John Wilkes Booth is undoubtedly one of the most notorious names in American history. If you visit his grave, you’ll have to find it first. After shooting Lincoln and escaping to Northern Virginia, Booth was shot while trying to escape capture and his body brought back to Washington, DC, for confirmation of his identity. He was originally buried in the Old Penitentiary along with the two men who conspired with him. His body was exhumed in 1867 and re-buried in a Penitentiary warehouse. It was finally released to his family in 1869, who took the body to their own family plot for final burial.
His family plot is easy to locate, but since the family believed a large headstone might be unseemly and attract unwanted attention, no one is quite sure which stone is his. Common tradition points to a small, unmarked stone, and over time, a tradition has developed. Visitors to the grave place a penny on top of the stone; if Lincoln’s portrait is face up, it designates support for Lincoln. A few occasional face-down pennies would indicate support of Booth. Coin collector William Davis recently visited the grave and took pictures of the coins present at the time.
It’s likely that the tradition developed from the military custom of leaving coins on a soldier’s headstone. Different coins indicate different relationships to the soldier buried; some say the tradition goes back to the Vietnam War, but it can only be traced to the 2000s.
It’s almost certain that no one was leaving pennies at Booth’s grave before the early 1900’s, as the pennies did not bear Lincoln’s portrait until 1909, when the VDB design was introduced. However, it did arise organically, as folk traditions do, and is an excellent example of folklore and tradition in action in the contemporary world. (For another example of this, see our post about coin trees and the work of folklorist Ceri Houlbrook.)
However the traditions develop, humans have long used coins as offerings, luck charms, and wards against evil; it’s no surprise they would be used to send a message at a grave.
[All photos courtesy of William Davis and used by permission.]