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Was the Heart of President Lincoln’s Killer Once Destined for IU’s Museum: An Interesting Story, but Is It True

Blog post by Randi Richardson

In 1881 an unnamed reporter for the Bloomington Hawkeye shared with the newspaper’s readers his recent experience in downtown Bloomington.

He said he met a fashionably dressed young woman, perhaps 24 or 25 years of age, on the north side of the downtown square.  She said she had just come from Indianapolis on the Monon and wanted directions to Bloomington’s “leading hotel.”  When he tried to explain to her where the National House was located just a block and a half away at Kirkwood and Washington, she seemed confused.  So he walked with her to the hotel.

The following morning, at her request, he joined her in the hotel parlor.  It was there that she told him she came to Bloomington to meet her fiancé, a second cousin named Prof. C. L. Simmons of Detroit.  They were supposed to be married by her fiancé’s friend, Amzi Atwater.


At first efforts were made to capture Booth alive by setting the barn on fire in which he was hiding.  When that failed, he was killed by a gunshot.  Sketch from the book by Clara E. Laughlin.

Barnes Miers was how the reporter identified the woman by name.  She had with her, she said, and revealed some documentation to support her claim, the heart of J. Wilkes Booth, the killer of President Lincoln, preserved in alcohol.  It was consigned to her by Simmons, the nephew of Joseph K. Barnes, the surgeon general who performed Booth’s autopsy.  At the time of the wedding the heart was to be turned over to Atwater to become part of the IU museum collection.

Unfortunately, however, Simmons was not at the hotel to meet her as he said he would.  And after her conversation with the reporter, Barnes Miers packed up Booth’s heart, as well as her own grieving one, and returned to Indianapolis.

Could this incredible story be true?  It had a ring of truth.  Amzi Atwater was prominent in Bloomington and affiliated with Indiana University for many years.  President Lincoln was, indeed, murdered by John Wilkes Booth and Joseph K. Barnes was the surgeon general at that time.

The truth to the story, however, seems unlikely.  At best, the story seems a mixture of both fact and fiction.  Research indicates that Joseph K. Barnes was, in fact, present at one of autopsies performed on Booth, but did not perform the autopsy.  Additionally, according to research, several of the vertebrae from Booth’s neck, those affected by the bullet that eventually killed him, were removed and are now preserved at a medical museum in Washington, D. C., but there is , however, no evidence  that the heart or any other part of the body was removed except as those noted.  Furthermore, there is not enough information to determine whether or not Simmons was the nephew of Barnes or even if C. L. Simmons existed at all.  That goes double for Barnes Miers.  Such a person was not included in 1880 census record just one year earlier than the news item.

So you must decide for yourself.  Should you find evidence to support the story…well, let us know.
We, too, are curious.


Bloomington Hawkeye, February 17, 1881, p. 5.

Clara Elizabeth Laughlin, The Death of Lincoln:  The Story of Booth’s Plot, His Deed and the Penalty.  NY:  Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909.