In life, Edwin and John Wilkes Booth were brothers, ambitious actors, and bitter rivals. They ruthlessly competed for the limelight on stages in Philadelphia and across the nation.

Edwin became one of America's greatest Shakespearean actors, while John Wilkes achieved infamy in another role - as the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, at Ford's Theater in Washington.

Now, for the first time, Booth descendants have agreed to exhume Edwin's body, adding drama to the family's story and delighting historians who have speculated that John Wilkes escaped capture 145 years ago.

By using DNA comparisons, relatives from the Philadelphia area, New Jersey, and Rhode Island hope to learn in the coming months whether the lore of John Wilkes Booth's flight is true.

Is Lincoln's assassin in an unmarked grave at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, as history records? Or did he elude justice, as descendants have been told for generations, to live 38 more years?

"I'm absolutely in favor of exhuming Edwin," said Joanne Hulme, 60, a resident of the Kensington section of the city who is the historian in the Booth family. "Let's have the truth and put this thing to rest."

"It's better to know," said her sister Suzanne Flaherty, 64, of Bordentown.

The sisters, with a third sibling, Virginia Kline of Warminster, have wondered about Booth stories that don't match accepted history, as did their late mother.

"John Wilkes Booth is probably loving this," added Lois Trebisacci, 60, of Westerly, R.I., whose grandfather was Edwin Booth's grandson. "Just being an actor, I'm sure he loves the controversy."

A matinee idol

At 9 p.m. April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth, son of theatrical parents, walked into Taltavull's Star Saloon next to Ford's Theatre and asked for a bottle of whiskey and some water.

"You'll never be the actor your father was," a customer reportedly told him.

"When I leave the stage, I will be the most famous man in America," Booth fired back, according to accounts.

An hour and a half later, the dark-haired actor - a matinee idol of his time - shot Lincoln in the State Box at Ford's and dropped about 11 feet to the stage, breaking his left leg.

History says Booth was cornered 12 days later by detectives and Union soldiers in a tobacco barn at the Garrett farm in Port Royal, Va. Shortly after 2 a.m. on a cool and cloudy Wednesday, he was mortally wounded in the neck.

Or was he?

Efforts by descendants to open the Baltimore grave believed to be John Wilkes Booth's were thwarted in 1995 by a judge who concluded its location could not be conclusively determined. The remains were supposed to be in the family plot, but reports placed it at an undisclosed location.

The family had hoped to use the skull and photographic techniques, along with other identifying scars, to make an identification.

Their best option now is to compare DNA from Edwin Booth, buried in Cambridge, Mass., with a specimen from the man shot at the barn, who experts agree is buried in Baltimore. Three cervical vertebrae from that body are in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington.

Philadelphia's Mutter Museum has cervical tissue from the man, but the DNA was degraded by formaldehyde and alcohol.

The Booth escape "is a story that never seems to die," said Jan Herman, chief historian for the Navy Medical Department and special assistant to the Navy surgeon general in Washington.

"I have always been disturbed by the opposition from recognized Civil War historians" to uncover the truth, he said. "We have the means, and it's certainly worth solving an age-old mystery. Why wouldn't you want to do that?"

The questions over Booth's possible escape also have attracted the scrutiny of the History channel program Brad Meltzer's Decoded, which will air a one-hour segment at 10 p.m. Thursday that explores the evidence.

"There are certain incidents in history that raise enough questions that they're worth looking at," said David McKillop, senior vice president of development and programming for History. Booth's possible escape "is a mystery."

Probably no one wants to get to the bottom of it more than Nate Orlowek, a Maryland educator and historian who since age 15 has doggedly pursued Booth through the yellowing pages of books and period documents.

"If the man who killed our greatest president got away and a giant hoax was perpetrated on the American people, then we should know about it," he said.

Orlowek, 53, has trailed Booth through the reports of witnesses who claimed another man was shot at the farm: James William Boyd or John William Boyd, who bore a striking resemblance to the assassin and by some accounts was sought for the murder of a Union captain.

He's followed the trail of carnivals that exhibited the mummified body of a man the barkers claimed was John Wilkes Booth. And he's sought clues from descendants and interviewed forensic pathologists, authors, and lawyers.

His conclusion? Booth escaped 145 years ago to live in Granbury, Texas, as John St. Helen, then changed his name to David E. George and moved to what is now Enid, Okla. He worked there as an itinerant painter before poisoning himself.

George's mummified remains were allegedly last seen at a carnival in New Hope in 1976.

"Society exists based on the knowledge of itself and the truth of its history," Orlowek said. "We believe in getting the truth no matter what it is. . . .

"If we are proven right," he said, "history will be set on its ear. This will teach us that just because something was blindly accepted in the past, that it is not necessarily true."

DNA controversy

The Booth conundrum comes down to the DNA, say family members.

Once a sample is retrieved from Edwin Booth's body, the next obstacle would be obtaining a viable sample from a bone specimen believed to be John Wilkes Booth's, preserved in Lucite, at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

A panel judges such requests, based on their merits and social, legal, and ethical implications, officials said.

"We do not approve destructive testing on nonrenewable historical artifacts," said Timothy Clarke Jr., a spokesman for the museum.

Possible harm to the artifact must be weighed against the benefits of the testing, said Sharon A. Smith, president of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia.

"It's a question of preserving the physical evidence of history and not putting it at risk," said Smith, who believes the accepted version of what happened at the Garrett farm.

"If the preponderance of evidence is that this is a myth, then should we be investing scarce historic resources?"

Historians such as Herman, though, say the test "wouldn't destroy the sample." A tiny drill could extract what's needed.

"If it compares favorably, that's the end of the controversy," Herman said. "That was Booth in the barn, end of case.

"If it doesn't match, you change American history," he said. "Booth would have a fine time making headlines in the newspapers again. Someone else was shot" at the Garrett farm in that case, he said.

Booth descendants "always refer to that man as the 'body in the barn,' never John Wilkes Booth," Hulme added. "If historians are so convinced they're right, let them prove it."