Was the pistol John Wilkes Booth used to shoot Abraham Lincoln stolen from Ford's Theatre?

By Wesley Harris, America's Civil War, May 2005

A small pistol lies in a display case in Ford's Theatre in Washington, identified as the weapon used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. But is it the gun used to kill Lincoln, or a fake planted during a burglary in the 1960s?

In 1997 a man cleaning out his deceased mother’s home found some items he suspected were stolen by his brother, an incarcerated burglar. He called the police, and when they questioned the thief about the stashed goods, the career criminal startled the officers with an amazing revelation: Members of his gang had stolen the original Booth pistol from Ford's Theatre in the late 1960s, replacing it with a replica.

The National Park Service was notified, and its historical records of the Booth pistol were unable to resolve the issue of authenticity. Suzanne Kelley, the site manager at Ford's Theatre, 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."

In May 1864, Booth had ended his stage career, and within months he was working actively with the Confederates. A plan to kidnap President Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war brought Booth together with Dr. Samuel Mudd, John Surratt and his mother Mary, Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt and others. An attempt was set for March 17, 1865, but collapsed when Lincoln changed his itinerary and did not pass where the conspirators were waiting.

Following that failure, Union troops captured Richmond, and on April 9, Robert E. Lee reluctantly surrendered his army. Those setbacks filled the conspirators with a sense of urgency. Booth decided to assassinate Lincoln. Powell was to kill Secretary of State William Seward, and Atzerodt's target was Vice President Andrew Johnson.

On April 14, 1865, Lincoln and his wife, in the company of Army Major Henry Reed Rathbone and his fiancee, Clara Harris, attended a Fords Theatre performance of Our American Cousin. At about 10:15 p.m., Booth entered the president's box unchallenged, as the police bodyguard had slipped away to a nearby saloon.

Booth fired one .41-caliber bullet into Lincoln's head, mortally wounding him. The actor 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. Though he broke his left leg during the leap to the stage, Booth made good his getaway.

Lincoln was carried across the street to William Petersen's boardinghouse. He died early the next morning, April 15, about nine hours after the assault.

On April 26, Booth and Herold were surrounded while hiding in a tobacco shed in Port Royal, Va. Herold surrendered to the Union troops, but Booth held out, and the barn was set on fire. That failed to force him from the barn, but a shot rang out, and Booth was dragged from the burning structure with a mortal wound. Sergeant Boston Corbett of the 16th New York Cavalry took credit for the fatal round, but the contention is disputed.

Atzerodt, Herold, Powell and Mrs. Surratt were arrested, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Mudd and two others involved in the original capture plan were sentenced to life in prison. Edrnan Spangler, who helped hold Booth’s horse during the assassination, was sentenced to six years hard labor. In 1869 President Andrew Johnson pardoned the surviving conspirators.

The pistol and the fatal bullet, removed during an autopsy, remained in storage at the War Department until 1940, when they were offered to the Department of the Interior. In 1956 the bullet was returned to the Army, and it can be viewed today along with fragments of Lincoln's skull at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington.

The pistol was a silver-inlaid model produced by Henry Deringer, a Pennsylvania armsmaker. In 1806 Deringer established a factory in Philadelphia and began manufacturing flintlock pistols, muskets and then percussion rifles for the U.S. Army. Deringer also gained renown as a producer of popular percussion pistols.

Deringer pocket pistols, known as derringers, were small, short-barreled, single-shot percussion weapons. The barrels ranged from under 1 inch to 4 or more inches in length, and they were made from chemically browned wrought iron. Partly round and partly octagonal, derringer barrels were flattened and slotted on top to accept a blade-style front sight, and their caliber varied from .33 to .51 inches.

A typical derringer 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 plate. 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. Deringer did not use serial numbers, but letters or digits were sometimes stamped or punched on various parts of the pistol.

Deringer's pocket pistols achieved their greatest popularity during the mid-1850s among civilians seeking a compact, easily concealed firearm. To compensate for their single-shot capacity, derringers were sold as pairs for approximately $22 to $25.

The lack of a standardized caliber for derringers meant that each pair included a specific bullet mold, and the loss of the mold precluded the proper fit of ammunition for the set. With its obvious inadequacy as a military weapon, sales of derringers during the Civil War were low. Following the death of Henry Deringer in 1868, the market for pocket pistols opened to competitors eager to apply a breechloading system to a concealable weapon.

The Lincoln assassination ensured the permanent notoriety of the Deringer pistol while simultaneously introducing the word "derringer" into the American lexicon as describing a concealable, short-barreled, single-shot pistol. Derringer refers to a pocket pistol of any make, Henry Deringer's included.

On July 28, 1997, an NPS curator and a U.S. Park Police captain removed the most famous and notorious derringer from its case at Ford's Theatre and carried the firearm to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for examination and to determine if it was the same weapon used to kill Lincoln. To aid in the analysis, the park service provided technical descriptive materials and photographs predating the time of the alleged theft.

FBI scientists started with a basic physical examination that determined the pistol in question was an authentic Deringer-produced firearm and not a contemporary copy or a modern reproduction.

Casts of the pistol's barrel, however, revealed that unlike most Deringer-made pocket pistols, this one had seven grooves that turned in a counterclockwise direction (left twist) rather than the typical clockwise (right twist). How frequently this rifling pattern occurred during the production of Deringer's original pocket pistols is unknown.

The examination of Booth's alleged weapon 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 presidential box, or it could have predated the assassination.

Impression tool marks 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 Booth derringer. Variations in the shading and grain of the pistol's black walnut stock were also noted for comparison purposes.

The examiners requested permission to examine the lead bullet removed during President Lincoln's autopsy, in order to try and determine if the bullet had been fired from the pistol in question, but the bullet had corroded with the passage of time and was too oxidized for an accurate ballistics comparison. Because of the age and historical value of the derringer - if it was the Booth pistol - no attempt was made to test-fire the weapon for fear of damaging it. Analysis of the bullet, therefore, could not answer the question of authenticity of the pistol.

Vintage photographs, however, solved the mystery. Photographic superimpositions using the display pistol and images dating from the 1930s showed similar features. Much as if they were comparing fingerprints, the FBI examiners matched up unique identifying characteristics, including swirl patterns in the wood grain, damage to the stock and pit marks on the barrel. 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 derringer displayed at Ford's Theatre was the same pistol photographed during the 1930s, eliminating the possibility that the pistol had been stolen from the theater and replaced with a replica during the 1960s.

Suzanne Kelley was relieved that 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, Kelley believes that visitors to the famous theatre help deter thefts. Many Americans consider Washington landmarks sacred places, according to Kelley, and most would not hesitate to report any activity that might deface the structures.

Deringer-made pocket pistols like the one used by John Wilkes Booth were normally sold in matched pairs. Was the one used by Booth to kill Lincoln one of such a pair? If so, what became of its mate? Perhaps one day the FBI will be called upon to examine a second pistol to determine if it is the mate to a weapon that changed the course of America.



Note: Comment from Jim Paldan, 6/16/14: "I read the May 2005 article on John Wilkes Booth Derringer.  The last paragraph asked about the whereabouts of the second gun as they were sold in pairs. Well, Wane State University (Detroit, MI) has it locked up in its vault. It's a part of a Civil War special collection."