From the Vault: Green Mount cemetery

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If you were a big deal in Baltimore at one time, you wanted your body to end up at Green Mount cemetery when you died. “[T]he two-word spelling is the only correct one,” The Sun noted in 1957 (although just 26 years prior the one-word ‘Greenmount’ spelling had, in fact, run in the paper).

Located in East Baltimore, it’s the final resting place to such legends as Johns Hopkins, Enoch Pratt, for whom the city library system is named, as well as – more sinisterly – John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

History tells us Booth was shot in Virginia soon after he shot Lincoln in 1865. His body was taken back to Washington, identified by family members and friends and buried in Navy Yard. Six years later, however, his brother requested President Andrew Johnson’s permission to have him buried at the family plot in Green Mount Cemetery. He was granted it. And so the man who killed Lincoln was laid to rest in the fanciest cemetery in East Baltimore.

This may seem bizarre treatment for the body of a man who killed a U.S. President, much less one as beloved in modern times as Abraham Lincoln. But recall that, although Baltimore was considered part of the Union, many white Baltimoreans owned slaves and supported the Confederacy during the Civil War – as the abundance of Confederate statues around the city can attest. Even if they disagreed with his actions, Baltimoreans may have been sympathetic to Booth’s pro-slavery views.

Fascinatingly, there has been some controversy over the years as to whether the remains purporting to be Booth’s were actually his. In 1903, a man named John St. Helen “confessed” to being the real John Wilkes Booth before committing suicide. This story got widespread attention after author Finis L. Bates wrote a book called The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, which sold 70,000 copies. (Conspiracy theorists will be intrigued to know that, according to Bates, St. Helen claimed the whole assassination was actually Andrew Johnson’s idea.) The Sun wrote in 1931 that St. Helen had claimed the man lying in Booth’s grave was really a Marylander named “Robey, or Ruddy,” a plantation overseer from Charles County.

For an extra macabre twist: Bates was able to obtain St. Helen’s remains and stored them in a Memphis garage. At some point, a side-show got hold of St. Helen’s body and the “Booth mummy” toured the country. The mummy became notorious again in the 1930s sense after scientists discovered a signet ring with the initial “B” in the mummy’s stomach – appearing to match a ring that Lincoln’s assassin was photographed in.

Like all good conspiracies, the theory died down only to pop up again at various stages throughout the years. Most recently came in the 1990s, when Booth descendants filed petitions supporting efforts to have his remains exhumed. They had their own questions they wanted answered.

Green Mount Cemetery fought their efforts in court, and won. The Booth grave remains untouched to this day, though passers-by sometimes leave pennies on the family stone, bearing the face of the man Booth killed.