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Was John Wilkes Booth’s pickled body put on display?

Dear Cecil:

My late father worked in Chicago's Loop for many years. He told the story that one day during the 20s a truck driver approached him and asked him if he would like to shake hands with the man who shot Lincoln. Dad said he would so he entered the truck and shook the hand of the cadaver inside. Was this teamster putting Dad on, or was the body of the assassin ever brought to Chicago?

Wondering, Chicago

Cecil replies:

Dear Wondering:

There have been a lot of famous stiffs in Chicago over the years, but John Wilkes Booth probably wasn’t one of them. You do bring up an interesting topic, though. The circumstances surrounding the death of John Wilkes Booth are hazy–hazy enough, in fact, to have kept a rumor in circulation for some years after his death (or "death," if you prefer) that J.W. was alive and kicking.

According to the history books, Booth died on the night of April 26, 1865. Heading south from Washington after the assassination, he reached the rolling Rappahannock River in Virginia on the twelfth night of his flight and took refuge, along with one of his co-conspirators, in a tobacco barn belonging to the farm of one Richard Garrett.

Federal troops in the area were tipped off, and the barn was surrounded and set on fire at about three in the morning. The troops had been instructed to take Booth alive, but he was found inside the burning building with a fatal bullet wound, an apparent suicide. A sergeant named Boston Corbett later took credit for the shooting, claiming that "Providence directed me" to disobey the order, but the point was never settled.

Booth lived for some hours after the shooting, muttering the words "useless, useless," according to a popular account. The badly burned body was taken to Washington, where it was identified by some of Booth’s friends, but the corpse had been damaged severely enough to make a positive identification impossible. The body, whoever it was, was secretly buried in the floor of a Washington warehouse to keep it safe from molestation. Four years later, the corpse was exhumed and taken to the Booth family plot in Baltimore, where as far as anybody knows or cares, it has remained ever since.

Famous corpses were a hot item in carnivals well into the 20th century; one enterprising showman even exhibited what he claimed were the bodies of Nicholas and Alexandra, hand delivered to the U.S. by the Bolsheviks. Most of these charming entertainments were frauds, of course, and it seems unlikely that if Booth had survived the night of April 26 he would have been indiscreet enough to leave his remains to a sideshow after shuffling off this mortal coil once and for all.

Cecil Adams

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