by Al Benson Jr.
Member, Board of Directors, Confederate Society of America
The book The Assassination of Lincoln–History and Myth by Lloyd Lewis, originally published by Harcourt Brace & Co. back in 1929 and republished in 1994 had this to say. ‘The tale had fattened so rapidly by July, 1867, that Dr. John Frederick May, who had identified the body at the Montauk inquest, felt it necessary to make emphatic denial that he could have been wrong when he said, ‘That man is Booth.’ Dr. May, who had been leisurely enough about obeying Stanton’s order to aid in the autopsy back in 1865–it took two commands to bring the surgeon aboard the ironclad–was now quick to fight the whispers of suspicion. But the very form of his testimony now added to the suspicion rather than cleared it up. Some two years before the assassination of Lincoln, the doctor said, he had cut a tumor from the back of Booth’s neck,warning him to keep off the state until the wound healed…Under Dr. May’s care it healed, but left a large and jagged scar and it was for this mark of his scalpel that the surgeon was to hunt upon the corpse as it lay upon the Montauk. ‘The cover was removed from the body,’ said May, in tellling of his experience, ‘and to my great astonishment revealed a body in whose lineaments there was to me no resemblance of the man I had known in life. My surprise was so great that I at once said to General Barnes…There is no resemblance to Booth, nor can I believe it to be that of him.’ After looking at it a few moments I asked, ‘Is there a scar upon the back of his neck?’ He replied ‘There is!’ May finally said he could “imperfectly recognize the features of Booth. But never in a human being had a greater change taken place, from the man I had seen in the vigor of health and life to that of the haggard corpse before me.” And later on discussing his examination of the right leg of the corpse that lay before him on the Montauk, he said it was the right leg that had been broken.
Lewis noted that: “Now, by the word of the government itself, it was the left leg that Booth had broken in his jump from the theater-box on the night of the murder, and for the surgeon to note that the mysterious body had a broken right leg either proved one or the other of two things, the skeptics said: it proved that the body was not Booth’s at all, or it proved that Dr. May was too careless an observer to be credited with any authority in the matter of the scarred neck.”
So the water is still muddy! By the same token, there were doubters regarding what David Herold said when he got out of the burning barn. Lewis noted: “Herold had told Lieutenant Doherty that he didn’t know who his bed-fellow was. ‘He said his name was Boyd,’ Davy added.” According to his captors, Herold supposedly broke down on the way back to Washington and told them that his companion had really been Booth. Maybe. But if you look at the reputations of some of those that captured him–Lafayette Baker being a prime example, you really have to wonder if Herold may have been “persuaded” to change his story about who was in the barn with him. After all, there were thousands of dollars in reward money at stake here, so the feds wanted to make sure they got the “right person” (even if they didn’t).
In February, 1869 government employees dug up the body that was supposed to be Booth. President Johnson decided to allow Booth’s family to bury the “disputed corpse” in the family burial plot. Edwin Booth could not bring himself to look at the body. Supposedly, friends acted in his behalf to examine the body. It was reported that the body was that of John Wilkes Booth, but who the family friends were and what they discovered for proof was never revealed to the public. It was also announced that Booth’s dentist had identified the body by certain fillings in some of his teeth, but who the dentist was remained a state secret.
Lewis also stated that: “To make matters more perplexing, the Baltimore Gazette was soon claiming that one of its reporters had been present at the exhumation and had noted that the body had a broken right leg and that no bullet wound was visible upon it. This reporter denied one of General Baker’s assertions, made in 1867, namely, that army surgeons had removed from the dead Booth’s neck vertebrae which had been shattered by the Union bullet. No vertebrae were missing in this exhumed corpse, said the newspaper man.”
So we are left with a choice here. We can believe the government’s version or we can believe the media’s version. I have to submit that’s one lousy choice. It’s akin to looking at two professional liars and trying to figure out which one is the biggest liar. Although I don’t see that we can know for sure, I’d probably go with the government (as the biggest liar).
One thing about this situation that’s for sure–no one has really ever told us any real truth about what went down. But then, we aren’t supposed to know that anyway. That way we can’t ask all the wrong questions.