One of the more enduring theories surrounding the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln is that John Wilkes Booth may have survived beyond 1865.
Twelve days after the assassination of President Lincoln, history records show that Booth suffered a fatal gunshot wound while resisting arrest. Today, the Booth family believes he faked his death, reunited with his wife, and went on to marry again under an assumed name, eventually revealing his true identity in a series of clues.
To help put an end to the mystery, the History Channel called on the expertise of Virginia Tech computer science associate professor Kurt Luther. Luther and his Civil War Photo Sleuth software were featured on the History Channel’s The Escape of John Wilkes Booth last weekend as part of its “History’s Greatest Mysteries” series.
Powered by a database of more than 30,000 images, Luther’s software brings together the complementary strengths of both human intelligence and artificial intelligence (AI) using facial recognition.
The site uses visual clues such as coat color, chevrons, shoulder straps, collar insignia, and hat insignia from photos of Civil War soldiers and then links them to search filters to prioritize the most likely matches.
The site then uses the facial recognition AI to further cluster photos based on their similarity. Both steps help “narrow the haystack” for the user that comes onto the site to search for a specific soldier. That’s where human intelligence comes in: Users find the needle in the haystack by exploring the highest-probability matches in more detail and deciding on them.
Moving from the known photos of Booth, the database was put to the test to see if could make any identifications with two other photographs: one of a man named James William Boyd that had strong physical resemblances to Booth and the other a high-resolution scan of an old tin-type of John St. Helen, an assumed name allegedly used by John Wilkes Booth. Luther found no match with the known photos of Booth in the database, refuting the theory that Booth survived under one of these assumed identities
The History Channel provided Luther with two different photographs of Booth as a “test subject,” said investigator Arthur Roderick, a retired U.S. marshal and law enforcement media consultant, who interviewed Luther at his Virginia Tech office in Arlington. The software was able to successfully match the two different Booth photographs among more than 30,000 possibilities.
Through the Civil War Photo Sleuth Facebook page, the History Channel show’s producers contacted Luther as they had been granted access to 60 boxes of rare documents at Harvard University that could speak to the mystery.
The producers were specifically interested in the photo sleuth’s cutting-edge facial recognition technology to see if they could make any positive photo identifications to Booth. Since its launch in 2018, users have uploaded photos, tagged them with visual cues and connected them to profiles of Civil War soldiers with detailed records of military history to the photo sleuth website.
Luther also serves as a senior editor for Military Images, a quarterly magazine dedicated solely to the study of portrait photographs of Civil War soldiers, where he writes about his real-life accounts on the research trail.
“There is great excitement around artificial and facial recognition as its being used for an increasingly wide range of applications,” said Luther. “The relationship between history and technology can also help us solve mysteries that have existed for decades and even centuries.”
— Written by Jenise L. Jacques