Booth papers lend credence to tall tales
By Kent Biffle / The Dallas Morning News
CORSICANA – Let’s unearth a rare truffle of a tall tale about the escape to Texas of Abraham Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth.
Reportedly shot to death in Virginia a dozen days after fatally wounding the president in Washington in 1865, Booth, if an old family legend is fact, reached friends in the Freestone County settlement of Wortham.
Historically, Wortham (pop. 1,000) is perhaps best known as the old stomping ground of bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929). (Footnote: Among his most applauded songs was “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” At Wortham Cemetery, fans can check it out. He left Deep Ellum in Dallas for Chicago, where he literally froze to death.)
Hardly any Texans know the story about Booth hanging out in Wortham.
I’d forgotten the tale until last week. I was reminded by a Booth signature on an old legal document in a Civil War collection at Navarro College. “J. Wilkes Booth” was inked with a flourish.
The signature adorns a piece of lawyerly prose having no bearing on Booth’s purported Texas sojourn, which is formally undocumented. Still, the killer’s signature is enough to tingle one’s neck hairs.
In October 1864, in New York City, six months before he shot Lincoln during a play at Ford’s Theater, Booth signed away his share of a Pennsylvania oil partnership. He assigned his interest to his older brother Junius Brutus Booth and partners Moses Coleman and Joe Simonds.
Preoccupied by his anti-Lincoln plots, the twisted, moody actor quit the oil biz a $6,000 loser.
Navarro College’s Constance Cade unlocked a walk-in vault at the library to show me the Booth papers. She plucked the file from about 700 prized letters and diaries in the Charles and Peggy Pearce Civil War Document Collection.
Director of special collections Darrell Beauchamp said historians speculate the deed was a move by the Confederate zealot to put his affairs in order before setting out to kidnap or kill Lincoln.
Gem trove of letters
The collection, given to the college by Corsicana oilman Pearce and his wife, is a gem trove of letters by such Civil War generals as U.S. Grant and R.E. Lee, not to mention unknown privates such as the one signed only “George.” Letters from USA and CSA presidents Lincoln and Jefferson Davis are stellar Navarro holdings.
Now, as President Clinton might urge, let’s move on.
Collin County’s Robert “Jack ” Duncan is a favorite of the Texas Folklore Society and a columnist for the McKinney Courier-Gazette. Texas author Billy Porterfield of Austin (Diddy Waw Diddy) calls him “a root hog who digs up the damnedest truffles.” And this tale’s one of his most savory truffles.
Mr. Duncan told me the story a decade ago just as he’d recorded it a decade earlier from Western artist Ben Carlton Mead (1902- 86):
“John Yates Beall was a young Confederate officer. He was related – seems like he was a cousin – to an aunt of mine by marriage – Miss Julia Beall from Wortham, Texas, who married my Uncle Jim Mead, my father’s brother.
“She was my first-grade teacher and became my aunt about the time I reached the second grade. Many years later, I heard this story about John Yates Beall, her relative, and what happened and the influence that it had on John Wilkes Booth.”
Aunt Julia concluded that what happened to Confederate Beall provoked Booth to kill Lincoln. The Mead-Duncan
account goes on:
“This Lieutenant Beall led a raid far into Northern territory. If I recall right, up near Lake Erie. They wrecked a railroad, and then they were caught.”
Sentenced to death after a trial, the Rebel officer appealed to Lincoln for commutation. While the hanging was delayed, he wrote an account of the raid, offering evidence that he was a CSA officer and not, strictly speaking, a spy and saboteur as prosecutors had charged.
“This manuscript was smuggled out [and] published in a very limited edition,” the Mead-Duncan narrative continues. “It had a sepia photograph of Beall in an oval shape. It’s about an inch and a half deep by an inch and an eighth wide, and is pasted in on the flyleaf facing the title page.
“I have Aunt Julia’s copy of the book. I have asked many antique book dealers, and I’ve only found one who had ever heard of it. He said he’d known of only one other copy. I doubt if more than a thousand copies were printed.
“The main thing in the book is that . . . John Yates Beall and Booth were . . . close friends. After the book was published, the sentence was not commuted by Lincoln. Beall was hanged. And the family story is that Booth shot Lincoln to avenge the hanging of Beall.
“The story is that Booth was not captured, that someone else was killed and it was thought to be Booth’s body, but that Booth actually escaped and finally made it down to Texas where he was befriended by members of the Beall family in Wortham.”
According to Beall family tradition, “He lived for many years after the turn of the century under a different name. There are other stories. Some were to the effect that he lived part time in Oklahoma and part time in Texas. I don’t know myself. I don’t pretend to know.”
Folklorist Duncan found conjecture about the Beall-Booth friendship laid out in a 1929 book titled The Assassination of Lincoln: History and Myth by Lloyd Lewis.
Moreover, old-timers in Granbury will tell you that Booth, using the name John St. Helen, ran saloons in Somervell and Hood counties. The saloon keeper, on what he assumed to be his fevered death bed, confessed his identity to a priest in Granbury. When he recovered, he left town.
Later, some say, in Enid, Okla., he called himself David George and earned his living as a house painter. He committed suicide in 1903 by drinking poison in his Enid hotel room. Earlier, St. Helen-George had confided that he was Booth to several people, including a young lawyer named Finis Bates.
A local curiosity, the body was mummified, either by the potent arsenic cocktail David George drank or, more likely, by an Enid undertaker. Whatever, lawyer Bates took charge of the mummy. Without much success, he tried to convince the public and the government that the mummy was Booth’s corpse.
When Mr. Bates died in 1923 in Memphis, Tenn., his widow sold the mummy to a traveling carnival. In 1931, a group of Chicago doctors reportedly examined the mummy and found that it had a deformed right thumb, a scar above the right eye and a once-broken left ankle, abnormalities known to have been suffered by J.W. Booth.
Many Texans recall seeing that mummy on carnival midways in the 1930s and 1940s. Today the mummy’s missing.
On the mummy’s trail is Booth scholar and Baylor U. grad Ken Hawkes, a pathologist at the University of Tennessee in Memphis. He has run down hundreds of leads without success. He reported that the mummy left the carnival circuit in the mid-1970s.
Giving up show biz would have mortified scene-stealer Booth.