John Wilkes Booth’s Pistol: An FBI Investigation
Here is some information on the investigation of John Wilkes Booth’s pistol and how the whole situation went down. This will give you a little background on a real life case and demonstrate how the case was dealt with. Take a look at our other resources on forensic science as you continue learning more about other areas of the field.
Washington, D.C. April 14th, 1865. Less than a week after the Confederate Army surrendered to the North, President Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and Henry Reed Rathbone and his fiancée went to a showing of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. Midway into the performance, actor John Wilkes Booth made his way to the Presidential Box where Lincoln and his party were seated. He fired a derringer pistol into the president’s head, stabbed Rathbone in the arm, and fled.
Much has been made of the political ramifications of Lincoln’s murder, and of the motives of his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, who was later cornered by Union troops and killed. However, the murder weapon itself, the Philadelphia Deringer that Booth dropped before escaping the theatre, deserves its own historical scrutiny. Supposedly, a team of burglars had replaced the original weapon with a fake in the 1960s. Decades later, the FBI was asked if the model on display at Ford’s Theatre today was the genuine article or not. Thanks to the FBI’s ensuing investigation in the late 1990s, the weapon is now considered almost certainly authentic.
Gunsmith Henry Deringer worked out of Pennsylvania in the early 1800s and gained a reputation as a manufacturer of reliable firearms, especially dueling pistols. The word “derringer” today refers to any of a number of compact, easily-concealable handguns used mostly in the 19th century, whether made by the Henry Deringer Company or not. However, Booth’s weapon was a true Deringer, a kind of single-shot pistol whose popularity reached its height in the middle of the century. Holding to the tradition of dueling pistols, Deringers of this era were sold in pairs. The price tag was about $25, a hefty sum in the 1860s. Booth, however, was an actor of considerable means.
The Deringers from this time period were mostly “caplock” pistols, firearms that used percussive caps, not unlike those found in toy cap guns today. These caps were designed to replace the older flintlock systems that were sensitive to rain and other elements. The Deringer is also distinguished by its vaguely octagonal barrel, walnut stock, gold or silver engravings, textured grip, and range of calibers that traditionally hovered around .40. The barrels of Deringer pistols were made of wrought iron, another characteristic that separated them from the cheaper concealed pistols that bore the same name, which were steel.
The specific Deringer on display at Ford’s theatre that allegedly killed Lincoln had its own, unique characteristics, which helped the FBI in its investigation: 1) the length of the weapon is just under six inches; 2) the pistol is a .44 caliber; 3) the rifling of the barrel is counterclockwise, in contrast to the typical model’s rifling that curves to the right; 4) a crack in the pistol’s stock indicates that the weapon was damaged, either by being discarded after Lincoln’s assassination or by some prior accident; 5) Deringers of this model were sold in pairs, and its twin is still at large.
The FBI compared the actual pistol to a photograph taken of the firearm in the 1930s, before its supposed theft 30 years later. The wood grain pattern, crack in the walnut stock, and subtle blemishes in the wood and metal of the artifact all correlate with the photo. The unique features of Booth’s Deringer, such as the left-twist rifling and the measurements of the barrel, silver plating, trigger guard, and number of rifling grooves are further evidence that the weapon on display at Ford’s Theatre is not a replica.
Other tests involved creating a mold of the pistol’s insides to reveal the unusual rifling, the spiraling grooves that cause projectiles to spin as they leave the barrel of a firearm, which makes them more accurate. Also, the lead round taken from Lincoln’s head after the incident, and kept by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, is typical of those fired by pistols like Booth’s. However, this particular bullet had corroded badly over time and did not contribute substantially to the investigation.
Fortunately, other comparisons were enough to all but prove that no theft actually occurred in the 1960s. Since that time, security measures at Ford’s Theatre have improved dramatically and questions about the authenticity of the weapon responsible for the first ever presidential assassination in American history can be laid to rest.
For more information, one can read:
Schehl, Sally A. and Carlo J. Rosati. “The Booth Deringer: Genuine Artifact or Replica?” Forensic Science Communications 3.1 (January 2001).
- A Doctor’s View of the Lincoln Assassination, from Abraham Lincoln Online, is an interview with Dr. Blaine Houmes providing a retrospective forensic analysis of the president’s assassination.
- Ford’s Theatre still puts on performances and its homepage provides detailed information about Lincoln and his assassination in an easy-to-use slideshow format.
- The Gun that Shot Lincoln is a short article about the weapon by Anita Slomski of Parks Magazine, hosted by the National Park Foundation.
- John Wilkes Booth Biography, from A&E biography, is a 10-minute video about the actor-turned-murderer.
- John Wilkes Booth: His Life and Plot is a reasonably detailed biography of the assassin with numerous images and links to books on the subject. This web page is part of Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination, an introductory resource on the subject by history teacher Roger J. Norton
- The Kaplan Daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln: The Forensic Evidence provides a forensic comparison between a supposed early photograph of Lincoln and confirmed photos from later, by Claude N. Frechette, M.D.
- Lincoln Assassination.com includes links to articles, books, discussions and other resources, overall serving as a good place to start in any detailed research of the president’s assassination.
- Lincoln Exhumation is an article from enotes.com’s World of Forensic Science about the autopsy of Lincoln and his exhumation in 1901.
- Michael W. Kauffman: Assassination Detective is an interview with a guide for the John Wilkes Booth Escape Route Tour, which takes an investigative approach to Lincoln’s assassination.
- Using Modern Technology to Solve Historic Crimes provides a summary of the FBI’s investigation of Booth’s pistol, part of the FBI’s official website.