Documenting the Death of an Assassin

In 1865, a single photograph was taken during the autopsy of John WilkesBooth. Where is it now?

The single autopsy photo of John Wilkes Booth has not been seen since April 27, 1865 and its whereabouts are unknown. (Getty Images)

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Under no circumstances was I to allow him or his assistant out of my sight until they had taken a picture and made the print, and then I was to bring the print and the glass [negative] back to the War Department and give it only to Col. [L.C.] Baker [chief of the Secret Service] or Secretary of War Stanton. ...[Gardner] was told that only one plate was to be made and it was to have only one print made and both were to be given to me when finished….

“Gardner took the plate and then gave it to the assistant and told him to take it and develop it and to make one print. I went with him and even went into the dark room. About 4:00 in the afternoon I got the plate and the print from the assistant and took it to the War Department. I went in to the outer office and Col. Baker was just coming out of the War Office. I gave him the plate and print and he stepped to one side and pulled it from the envelope. He looked at it and then dismissed me.

Wardell said he doubted the historian would be able to track down the picture: “The War Department was very determined to make sure that Booth was not made a hero and some rebel would give a good price for one of those pictures of the plate.”

There the trail of the photograph goes cold. But that doesn’t mean it won’t warm up someday, Zeller says.

“That’s the reason why I’m so absolutely passionate about the field of Civil War photography,” he says. “You keep making huge finds. You can’t say it won’t happen. You can’t even say that it’s not sitting ... in the National Archives War Department records.”

Edward McCarter, supervisor of the still photography collection at the National Archives, says the photo is not there, as far as he knows. He’d never even heard of such a photograph—and given how often and how long researchers have been using the photographs and textual records in the Archives, “I’m sure it would have surfaced.”


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