originally published September 18, 2014
When John Wilkes Booth was crouching in Richard H. Garrett’s tobacco barn, listening to Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger’s orders to surrender, he decided to go out with a bang. He refused the surrender, then once the barn was lit on fire he took a bullet to the neck, delivered by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dead by the break of dawn, less than two weeks after he had prematurely terminated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.
Or was he?
Way out in the sprawling suburbs of historical perception there exists the notion that the man whose life was snuffed to a nub in that barn was actually a man named James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who looked enough like Booth that his body passed through ten pairs of identifying eyes (not counting the pair that aimed the gun that took his life), as well as an official autopsy. The composers of this theory also posit that the government knew about the mix-up and let it happen. Because where is the fun in a murder without a deep and sinister government conspiracy?
As for the “real” John Wilkes Booth… well, on the off-chance that this is all true, we can say with a relative certainty that Booth was, in fact, this guy:
One day in 1873, some eight years after the furor over the Lincoln assassination had been pressed between the leaves of history, Memphis lawyer Finis L. Bates met and befriended a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. It’s good to get to know the man who sells you booze and smokes, and Bates was particularly taken by John’s ability to spout Shakespeare from memory. The two became good friends outside the seller-consumer relationship.
Five years later, John St. Helen was on what he believed to be his deathbed, profoundly ill. He confided in Finis Bates that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. He asked Finis to advise his brother, Edwin Booth, of his demise. Then he recovered.
In doing so, John did not recant his story. He explained that the man who was killed was a plantation overseer named Ruddy, who had been sent by Booth to retrieve some lost papers in that barn. Then there was the matter of the conspiracy.
Vice-President Andrew Johnson was behind it all, according to John St. Helen. It was an extensive plot that ran all the way to the top. Finis Bates later claimed he didn’t believe his friend, and when John moved to pursue a career in mining in Leadville, Colorado, he let the matter drop. Their friendship eroded through the natural course of time and distance.
This brings us to the late David E. George, who passed away via a self-inflicted dose of strychnine on January 13, 1903. George was a house painter in Enid, Oklahoma, with a penchant for quoting Shakespeare and a colorful, theatrical personality. In 1900, George confessed to Jessie May Kuhn, the local reverend’s wife, that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. The utterance might have disappeared with David E. George into the earth, except for a note that was found among his belongings, demanding that Finis L. Bates be summoned in case of his death.
Finis arrived in Oklahoma and confirmed that the body purportedly belonging to David E. George was in fact his old friend, John St. Helen. But with no relatives of either name to step forward and claim the body, it remained in the possession of Enid undertaker William Broadwell Penniman. Rather than bury him, Penniman embalmed the hell out of the body then tied it to a chair, opened its eyes and stuck a newspaper in its hand. Now Booth was a local tourist attraction.
George/St. Helen/Booth sat in his chair, creeping out the local and visiting populace for eight years. Had I been cruising through north-central Oklahoma back then, I don’t know which I would have gawked at more: the mummified corpse of a man who might have been Lincoln’s killer, or the Enid townsfolk who actually believed this was a good idea for a tourist attraction.
After the sensationalism balance had tilted heavily from “wow” to “skeevy”, the body was released to the custody of Finis L. Bates.
Finis had already written the War Department in an attempt to claim the $100,000 bounty that had been placed on Lincoln’s killer back in 1865. That didn’t work, so he did the next best thing: he sent Booth out on tour.
The Booth-mummy had made an appearance at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and once Finis Bates had taken possession of him, he began to tour the country on the circus side-show circuit. After World War I, Finis tried to encourage Henry Ford to purchase the mummy. Ford, who was in the midst of a libel lawsuit with the Chicago Daily Tribune, and who had been dodging all sorts of flak for having stated that “history is more or less bunk”, was intrigued. After all, corporeal evidence that the history books were completely wrong about the fate of John Wilkes Booth more than a half-century later would soundly back up his critique of history as a whole.
Ford enlisted Chicago journalist Fred L. Black to investigate Finis Bates’ claim to the mummy’s authenticity. In the end, Black advised Henry Ford to keep his $1000 and drop the notion of investing in this theory.
Meanwhile, the mummy soldiered on.
William Evans, the Carnival King of the Southwest, leased the mummy from Finis Bates and kept hauling in the money. After a circus train wreck near San Diego, the mummy was kidnapped; though for the $1000 reward, the kidnapper handed him back to Evans. In the interim, Finis Bates passed away, which enabled Evans to purchase the mummy outright from his widow.
This mummy was not welcome everywhere it went. A group of Union Army veterans threatened to lynch the body. Evans was frequently run out of towns by health officials or disgusted policemen. The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair turned down the exhibit. When Evans died in 1933, the mummy’s timeline gets a little hazy. It was last spotted in a Midwestern carnival sometime in the late 1970’s.
The truth about the fate of John Wilkes Booth is that he probably took a bullet in the neck back in Richard Garrett’s tobacco farm in 1865. Booth’s body was identified by more than ten people who knew him, and the distinctive neck scar and “J.W.B.” tattoo on his left hand sealed it for the officials who performed the autopsy.
That said, there is a miniscule possibility that J.W.B. stands for James William Boyd, and that John St. Helen / David E. George actually was who he said he was. That’s where history gets fun… in the crazy, billowy haze of the maybe.