The Booth DeringerGenuine Artifact
Sally A. Schehl
Forensic Science Communications
Forensic Science Research Unit
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Carlo J. Rosati
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Introduction.......Background.......Materials and Methods
Five days after Confederate
General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S.
Grant at McLean's Courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia, an actor
named John Wilkes Booth achieved historical immortality by firing
the shot that claimed the life of Abraham Lincoln. The events
surrounding this first assassination of an American President
are extensively chronicled with regard to cast of characters,
social and political repercussions, and ultimate resolution,
particularly as Lincoln's death occurred in the direct aftermath
of the nation's greatest schism and would be a far-reaching factor
in the future course of history. In the midst of these volumes
of materials treating the Lincoln assassination, this article
focuses not on the motives of John Wilkes Booth nor on the response
of the American people to the death of Abraham Lincoln on April
15,1865, in Washington, DC, but rather on the weapon that created
the fatal rippleBooth's Deringer pistol.
One hundred and thirty-two
years after the death of Lincoln, this pistol was again an item
of interest in Washington, DC. In June 1997, the U. S. Park Police
and the National Park Service contacted the Federal Bureau of
Investigation with a request for assistance in examining the
Deringer pistol used by John Wilkes Booth in the assassination
of Abraham Lincoln. The authenticity of the pistol, which is
displayed at the Ford's Theatre National Historic Site in Washington,
DC, was drawn into question during the adjudication of a New
England estate belonging to a member of a burglary ring that
operated throughout the northeastern United States between the
late 1960s and the early 1980s. Members of this ring had allegedly
replaced the original Booth pistol with a replica pistol in the
late 1960s, at which time the security system at Ford's Theatre
was much less sophisticated than that in place today. Curatorial
records of the Booth pistol were unable to resolve the issue
of authenticity, and the FBI Laboratory was subsequently assigned
to determine beyond a reasonable doubt whether the Deringer pistol
displayed at Ford's Theatre is the same pistol pictured in historical
photographs pre-dating the 1960s.
The Lincoln Assassination
On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln,
in the company of Major Henry Reed Rathbone and his fiancée,
Clara Harris, attended a performance of Our American Cousin,
a play showing at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC. At approximately
10:15 p.m., an actor named John Wilkes Booth made his way to
the state box occupied by the President and his companions, entered
the sitting area unchallenged, and, pointing the muzzle of his
Deringer pistol at the back of Abraham Lincoln's head, fired
a single shot. During the ensuing chaos, Booth dropped the pistol,
stabbed Major Rathbone in the arm with a knife, vaulted over
the railing of the state box to the stage, and escaped through
the back of the theater to his horse. Though having broken the
fibula of his left leg during his leap to the stage, Booth was
otherwise uninjured and rode unpursued from the scene of the
Abraham Lincoln, unconscious,
was carried from Ford's Theatre to Petersen's House, a collection
of boarding rooms located across the street from the theater.
Surrounded by his family and political colleagues, Lincoln died
on the morning of April 15, 1865, approximately nine hours after
receiving the fatal gunshot wound.
Twelve days after shooting
Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth was trapped in a burning barn near
Port Royal, Virginia, by 2,000 pursuing Union soldiers. When
the fire and smoke failed to force Booth from the barn, Sergeant
Boston Corbett, acting against Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's
official orders to return Booth to Washington alive, shot and
killed the actor-turned-assassin.
The Deringer Pocket Pistol: History and Attributes
The pistol recovered from the state box after the Lincoln shooting
was a silver-inlaid model of the pocket type produced by Deringer,
an armsmaker based in Pennsylvania.
In 1806 Henry Deringer established
a firearms factory in Philadelphia and began manufacturing flintlock
pistols, muskets, and, somewhat later, percussion rifles for
the U.S. Army. Though initially recognized as a supplier of long
arms, Deringer gained renown with the production of percussion
dueling pistols, which first appeared in 1825 and were primarily
sought by military officers and political officials. The manufacture
of a smaller version of the dueling pistol in the late 1840s
and the pocket pistol in the early 1850s solidified Deringer's
position as a manufacturer of quality firearms.
The Deringer pocket pistol
achieved its greatest popularity during the mid-1850s and was
a favorite of civilians seeking a compact, easily concealed firearm
for use in personal defense. Although the Deringer pistol was
somewhat limited by its single-shot capacity, its light weight
and small size gave it a distinct advantage over bulkier, unconcealable
alternatives, and the limitations of its firing capacity could
be circumvented by carrying two pistols, which were sold as pairs
for approximately $22 to $25 during that time period. The Deringer
pistol's ubiquity, success, and infamy as a deadly weapon is
apparent in its association with a number of prominent California
murders that took place during the 1850s, as well as its later
use in the assassination of President Lincoln. The latter homicide
ensured the permanent notoriety of the Deringer pistol while
simultaneously finalizing the incorporation of the word "derringer"
into the American lexicon as a common noun denoting a concealable,
short-barreled nonautomatic pistol. Notably, the use of the noun
Deringer refers to a pistol manufactured by Henry Deringer, whereas
the use of the noun derringer (sometimes spelled Derringer) refers
to a pocket pistol of any make.
With the advent of breechloading
firearms, self-contained cartridges, and the Civil War, the demand
for Deringer pistols and other percussion weapons declined sharply.
In addition to its pending obsolescence as a percussion device,
the Deringer pistol's non-martial status was underscored by the
lack of a standardized caliber among pistols of its make. Because
each paired set of Deringer pistols included a bullet mold specific
to the caliber of the two matching pistols, loss of this mold
virtually precluded the proper fit of ammunition for the paired
set. The prewar focus on definitively military weapons obviated
the inadequacy of the Deringer pistol on the battlefield, and
sales of the firearm during the war were low. Following the death
of Henry Deringer in 1868, the market for pocket pistols opened
to competitors eager to apply the breechloading system to a concealable
A Deringer pocket pistol
is typified by its small size and short-barreled, single-action
percussion design. The barrel of this firearm can range in length
from less than 1 to 4 or more inches and is made from wrought
iron browned with a chemical solution that imparts copper-colored
streaks to the barrel. Partially round and partially octagonal,
the Deringer barrel is flattened and slotted on top to accept
a blade-style front sight and is rifled with seven grooves, right
twist. The grooves are beveled at the mouth of the barrel, and
caliber varies from .33 to .51 inches.
General attributes of a typical
Deringer pistol include a black walnut stock with a checkered
grip, a checkered hammer thumb piece, and an S-shaped triggerguard.
The mountings of the pistol are engraved German silver; some
specimens bear gold or gold-plated mountings. All mountings are
attached to the stock with pins, with the exception of the sideplates
and buttplate, which are fixed with bolts or screws. The lockplate
and barrel are stamped with the trademark DERINGER PHILADELA
(on separate lines) and may bear an additional stamping on the
top of the barrel that indicates an agent's name and address.
No serial numbers are present, but letters or digits may be stamped
or punched on various parts of the pistolfor example, barrel,
lockplate, breechplug, wedge, and triggerfor use during
assembly. Overall length of the pocket pistol ranges from 3¾
to 9 inches.
The widespread popularity
of the Deringer percussion pocket pistol led to equally widespread
imitation. Some copies of the Deringer pistols can be distinguished
from the original firearms by their solid steel, rather than
wrought iron, barrels. Other copies, specifically those produced
by Slotter & Co. (a group composed of several of Deringer's
former workmen) and distributed by A. J. Plate, are identical
in design and trademark stamp to the genuine Deringer pistols.
Still other facsimiles were stamped with variations of the Deringer
name to avoid prosecution for trademark infringement. Ultimately,
however, all derringers manufactured after 1870, at which time
Deringer production ceased, must be considered replicas that
follow or expand on Deringer's original design.
On July 28, 1997, the National
Park Service curator and a U.S. Park Police captain removed the
Booth Deringer pistol from its case in Ford's Theatre and hand-carried
the firearm to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for examination.
Once in the possession of the FBI Laboratory, the Booth Deringer
became the object of a series of examinations designed to determine
the authenticity of the pistol beyond a reasonable doubt.
To assist in clarifying the
issue of the pistol's authenticity, the FBI Laboratory was provided
a series of photographic and documentary evidence that included
historical photographs of the pistol dating from the 1930s, 1950s,
and 1960s, as well as technically descriptive materials from
this timespan. Through a series of physical analyses, the Firearms-Toolmarks
Unit characterized the pistol with regard to all derringer-style
pistols of similar size and caliber and recorded all relevant
features of the firearm for comparison with the photographic
images. Building on the morphological information obtained through
the Firearms-Toolmarks Unit's examination of the Booth Deringer,
the FBI Laboratory's Special Photographic Unit performed photographic
superimpositions using the Deringer and the historical images
of the pistol.
The Booth Deringer (Specimen
K1) was described as a single-shot, muzzle-loading, percussion
cap-fired Deringer pistol manufactured by/for the Henry Deringer
Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its notable features and
markings included, but were not limited to, a black walnut stock
with checkering; a barrel with an octagonal upper portion and
a round lower portion; an S-shaped triggerguard; a hammer; and
scrollwork on the sideplates, buttplate, stock tip, wedgeplates,
front sight, escutcheon, and flashplate. Figures 3 through 7
show the pistol as viewed from a number of angles.
The trademark DERINGER PHILADELA
was found stamped in two locations-on the lockplate and on top
of the breech plug. A letter "P" inside a sunburst
was also stamped as a proofmark on the left flat of the breech
plug between two bands of gold. No serial numbers were noted.
Standard forensic measurements of the pistol were recorded and
are presented in Table 1.
Because the age and historical
value of the Deringer pistol precluded test firing to obtain
rifled bullet samples, the interior of the barrel, breech plug,
and flash port of the firearm were cast with Mikrosil, a dental
material used to reproduce three-dimensional impressions. From
the resulting cast, FBI examiners determined that the barrel
of the pistol was rifled with seven grooves in a counterclockwise
direction (left twist). Land and groove impression measurements
of .100 and .085 inches, respectively, were recorded. The barrel
cast was returned to the U.S. Park Service following completion
of the examination.
Notable in the examination
of the pistol's barrel was the observation that the Booth Deringer,
unlike most Deringer pocket pistols, has rifling that turns in
a counterclockwise direction (left twist) rather than the typical
clockwise (right twist). How frequently this rifling pattern
occurred during the production of the original Deringer pocket
pistols is unknown.
Physical examination of the
Deringer pistol revealed a number of imperfections unique to
the firearm. Foremost of these was a significant fracture or
crack in the forestock of the firearm, which bore evidence of
previous repair. Impression toolmarks 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 discrete features
found on the Deringer. Variations in the shading and grain of
the pistol's black walnut stock were also noted for comparison
The Firearms-Toolmarks Unit
also requested permission to examine the lead bullet that fatally
wounded Abraham Lincoln. This bullet was extracted from Lincoln's
brain during the autopsy performed by local physicians in 1865
and is currently maintained by the Armed Forces Institute of
Pathology in Washington, DC (Figure 8). Though determined to
be consistent in size and weight to the caliber .41 lead balls
that were used in caliber .44 pocket pistols of the type owned
by Booth, however, the bullet had suffered corrosion with the
passage of time and was in too advanced a stage of oxidation
to allow accurate comparison to specimen K1.
using the Deringer pistol and images of the firearm dating from
the 1930s demonstrated a close correspondence between the specimen
pistol and the pistol depicted in the historical photographs.
Unique identifying characteristics including swirl patterns in
the grain of the stock, pit marks on the barrel, and other damage
to the wood of the pistol were visible on the K1 Deringer pistol
examined by the FBI Laboratory and in the photographs submitted
by the National Park Service for comparison.
The Booth Deringer pistol
with the bullet and skull fragments removed from Lincoln during
his 1865 autopsy. Click for enlarged
Additional photographs of the
K1 Deringer pistol from numerous angles were taken by the Special
Photographic and Firearms-Toolmarks Units during examination
and scaled to the archived images for additional 1:1 comparisons.
The Booth Deringer and all
submitted photographic and documentary items were returned to
National Park Service curator on August 8, 1997.
The Booth DeringerMorphological
Measurement in Inches
Breech plug length
Muzzle to end of breech plug
Front outside of barrel
Middle outside of barrel
Outside of hammer
Inside trigger guard
The firearm shown in the
1930s historical photographs of the Booth Deringer pistol was
determined to be consistent with firearm specimen K1. On the
basis of corresponding forensic measurements and external physical
features, most notably the fractured stock, patterned wood grain,
and barrel defects of the pistol, the FBI Laboratory concluded
beyond a reasonable doubt that the Deringer pistol currently
displayed at Ford's Theatre is the same pistol that was photographed
during the 1930s. This finding precludes the possibility that
the pistol had been stolen from the theater and replaced with
a replica during the 1960s.
Although the FBI Laboratory's
examinations clarified the authenticity of the Deringer displayed
in Ford's Theatre, two questions concerning this pistol remain.
The first of these concerns the distinguishing crack present
in the forestock of the pistol, which is thought to have occurred
when Booth dropped the firearm in the state box after shooting
Lincoln. An alternate theory asserts that the crack predated
the assassination and may actually have occurred while Booth,
an avid horseman, was riding through Washington. The fall of
the pistol to a cobbled or brick-paved street from the pocket
of a man on horseback could have damaged the firearm in such
A second question centers
on the distribution of the Deringer pocket pistols in matched
pairs, which sold for approximately $25 during the 1860s. These
matched pairs were custom-made, high quality firearms that often
bore gold and silver inlays. Booth, an attractive, wealthy, and
prominent actor of his era, was a man able to afford a set of
pistols of the quality associated with the Deringer name. Was
the Deringer used by Booth to kill Lincoln one of such a pair?
If so, what became of its mate?
These questions seem trivial,
however, when one considers how events in post-Civil War America
might have unfolded if Booth's single-shot Deringer had misfired
on April 14, 1865, or if Lincoln had survived the bullet wound.
What could have been the course of our nation's history?
Booth Deringer and other artifacts associated with the assassination
of Abraham Lincoln are displayed at the Ford's Theatre National
Historic Site in Washington, DC. The bullet and a skull fragment
removed from Lincoln during the probing of the wound by attending
physicians are currently maintained by the Armed Forces Institute
of Pathology in Washington, DC.
Kunhardt, D. M. and Kunhardt,
P. B. Twenty Days: A Narrative in Text and Pictures of the
Assassination of Lincoln. Harper and Row, New York, 1965.
Parsons, J. E. Henry Deringer's
Pocket Pistol. William Morrow, New York, 1952.
National Park Service, U.S.
Department of the Interior. Ford's Theatre and the House Where
Lincoln Died: Official Park Guide. Government Printing Office,
Washington, DC, 1999.
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