Abraham Lincoln's Assassination
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Dr. Joseph K. Barnes, Dr. Joseph J. Woodward, and Dr. George Brainard Todd - The Doctors Who Performed the Autopsy

John Wilkes Booth died at about sunrise on Wednesday, April 26, 1865, on the porch of Richard Garrett's house near Port Royal, Virginia. Sergeant Boston Corbett had shot him through the neck. As Dr. Edward Steers, Jr. writes in The Escape & Capture of John Wilkes Booth, "All the evidence to date suggests that he (Corbett) was in the right position at the right time, and he acted from the belief that he was doing exactly what was expected of a soldier facing the enemy." At about 8:30 A.M. Booth's remains were sewn up in a horse blanket and placed on a wide plank that served as a stretcher. 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 of Abraham Lincoln's assassin 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 an improvised bier (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. Below is a sketch which appeared in Harper's Weekly on May 13, 1865.

Within a short time, several people who knew Booth personally positively identified the body which was haggard from 12 days of riding, rowing, and hiding in underbrush. One of these people was Dr. John Frederick May. Some time prior to the assassination, Dr. May 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, examined the remains, saying "I distinctly recognize it as the body of J. Wilkes Booth - first, from the general appearance, next, from the India-ink letters, 'J.W.B.,' on his wrist, which I had very frequently noticed, and then by a scar on the neck. I also recognize the vest as that of J. Wilkes Booth." (As a boy Booth had his initials indelibly tattooed on the back of his left hand between his thumb and forefinger.) Seaton Munroe, a prominent Washington attorney who knew Booth, viewed the body and said that he "was very familiar with his (Booth's) face and distinctly recognize it." Alexander Gardner, a well-known Washington photographer, and his assistant, Timothy H. O'Sullivan, were also among those called to the Montauk to identify Booth's corpse. After photographing the body the plate and print were taken directly to the War Department by government detective James A. Wardell. This photo has never surfaced. The veracity of Wardell's story is now the subject of historical research.

For the actual statements regarding the positive identification by Charles M. Collins, Charles Dawson, Seaton Munroe, John Frederick May, and William Wallach Crowninshield, please see pp. 121-129 of The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Thomas R. Turner.

Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes, Dr. Joseph Janvier Woodward, and Dr. George Brainard Todd performed John Wilkes Booth's autopsy aboard the Montauk. On April 27, 1865, Dr. Barnes wrote the following account to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:


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 (sic) and passing out through the body of the sterno-cleido of 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.

Dr. Woodward wrote the following account of the autopsy:

Case JWB: Was killed April 26, 1865, by a conoidal pistol ball, fired at the distance of a few yards, from a cavalry revolver. The missile perforated the base of the right lamina of the 4th cervical vertebra, fracturing it longitudinally and separating it by a fissure from the spinous process, at the same time fracturing the 5th vertebra through its pedicle, and involving that transverse process. The projectile then transversed the spinal canal almost horizontally but with a slight inclination downward and backward, perforating the cord which was found much torn and discolored with blood (see Specimen 4087 Sect. I AMM). The ball then shattered the bases of the left 4th and 5th laminae, driving bony fragments among the muscles, and made its exit at the left side of the neck, nearly opposite the point of entrance. It avoided the 2nd and 3rd cervical nerves. These facts were determined at autopsy which was made on April 28. Immediately after the reception of the injury, there was very general paralysis. The phrenic nerves performed their function, but the respiration was diaphragmatic, of course, labored and slow. Deglutition was impracticable, and one or two attempts at articulation were unintelligible. Death, from asphyxia, took place about two hours after the reception of the injury.

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. At Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's order Booth's body was buried in the Old Penitentiary on the Washington Arsenal grounds in what is now Ft. Lesley J. McNair. It was taken there by boat. A grave was dug beneath the prison floor, and the remains, wrapped in an army blanket, were lowered in a gun box into the hole and covered by a stone slab. The sketch below is from Lafayette C. Baker's History of the United States Secret Service.

In 1867 the body was exhumed and reburied in a pine box in a locked storeroom in Warehouse I at the prison. The corpse was again positively identified in 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. It was noted that due to the nature of Booth's wound and autopsy and a generalized decaying of the remains, the skull had become detached from the body.

Booth's corpse was then taken to Baltimore for burial and was positively identified by many people including John T. Ford, Henry Clay Ford, and several members of the Booth family. The body was buried in the Booth family plot in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore on Saturday, June 26, 1869. John Wilkes Booth's individual grave is unmarked at the request of the Booth family. On p. 376 (note 27) of Stanley Kimmel's The Mad Booths of Maryland, it states "Henry W. Mears, a young man at the time of Wilkes' burial, who became a Baltimore undertaker and occupied the building formerly used by Weaver, later recalled: "I saw the body of John Wilkes Booth lowered into the grave, and for many years had charge of the lot. While Edwin Booth was alive he evidenced a desire to beautify it, and sent for me to arrange the details. Each grave was discussed, but when that of John Wilkes Booth attracted his attention he turned to me and said, "Let it remain as it is -- unmarked."

In October 1994 a petition was filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City to exhume John Wilkes Booth’s remains from Green Mount Cemetery. The petitioners were people who identified themselves as Booth’s relatives. The cemetery argued that its solemn duty was to protect the sanctity of those interred unless there was overwhelming evidence that the body buried there was not Booth’s. Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan ruled that the evidence for exhumation was insufficient. The Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis upheld his 1996 decision. For more details please CLICK HERE.

SOURCES USED FOR THIS PAGE: Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Steers, Jr., The Body in the Barn: The Controversy Over the Death of John Wilkes Booth compiled from articles in the Surratt Courier, Kennedy and Lincoln: Medical and Ballistic Comparisons of Their Assassinations by Dr. John K. Lattimer, WHEN LINCOLN DIED: The Assassination, The Funeral Journey, The Pursuit and Trial of the Conspirators, The Complete Story in Pictures and in the Words of His Day by Ralph Borreson, The Web of Conspiracy by Theodore Roscoe, The Escape & Capture of John Wilkes Booth by Edward Steers, Jr., The Mad Booths of Maryland by Stanley Kimmel, and American Gothic: The Story of America's Legendary Theatrical Family - Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth by Gene Smith. I also consulted the article "Who is Buried in Booth's Tomb?" by Joseph George, Jr. George's article was in the Winter 1994 edition of the Lincoln Herald. The picture of Dr. Joseph K. Barnes is from the National Archives. The picture of Dr. Joseph J. Woodward is from the National Museum of Health and Medicine. The Harper's Weekly sketch of Booth's remains on the Montauk came from page 184 of Ralph Borreson's book cited above.

Thank you to BJ Peters for letting me know about Dr. Todd's involvement in the autopsy. She sent me several news articles verifying his presence.

Thank you to the late Director of the Mütter Museum, Gretchen Worden, for clarifying the nature of the piece of John Wilkes Booth held by the museum. She indicated in a letter to me what was originally thought to be part of Booth's thorax is more likely to be tissue that was possibly cleaned off the cervical vertebrae. Her article entitled "Is It the Body of John Wilkes Booth?" in the December 1994 edition of Transactions & Studies of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia is an outstanding source of information regarding the topic of this web page.

Over the years several stories have circulated that John Wilkes Booth did not die at Garrett's farm. Dr. Blaine V. Houmes researched one of the more popular of these stories. His research indicates that Booth indeed lies buried with his family in Baltimore, Maryland. Please see "John Wilkes Booth and the Enid Mummy." Lincoln Herald, Vol. 106, No. 1, Spring 2004, pp. 23-31.

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