The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

January 17, 2013

Who’s your mummy?: Let DNA testing solve the John Wilkes Booth tissue issue

ENID, Okla. — No historian should fear the truth.

That’s what Nate Orlowek thinks, and we agree with him.

Orlowek has dedicated almost four decades to unraveling the identity of the man who was shot, identified and buried as John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.

One hundred and ten years ago, David E. George’s deathbed claim to the assassin’s identity sparked controversy, launched an alternative to the officially recognized history of Booth’s demise and fueled a bit of local lore that survives to this day.

George, an itinerant, penniless house painter, committed suicide in the former Grand Avenue Hotel, current site of Garfield Furniture. In a macabre twist, his remains were mummified and became a sideshow attraction before disappearing.

Traditional history tells us Booth died at Garrett Farm in northern Virginia on April 26, 1865, 12 days after he shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.

However, it did not take long after the death of Booth, or “the man in the barn,” for conflicting accounts to arise.

Orlowek spearheaded an effort in the early 1990s to exhume Booth’s body and conduct DNA testing, to be compared with three neck vertebrae that were removed during a 1865 autopsy, and since have been preserved at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

The Booth family, the Maryland state’s attorney and the Smithsonian Institution have agreed to the test, but a competing group of historians and Green Mount Cemetery blocked the exhumation in court in the 1990s.

Four years ago, Orlowek and his team began approaching the problem from another angle, hoping to exhume Edwin Booth, the only one of Booth’s immediate relatives not buried at Green Mount Cemetery, and compare Edwin’s DNA to the vertebrae taken from the man killed in the barn.

Orlowek said he has permission from the great-great-granddaughter of Edwin Booth to exhume his remains, but he has yet to gain permission from the National Museum of Health and Medicine to test the vertebrae. We urge the museum to grant Orlowek the authority to do this.

Meanwhile, Orlowek still is looking for George’s mummy to test the DNA for a potential relation to Edwin Booth. We hope the body can be found to bring the mystery to a scientific conclusion.

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