled after jumping on the stage and the agony of his broken leg riding during the escape. The brief writing within draws a comparison between him and Brutus (note the Shakespearean allusion). It also provides 3 reasons why Booth decided to kill him, No way this was made up. You can read it here: 

Of course, he expected his southern comrades would greet him as a hero, but he found that the southern newspapers and people found his act cowardly. Many newspapers, even in the South, expressed dismay and sympathy over Lincoln’s assassination. Booth was shocked the papers described him as “a common cutthroat” rather than a hero.

The diary shows that Booth had access to newspapers during his escape. And by the way, to food: there was nothing to eat in the swamp he was hiding in. The accomplice that helped him cross the Potomac to Maryland and brought him food and the newspapers is an interesting but often overlooked part of the tale. When Booth and Herold escaped they first hid at the home of Captain Samuel Cox. Cox knew of a man who could help the two fugitives get across the Potomac. He sent his son to summon Thomas Jones. Jones was a veteran Confederate spy who had lost everything supporting the Southern cause. He had spent time in the Old Capitol Prison when he was suspected in the North of his pro-Confederate activities. He had also lost a great deal of money by buying Confederate bonds at the start of the war, and because his salary from the Confederate authorities went unpaid. Thomas Jones was the accomplice.

  1. One of the goals of the trial of the conspirators was to put forth evidence to show that the assassination was sanctioned and supported by the leaders of the Confederate States of America. Establishing the Confederacy’s involvement proved to be impossible. In the end, the prosecution was hampered by unreliable and perjured testimony ultimately leaving the question of Confederate involvement in Lincoln’s death to be a much-debated topic even today.
  2. A cipher was found among his papers. It’s a very simple substitution cipher that was written in Booth’s own hand. At the trial of the conspirators, this cipher was entered into evidence as Exhibit 7. It was portrayed as a physical link between John Wilkes Booth and the Confederate secret service. This type of cipher table is called a Vigenère table.  It is basically a simple Caesar Cipher in which each letter of the alphabet is shifted some number of places. For example, in a Caesar cipher of shift 3, a would become D, b would become E, y would become B, and so on. To solve the code, you just have to know what the shift is, which is usually done by starting each message with the same phrase.

The very simplicity of this cipher method made the prosecution’s case that this was a top-secret Confederate code rather difficult to prove. They entered into evidence another object that they thought proved the case. In addition to this paper cipher, the prosecution also entered into evidence a large cipher cylinder seized from the office of Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin in Richmond. The Vigenère table found among Booth’s papers matches the Vigenère cylinder found in Richmond. However, the reason they are the same is that both the table and the cylinder utilize the same method of encryption. While every Vigenère cipher uses the Vigenère table to encrypt and decrypt a message, it is nothing more than a translation table. So basically, there is no provable link between the cylinder and the table in Booth’s possession. 2) There is nothing proprietary about a Vigenère table. Just because he had one doesn’t mean that he was sending or receiving messages from Secretary Benjamin. In fact, during the war, these codes became a kind of game. In the same way that schoolchildren enjoy writing secret messages to their friends, writing in code became a fun activity with the Vigenère cipher described openly in this regard. No one ever claimed to have sent or received a coded message from Booth.

  1. There are two knives in the NPS collection of Booth’s belongings. A horn-handled knife is referred to as the Rio Grande knife, and a pearl-handled knife known as the Liberty knife. There has been a great deal of controversy lately as to which of these knives Booth used to stab Major Rathbone. For many decades, the Liberty knife was displayed at Ford’s Theater and labeled as the one used that evening.  A review of this blade in the photograph suggests that this was a rather small knife and that the other one is a much larger blade. Recent work stimulated by an online blogger has shifted the thinking on this question, and while not definitive, it does appear that the Rio Grande knife was the culprit.

Rumors & Conspiracy Theories

Could the identification of his body be part of a conspiracy to hide his escape? There were reports for years after of the “real” Booth showing up in lots of strange places. A sober understanding of events should make these fictional accounts apparent.

The corpse was again positively identified in February 1869 when Booth’s remains were exhumed and released by the government to the Booth family. At that time an inquest was held at Harvey and Marr’s Parlor in Washington. Before Booth’s corpse was taken to Baltimore for burial, it was positively identified by many people including John T. Ford, Henry Clay Ford, and Joseph Booth, John’s brother.


Michael W Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. Random House, 2004.

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