Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Autopsy of John Wilkes Booth

By Allen D. Spiegel, Ph.D., M.P.H. and Merrill S. Spiegel, J.D.

During April 1863, Dr. John Frederick May, a prominent physician in the District of Columbia, surgically removed a fibroid tumor from the back of John Wilkes Booth's neck and treated him for a short time. An identifiable large, ugly scar resulted when the wound inadvertently tore open and healed by granulation. Shortly after President Lincoln's assassin was killed on April 26, 1865, a formal inquest was held to identify the body. May was summoned to examine the remains and made a positive identification based upon the recognition of the scar made by his scalpel.

At 2:00 PM on April 27, 1865, [Surgeon General Joseph K.] Barnes and Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Janvier Woodward conducted a postmortem examination of the body. A letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reported their autopsy findings:

"Left leg had a fracture of the fibula 3 inches above the ankle joint . . cause of death was a gun-shot wound in the neck--the ball entering just behind the sterno-cleido muscle--2-1/2 inches above the clavicle--passing through the bony bridge of fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae--severing the spinal cord and passing out through the body of the sterno-ceido of right side--3 inches above the clavicle. Paralysis of the entire body was immediate, and all the horrors of consciousness of suffering and death must have been present to the assassin during the two hours he lingered."

Excerpted from: "J. Wilkes Booth as a Patient, as a Corpse to be Identified and Diagnosed as a Monomaniac", The Journal of Civil War Medicine, Vol. 5, No. 3


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