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:
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:
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.
Your obt servt.
J. K. Barnes
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.
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:
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: