Digging holes here and there in American history.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Was the pistol used to kill Lincoln stolen from its display in Ford's Theatre?

     A small pistol reposes in a display case in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.  A sign identifies it as the weapon used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.  But is it the gun used to kill Lincoln or a clever fake planted during a burglary in the 1960s?
     According to one source, the murder weapon was stolen from Ford’s Theatre one hundred years after Lincoln’s death.  The stunning allegation arose in 1997 during the adjudication of a New England estate.  Suzanne Kelley, the National Park Service site manager for Ford’s Theatre, said a man cleaning out his deceased mother’s home found some suspected stolen items.  The man called police, believing his brother, now serving time in prison, secreted the valuables in the house.  The incarcerated son was a member of a burglary ring that operated in New York and Massachusetts between the late 1960s and the early 1980s.
     Police in Massachusetts interviewed the brother in prison, questioning him about the stashed goods.  Suddenly the career criminal startled the officers with an amazing revelation—members of his gang had stolen the original Booth pistol from Ford’s Theatre, replacing it with a replica in the late 1960s.
     Local authorities notified the U.S. Park Police in Boston which in turn called the National Park Service.  Was the Park Service sure it still had the assassination weapon?  While Ford’s Theatre was already a historic site and protected around the clock by guards at the time of the alleged theft, security thirty-five years ago was much less sophisticated.
     Historical records of the Booth pistol were unable to resolve the issue of authenticity.  Site Manager Suzanne Kelley was skeptical of the report, but the jailed burglar insisted his story was true.
     “It seemed too fantastic,” Kelley said, “but we wanted to be sure.”  To have a fake pistol on display would be a tragic blow from a historical perspective.  If the display weapon was a counterfeit, an investigation would be initiated to track down the real Booth pistol.  But recovery of such an infamous artifact stolen over three decades ago would be all but impossible.
     Authorities would need the latest scientific technology to solve the mystery.

Booth and His Mission
     Although a popular actor, John Wilkes Booth ended his full-time stage career in May 1864. The Maryland native wanted to spend his time engaged in a new interest—supporting the Confederate States of America.  Within months, Booth was working actively with the Confederates.  A plan to capture President Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war brought Booth together with John Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzeroldt, and others. The scheme collapsed when on the day chosen for the capture, President Lincoln changed his itinerary and did not travel on the road where conspirators were waiting.
      This March 17, 1865 failure was quickly followed by two major Confederate defeats.  Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, was abandoned to Union troops and on Palm  Sunday, April 9, Robert E. Lee reluctantly surrendered his army to General Grant.
     These setbacks filled the conspirators with a sense of urgency.  Booth decided to assassinate Lincoln.  Powell was to kill Secretary of State Seward, and Atzerodt’s target was Vice President Andrew Johnson.  Booth hoped to throw the country into political chaos.

Lincoln Unprotected
     The Secret Service did not exist when Lincoln became President and his security was less than airtight.  Numerous Washington police officers were detailed to the Executive Mansion, but Lincoln refused to have bodyguards shadowing his every move.  Guards in the White House wore plainclothes and concealed their firearms.  Uniformed sentries were posted outside and soldiers were often encamped on the grounds, but the President’s home was considered the “people’s house.”   Entry into the premises was not difficult.  As the Army of the Potomac grew, a steady stream of common soldiers casually dropped in to wish their Commander-in-Chief well.
     Troops frequently accompanied Lincoln during his travels.  Throughout the war, no member of the First Family left the White House grounds without an escort.  By 1864, four Metropolitan policemen served as Lincoln’s personal bodyguards.
     The principles of executive protection had yet to be developed and plans for Lincoln’s safety were often haphazard.  On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth took advantage of a lapse in security and changed history.

A Pistol Shot
     Lincoln and his wife, in the company of Army Major Henry Reed Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, attended a performance of Our American Cousin, a play performed at Ford's Theatre.  At about 10:15 p.m., Booth entered the box occupied by the President and his companions unchallenged.   The actor fired one shot into Lincoln's head, mortally wounding the President.  Booth dropped the pistol, stabbed Major Rathbone in the arm with a knife, vaulted over the railing of the box to the stage, and escaped through the back of the theater to his horse. 
      Lincoln was carried across the street to Petersen's House, a collection of boarding rooms.  Surrounded by his family and political colleagues, Lincoln clinged to life throughout the night.
     On the morning of April 15, 1865, Lincoln died, about nine hours after the assault.
     Within hours of Lincoln's shooting, Booth fled Washington on horseback and met Herold on the road.  On April 26, Booth and Herold were surrounded while hiding in a tobacco shed in Port Royal, Virginia.  Herold surrendered to the Union troops, but Booth held out.  The barn was set on fire.  When the fire and smoke failed to force Booth from the barn, Sergeant Boston Corbett, acting against Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's official orders to return Booth to Washington alive, shot and killed the actor-turned-assassin.

Artifacts of an Assassination
     During Lincoln’s autopsy at the White House on April 15, physicians removed the fatal bullet.  It remained in storage at the War Department until 1940, when it and other Lincoln assassination items were offered to the Department of the Interior.  These items included the knife used to stab Major Rathbone and the pistol. The Interior Department accepted all of the items but kept the bullet in storage as it was considered improper for public display.  In 1956, the Department of the Army requested the return of the bullet and the Department of the Interior complied. In that year, the bullet was placed on display and may be viewed today along with fragments of Lincoln's skull at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington.
     The pistol recovered from the state box after the Lincoln shooting was a silver-inlaid model of the pocket type produced by Henry Deringer, a well-known Pennsylvania armsmaker.  Though initially recognized as a supplier of long arms, Deringer gained renown for his percussion dueling pistols that first appeared in 1825 and were sought by military officers and political officials.  The manufacture of a smaller version of the dueling pistol in the late 1840s and the pocket pistol in the early 1850s solidified Deringer's position as a manufacturer of quality firearms.
     The Deringer pocket pistol achieved its greatest popularity during the mid-1850s and was a favorite of civilians seeking a compact, easily concealed firearm.  Although the Deringer pistol was limited by its single-shot capacity, its light weight and small size gave it a distinct advantage over bulkier, unconcealable alternatives.  The one-shot limitation was often overcome by carrying two pistols.  The pocket pistols were sold as pairs for approximately $22 to $25.  
     With the advent of breechloading firearms, self-contained cartridges, and the Civil War, the demand for Deringer pistols and other percussion weapons declined sharply. The lack of a standardized caliber among Deringers made them impractical for military use.  Because each pair of Deringer pistols included a bullet mold specific to the caliber of the two matching pistols, loss of this mold virtually precluded the proper fit of ammunition for the set.  With its obvious inadequacy as a military weapon, sales of the Deringer pistol during the war were low.  Following the death of Henry Deringer in 1868, the market for pocket pistols opened to competitors eager to apply the breechloading system to a concealable weapon.
     The Deringer pocket pistol is a small, short-barreled, single-action percussion design. The barrel ranged in length from less than one to four or more inches and was made from wrought iron browned with a chemical solution that imparted copper-colored streaks to the barrel.  Partially round and partially octagonal, the Deringer barrel was flattened and slotted on top to accept a blade-style front sight and was rifled with seven grooves, right twist, and the caliber varied from .33 to .51 inches.
     A typical Deringer pistol had a black walnut stock with a checkered grip, a checkered hammer thumb piece, and an S-shaped trigger guard. The mountings of the pistol were engraved German silver or sometimes gold or gold-plated.  Mountings were attached to the stock with pins, with the exception of the sideplates and buttplate, which were affixed with bolts or screws.  The lockplate and barrel were stamped with the trademark “DERINGER PHILADELA” and sometimes included an additional stamping on the top of the barrel indicating an agent's name and address.  No serial numbers were used by Deringer, but letters or digits were sometimes stamped or punched on various parts of the pistol. 
     The Lincoln assassination ensured permanent notoriety for the Deringer pistol while simultaneously introducing the word "derringer" into the American lexicon as describing a concealable, short-barreled nonautomatic pistol.  The use of “Deringer” refers to a pistol manufactured by Henry Deringer, while “derringer” means a pocket pistol of any make.
     The Department of the Interior established a museum in the basement of Ford’s Theatre, displaying the pistol along with the suit Lincoln was wearing the night of the attack.  Photographs of the pistol taken in the 1930s, ‘50s, and ‘60s would take on grave significance when the weapon’s authenticity was called into question. 

Fake or Original?
     On July 28, 1997, a National Park Service curator and a U.S. Park Police captain removed the Deringer pistol from its case at Ford's Theatre and carried the firearm to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for examination.  This was not the FBI’s first role in answering questions about the Lincoln assassination.  In its first years of existence in the 1920s, the FBI investigated allegations that Booth lived for many years after Lincoln’s death.  In 1948 the FBI Laboratory examined a boot said to be worn by Booth on the night of the assassination and studied Booth’s diary in 1977.
     The FBI Lab was asked to determine if the pistol displayed at Ford’s Theatre was the same weapon used to kill Lincoln.  To aid in the analysis, the Park Service provided technical descriptive materials and historical photographs pre-dating the time of the alleged theft.
     FBI scientists started with a basic physical examination of the Deringer pistol, which  revealed a number of imperfections unique to the firearm.  The most obvious was a significant fracture or crack in the forestock that showed evidence of previous repair.  If this was the Booth pistol, perhaps the crack occurred when the assassin dropped the pistol in the state box.  Or the crack could have predated the assassination.
     Impression toolmarks in the barrel above the fractured portion of the stock and an S-shaped defect in the metal of the pistol's barrel were additional unique features found on the Deringer.  Variations in the shading and grain of the pistol's black walnut stock were also noted for comparison purposes.
     The Firearms-Toolmarks Unit examined the lead bullet removed from Lincoln's brain. The scientists wanted to use modern technology to determine if the bullet had been fired from the questioned pistol.  The ability to perform ballistic comparisons has improved significantly in recent years.  Police now have computerized databases of fired bullets and cartridges from crime scenes to compare to weapons recovered by police. 
     FBI scientists discovered the fatal bullet had suffered corrosion with the passage of time and was too oxidized for an accurate ballistics comparison.  Because the age and historical value of the Deringer—if it was the Booth pistol—no attempt was made to test fire the weapon for fear of damaging it.   Analysis of the bullet did not answer the question of authenticity of the pistol.
     It would be the vintage photographs that would solve the mystery.  Photographic superimpositions using the display pistol and the images dating from the 1930s showed similar features.  Much like comparing fingerprints, the FBI examiners matched up unique identifying characteristics including swirl patterns in the grain of the stock, pit marks on the barrel, and damage to the stock of the pistol.  All the pistol’s unique marks and flaws matched the historical photographs submitted by the National Park Service for comparison.  The FBI concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that the Deringer pistol displayed at Ford's Theatre was the same pistol photographed during the 1930s.  This finding eliminated the possibility the pistol was stolen from the theatre and replaced with a replica during the 1960s.
     Suzanne Kelley was relieved the authentic Booth pistol was still in the possession of the National Park Service.  Without revealing any secrets about Ford’s Theatre security, Kelley said the historic site has a state of the art system.  “We have it all,” she said.  “I don’t lose any sleep over the security of our artifacts.”  In addition to the sophisticated hardware and armed officers, Kelley said “visitors are our best deterrent.”  Many Americans consider Washington landmarks sacred places, according to Kelley, and most visitors will not hesitant to report any activity that might deface the structures.  The museum has since been renovated with even better security precautions.  

1 comment:

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