PHOTO: U.S. Library of Congress. Digital ID 19233
John Wilkes Booth, a Maryland native, who though born of modest means and never finishing school, went on to become a very popular stage actor in the 1860’s. Booth, who was never one to be quiet on his political views, publicly denounced President Lincoln, and sympathized strongly with the Confederacy. Included with his attitudes was a staunch advocacy against the Abolitionists’ stance on ending slavery.
Booth and his conspirators hatched a plan in 1864 to kidnap President Lincoln in exchange for the Union releasing all Confederate prisoners taken in the war. It never happened. On April 12, 1965, an already disgruntled Booth learned that Confederate Army leader Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses Grant and the Union Army at Appomattox Court House. The news sent Booth over the edge; his anger transformed into immediate thoughts of assassination.
On Good Friday two days later, Booth had his epiphany was picking up his mail at Ford’s Theater, when he learned that Lincoln and his wife would be attending the play Our American Cousin that same evening.
Quickly, Booth and several Confederate sympathizers hatched a plan to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and Ulysses Grant, who was also to be at the theater that evening. The prevailing thought by Booth centered on the notion that the coordinated deaths of the Union’s leadership would reignite the Confederacy to pull together and get back in the War.
Instead of attending, Mrs. Grant (who was not on good terms with Mary Lincoln) and her husband Ulysses, chose to take a train to Philadelphia to visit family. Seward, who was in fact violently knifed in his home by co-conspirator Lewis Powell, lived on. Another co-conspirator, George Atzerodt, had the job of killing Vice-President Johnson. At the last moment, Atzerodt wound up losing his nerve and fled Washington D.C.
Booth, who as a celebrity actor, was given unquestioned access to all areas of the theater, held up his end of the deal. At about 10:25 PM that night, he made his way through an entry door into an area just outside the door of the Presidential Box. He barricaded the entry door from the inside.
Lincoln’s bodyguard, a policeman named John Frederick Parker, had in fact gone to a nearby tavern during the show’s intermission – never to return. The President was completely unprotected – the conditions were ripe for Booth.
During perhaps the funniest moment of the play, Booth opened the unlocked door of the Presidential Box, walking behind Lincoln, and fired the fatal .44 caliber round into the back of the President’s head. The President fell forward, being caught by Mary Lincoln.
While trying to make his initial escape from the box, Booth fought with, and stabbed Major Henry Rathbone, who with his wife had joined the President and Mary Lincoln that evening. After the attack on Rathbone, Booth flung himself over the box at Ford’s Theater and, in mid-flight, caught the spur on his boot on the bunting decorating that hung over the front of the presidential box. The 12-foot fall culminated with Booth crashing on the stage floor below, with a fresh fracture of his left Fibula. With adrenaline flowing and mission accomplished, Booth delivered his most famous line, “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (meaning “Thus always with tyrants”.)
The audience, who up to this point believed that the commotion was part of the show, heard Mary Lincoln and Clara Rathbone scream and Major Rathbone yelling “stop that man”. From that point pandemonium ensued within Fords’ Theater.
Booth ran off the stage and, in an alley behind the theater, got on a waiting, saddled horse. He rode quickly, arriving at the bridge across the Anacostia River – the first of several points of escape to the south. There he ran into a Union Army sentry. After explaining that he was out late and was heading toward Beantown, Maryland, the soldier allowed Booth to pass. Later, he and co-conspirator David Herold met up at Mary Surratt’s roadside inn.
After much drinking, both Booth and Herold left the inn. However, the pain of the fractured leg became too much for Booth to ride on. They stopped at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who sets the broken leg at about 4 A.M., though Mudd has no idea what events had previously transpired. When Mudd heard about Lincoln’s death and the widespread rumor of Booth’s involvement the next morning, he immediately ordered the two off his property. Thereafter, Booth and Herold found their way to a Confederate agent named Thomas Jones. Over the next five days, Jones had them ‘wait it out’ in the swamps of southern Maryland, and eventually they crossed the Potomac River into Virginia.
With little aid from the South’s remaining soldiers, Booth and Herold made their way to Richard Garrett’s tobacco farm in Bowling Green, Virginia. Unknown to Booth and Herold, the union troops were hot on their trail.
The men of the 16th New York Cavalry arrived at the Garrett farm at 2 o’clock on the morning of April 26, 1865. After the soldiers interrogated Garrett and his son, they soon discovered that Herold and Booth were hiding in the barn on the property.
Fifty army soldiers got to the barn and unlocked the door, yelling for the men to come out. Herold, who gave himself up that night, would later be tried, found guilty and hung, along with Mary Surratt and other co-conspirators.
But Booth was defiant and refused to give himself up. A Calvary officer named Luther Baker tried to negotiate with him, but to no avail. Just then, Everton Conger, a cavalry soldier at the back of the barn, lit some straw – the barn quickly caught fire. With broken leg, Booth hobbled toward the barn door and, according to a soldier’s testimony, was trying to level his pistol in an attempt to shoot one of the soldiers. At this time, Sargent Thomas “Boston” Corbett fired and struck Booth in the neck, piercing the spinal cord and rendering Booth immediately paralyzed.
Booth, age 26, died several hours later. His repeated last words were, “Tell my mother that I died for my county.”
That is the story of Booth and his demise, as recalled in the history books and agreed upon by most historians. However, Finis Bates, a promising Tennessee attorney told a strange offshoot to this popular account.
Bates, the grandfather of actress Kathy Bates (Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes), would eventually became the Attorney General for the State of Tennessee. According to Bates, his life changing encounter would set him on a unique course in history. This was set forth in a 1907 book written by Bates entitled The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth.
In 1873, Bates, then a recently-minted attorney, was living with his family in Glen Rose, Texas. One day Bates met a man named John St. Helen. St. Helen, who according to Bates, walking with a noticeable limp, was a liquor and tobacco merchant who lived in the nearby Granbury, Texas. Bates recalled that in the early days of their ‘friendship’, the gregarious and well-known St. Helen had particular tendencies to recite Shakespeare from memory.
Five years passed and, in 1878, St. Helen became suddenly ill. According to Bates, St. Helen, believing he would not continue living, summoned him to his bedside. On his word, St. Helen proceeded to tell Bates a crazy story of how he was, in fact, John Wilkes Booth. Bates recalls the conversation in his book:
“I am dying. My name is John Wilkes Booth, and I am the assassin of President Lincoln. Get the picture of myself from under the pillow. I leave it with you for my future identification. Notify my brother Edwin Booth, of New York City.”
St. Helen told Bates how Vice-President Andrew Johnson was the mastermind behind a quiet cabal designed to assassinate Lincoln. Moreover, he proceeded to say that the man killed in the barn by Sergeant Corbett was a plantation hand named ‘Ruddy’, asked by Booth to go back and fetch items lost on the escape route.
St. Helen told Bates that he had clearly known about the pursuing army and how close he and Herold were to being caught that night. Moreover, the man shot in the barn that night was not Booth, but the red-haired Ruddy.
According to a 2007 article, written by Michael Finger of the Memphis Flyer, historical accounts of Booth mention his curly black hair, even though two citizens who saw the dead body at Garrett’s farm described it as red-haired. Finger writes:
“According to some reports, Herold [the co-conspirator, who gave himself up] surprised his captors by asking them, “Who was that man in the barn with me? He told me his name was Boyd.”
And even though hundreds of people in Washington knew Booth well, no close friends were called to identify the remains. Instead, the Army relied on a few military men who had seen Booth on stage, along with the proprietor of a Washington hotel where Booth had lodged.
As recounted in a 1944 issue of Harper’s, the strangest testimony came from Booth’s personal physician, who had once operated on Booth’s neck. When this man examined the body, he was stunned: “My surprise was so great that I at once said to [the surgeon general], ‘There is no resemblance in that corpse to Booth, nor can I believe it to be that of him.'”
St. Helen would live on, far past his infamous confession to Bates. The attorney, who initially disregarded the story as bunk, never forgot St. Helen’s confession. Many years later, Bates contacted Washington D.C., trying unsuccessfully to collect on the original $100,000 bounty laid out by the U.S. Government for Booth.
In 1878, Bates, calling himself William J. Ryan, arrived in the South Texas town of Bandera. According to journalist Logan Hawkes, after teaching public school for some time, Ryan opens a private school where he teaches students not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but also classic literature and acting.
According to the legend, Ryan fell in love with a local lady with whom he will marry — until she mentions that, among the guests she had invited to the wedding, was a relative who was a U.S. Marshal. Booth (now Ryan) made a familiar choice, fleeing town in the dead of night.
Some accounts state that Ryan, who once again took on the name of St. John, moved to Leadville, Colorado to pursue mining. Thereafter, in 1883, he changed his name to David E. George, and found his new home in the town of Enid, Oklahoma.
We fast forward to January 13, 1903, at the Grand Hotel in Enid, Oklahoma. There, in room number four, a sixtyish year old man named David E. George lets out a scream. As the proprietor and his wife unlocked the door, they found the man gurgling and writhing in pain. He had taken red wine with strychnine, a common poison.
George had related to a hardware store salesman, just a day before that he was purchasing the poison to kill a loud, disturbing dog.
David E. George Image Source: C. Wyatt Evans. The Legend of John
The next day, the Enid town newspaper wrote about the deceased Mr. George, an alcoholic painter who had a habit of frequently blurting out quotes from popular Shakespearian plays.
George’s body was sent to the town’s undertaker, William Penniman. As a matter of formality, Penniman would not have the body buried until it was claimed by someone. As time went by, no one claimed the body. In a peculiar decision, Penniman tied the body of David George to a chair in his funeral parlor, opened its eyes and placed a newspaper on its lap.Separately, while David George was being embalmed, the Reverend Enoch Covert Harper came to view the body. Immediately he recognized the body as the same person who, three years earlier, had relayed a story of his being John Wilkes Booth to Harper’s wife-to-be, Mrs. Jessie May Kuhn. At the time, both Reverent Harper and Mrs. Kuhn thought George’s story to be highly incredulous.
If this were the end of the story, it would be eye raising enough. However, it gets, as one would say, more tarnished.
Papers found on the dead Mr. George requested that, upon his death, Mr. Bates would be summoned. As asked for, Finis Bates received word of the death, came to Enid, and in looking at the body, confirmed that George was indeed the man he formerly knew as St. Helen years before. With no one else to claim the body, Bates took possession of George’s body.
Bates looked to capitalize on what he deemed his good fortune. He transformed the body of David George to that of the ’Mummy of John Wilkes Booth’. The body was brought by Finis and those he employed, to World’s Fairs, Circuses, and even as a potentially purchasable item by Henry Ford.
Doctors were brought in to identify the corpse, and though it has a scarred eyebrow, broken leg, and crushed thumb (as Booth had), no confirmation could ever be made of its authenticity to Booth. Thus, Bates never got his claim to fame. The mummy changed hands many times over a period of more than fifty years. Its whereabouts are now unknown.
All of these stories have been a consistent sore on the remaining Booth relatives. For years, remaining Booth relatives have tried to have John Wilkes Booth’s body exhumed for DNA analysis. Because the Smithsonian institute has kept three vertebrae of the burned body that was pulled out of the barn in April, 1865, a simple DNA test between the bones and the Booth body could prove once and for all that Booth was really killed that day.
The case for exhuming Booth was heard and the request was denied by Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan. The chief reason is because Green Mount Cemetery (in Baltimore) is not certain where John Wilkes Booth is buried, and there is evidence that three infant siblings are buried in a coffin on top of his remains. Exhumation would inappropriately disturb these individuals. Moreover, the court felt that the evidence from Garrett’s farm was overwhelmingly convincing.
But the Booth family keeps on trying. In 2010, Lois Trebisacci of Westerly, R.I. identified herself as the great-great-great granddaughter of legendary actor Edwin Booth, the trigger man’s brother. He died in 1893 and is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
She sought permission for experts to compare Edwin Booth’s DNA to spinal bone remains of the man believed to be John Wilkes Booth, located in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., and the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Both museums have as of this writing, never granted permission for such a test.
Near the end of my studies on this topic, I ran across a letter that was written on October 24, 1907 by Reverend R.B. Garrett and notarized by Shelby County Tennessee resident A.R. Taylor in 1933. In the letter, Garrett clearly recalls, as a young boy, the day Booth was killed. R.B. was the young boy who told the Calvary men that Booth and Herold were in the barn on his father’s land. Moreover, it came from a man (of God) who quite frankly had nothing to gain from writing the letter, except that it directly refutes Bates’ story.
Perhaps conspiracy theorists could say that the good Reverend wanted to ‘keep the story going’ so that his family would always be remembered in American history. As for me, I’m waiting for the DNA test. I always love a good conspiracy.