JOHN WILKES BOOTH: DID HE GO TO HELL OR TEXAS? John Wilkes Booth shares the stage with Adolph Hitler, Billy the Kid, and Elvis as a famous character who some believe survived his own death. The mists of mystery continue to swirl around the demise of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin nearly onehundred and fifty years after his alleged death in a burning barn in Virginia.Tales of Booth’s life after death are exhumed every few years to play in the media again. A Shakespearean actor, Booth would have loved the attention.
Most historians don’t have a problem with the government’s identification of Booth’s body in 1865. Surrounded by Federal Cavalry Troops who had cornered him inside Garrett’s tobacco barn in Virginia, the fugitive refused to identify himself or surrender. In response, the cavalry torched the barn. When flames backlit the man inside, one of the soldiers shot him. Here’s where the details of the accounts begin to diverge. Two of the officers at the scene identified the body as Booth’s, but two others stated that the man who died at Garrett’s Farm had freckles and red hair. Booth had a clear complexion and jet black hair. He had broken his left leg when his spur caught in a decorative flag as he leapt from the president’s box to the stage at Ford’s Theater. The man from Garrett’s Farm had a broken right leg. A high degree of secrecy surrounded the hurried autopsy and burial, contributing to the mystery. Five years later in Glen Rose, Texas, a handsome black-haired stranger took a job as a storekeeper. He also volunteered to perform in amateur theatrical productions and astounded the residents with his acting skill and knowledge of Shakespeare. The man introduced himself as John St. Helen and had a gimpy left leg. When he discovered a year later that a large military wedding was scheduled to take place in Glen Rose attended by many army officers and U. S. Marshalls, St. Helen quietly departed. Not long afterward, the man resurfaced in Granbury, where he fell in with a lawyer named Finis L. Bates. In Granbury, St. Helen worked as a bartender in a saloon, but his friend Bates noticed that the man never touched a drop of demon rum except on April 14th, the anniversary of the assassination of Abe Lincoln, at which time he drank himself into a stupor. The significance of these yearly binges didn’t register with Bates until he was called to St. Helen’s bedside one night where he found his friend desperately ill. A doctor had informed St. Helen that he might not last the night. In weakened whispers the dying man spoke to his friend. “My name,” he said, “is not John St. Helen. I am John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.” St. Helen’s deathbed proclamation was premature. He recovered. As soon as he could travel, John St. Helen packed up and left Granbury. Searching St. Helen’s room after his disappearance, Finis Bates found a single-shot derringer wrapped in the front page of the Washington D. C. newspaper dated April 15, 1865, which bore the story of Lincoln’s assassination. In 1903, a house painter in Enid, Oklahoma named David George committed suicide. Before his death, he confessed to his landlady, Mrs. E. C. Harper, that he was, in fact, John Wilkes Booth. George was sixty-three years old, the same age Booth would have been. To make matters more interesting, he had once suffered a broken left leg, improperly set. When Finis Bates heard of this occurrence, he rushed to Oklahoma and identified the dead man as the same one he had known years before under the name John St. Helen. Bates took possession of the body, had it embalmed, and offered it to federal authorities. They weren’t interested. Later, Bates published a book detailing the evidence he had uncovered entitled The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. The book sold 70,000 copies. To increase the take, Bates had the body of his friend mummified and sent it on tour with a carnival, where it made the rounds in side shows for forty years before disappearing without a trace. Did John Wilkes Booth escape arrest and live out the remainder of his life in Texas and Oklahoma? Historian Nate Orlowek believes so. “There is tremendous physical evidence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that John Wilkes Booth, in reality, was not killed by the Federal Government Officers as they claimed,” Orlowek said. A state court has refused permission to exhume the body occupying Booth’s grave, further fueling the imaginations of mystery-lovers. It’s unfortunate that during his wanderings Booth didn’t make it to Hico and hook up with Brushy Bill Roberts who claimed to be Billy the Kid. Now that would have made a really good story. Content copyright 2014. Martha Deeringer. All rights reserved.