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Science casts new light on history

High-tech tests are inspiring new investigations of the deaths of famous people, including Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, to answer the question "Who dunnit?" and see if the history books are right.

Descendants of Booth, along with two historians, have filed a petition in Baltimore Circuit Court asking to exhume remains from a city cemetery to see if it really is Booth who is buried there.

Similar investigations already have looked into the deaths of President Zachary Taylor, Louisiana political legend Huey Long, the ax-murdered parents of Lizzie Borden and the victims of Colorado cannibal Alferd Packer.

"There has been a surge of increased recognition at what our forensic sciences can do. It's possible to do things that we couldn't do 15 years ago," said Douglas Ubelaker, curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History.

However, a cautionary note is sounded by Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist in Norman, Okla., who analyzed bones found in 1985 at the Little Bighorn battlefield in Montana. Farfetched stories often surround the lives of famous historical figures, he said, and exhumations should only be done if reputable historians believe it crucial to resolve an issue.

"I don't know that just because somebody out there has some doubts about what happened that we should jump in and dig people up," Snow said.

Ubelaker and colleague Doug Owsley were approached by Booth's relatives and historians who think another man is buried in Booth's grave. They think Booth escaped capture and lived another 38 years before dying in Oklahoma in 1903.

Advances in DNA testing of soft tissue and bone can help provide genetic fingerprints to aid in identification, Ubelaker said.

Knowledge of trauma and post-mortem changes in the body also has increased in recent years. And scientists have sophisticated means of comparing skulls with photographs of the deceased, he said.

Among the most active in the field is James E. Starrs, a professor of law and forensic sciences at the George Washington University National Law Center.

Starrs, who is also involved in a so far-uncompleted investigation into whether explorer Meriwether Lewis was murdered or committed suicide, publishes the Scientific Sleuthing Review. He was traveling and unavailable for comment.

In 1991, Starrs exhumed the body of Dr. Carl A. Weiss Sr., the purported killer of Long, a potential Democratic presidential candidate when he was shot in 1935. While an autopsy did not provide any conclusive proof, the investigation found other evidence supporting the conclusion that the former Louisiana governor was shot once by Weiss.