by Alva Johnston
Saturday Evening Post – February 10, 1938
John Wilkes Booth – or “John,” as he is generally called in outdoor amusement circles – had his first prosperous season last year since 1864. He earned $20,000 in the year before he killed Lincoln. How much he made last year is a trade secret, but it ran well into four figures.
Historians have raised quibbles as to whether John is the authentic John Wilkes Booth; at any rate, he is the authentic John Wilkes Booth of the street fairs and midways. John is not a member of Equity or the Actors’ Guild because of the technicality that he is no longer living. He is America’s leading mummy.
Historians of the old school allege that John Wilkes Booth was killed in Garrett’s barn in Virginia on April 26, 1865, twelve days after he assassinated Lincoln. Partisans of John have another version. They say that Booth escaped from Garrett’s barn and lived in Texas and Oklahoma under the names of Ney, St. Helen, Ryan and George – principally under the name of St. Helen. The Texas-Oklahoma Booth committed suicide by arsenic at Enid, Oklahoma, on January 13, 1903. Forty pounds of affidavits say that this man was the genuine John Wilkes Booth. At any rate, John, in a magnificent state of preservation, has had an interesting professional life since 1903.
The postmortem career of this John Wilkes Booth, whether he belongs to history or folklore, has been marked by almost continual failure and disaster. He has scattered ill-luck around almost as freely as Tutankhamen is supposed to have done. Nearly every showman who exhibited John has been ruined. Eight people were killed in 1920 in the wreck of a circus train on which John was traveling. Bill Evans, the wealthy Carnival King of the Southwest, who exhibited the mummy for years, was ruined financially; he died in 1933, shot in a Chicago holdup.
Finis L. Bates, a Memphis lawyer and original sponsor of John, died in 1923 after suffering much ridicule because of a book he wrote on John. The Rev. Dr. Clarence True Wilson, one of the great leaders of the prohibition movement, was an enthusiastic champion of John; he experienced no ill effects, however, except that his heart was nearly broken by repeal.
John has had a strange knockabout existence. He has been bought and sold, leased, held under bond, kidnapped and seized for debt; has been repeatedly chased out of town by local authorities for not having a license or for violating other ordinances; has been threatened with hanging by indignant G.A.R. veterans. Up until 1937 he has been a consistent money loser.
John’s present owner is John Harkin, of Wheatfield, Indiana, formerly the chief tattooed man of the Wallace-Hagenbeck circus. Harkin made a fortune in the circus and carnival business, invested it in Chicago residential property and retired. But six years ago he saw the mummy, was fascinated by it and bought it for $5000. John appealed strongly to Harkin because Harkin is a rugged individualist in his interpretation of history; he holds, for example, that Napoleon escaped after the Battle of Waterloo and that a dummy made up to resemble him was sent to St. Helena.
The Villain of the Place
After making the purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Harkin set out in a battered exhibition truck which can be converted into a small amusement palace. They traveled economically. At night they slept on bunks on either side of the truck; John, who was considered practically a member of the family, had a berth on the floor between them.
Now and then they had streaks of luck. They struck it richest at Shawano, Wisconsin, which is near the Menominee Indian Reservation. The Indians came in droves.
Mr. Harkin made inquiries and learned that several years before, a white schoolteacher on the reservation had stated that the assassin of Lincoln was an Indian. The chief of the Menominee was so happy to discover that John was a Caucasian that he ordered the entire tribe to attend the show. But Shawano was a great exception. In Springfield, Missouri, for example, John played an entire week to twenty-five cents.
In the meantime everything went wrong with Harkin’s Chicago property. Negroes moved into the block and Harkin’s tenants moved out. John was seized by the former owner because the last installment had not been paid. Harkin sold his real estate for $300 above the mortgage in order to raise money to recover the mummy.
If, as Charles Evans Hughes has said, truth is to be found even in affidavits, John must be what he purports to be. When the exhibition truck is packed for traveling, there is hardly room for the three occupants, so much space is taken up by affidavits. Harkin complains that he is up to his neck in sworn statements all the time. These documents have even silenced college professors, who inclined to the reactionary view that John Wilkes Booth was killed in 1865.
Anyway, these affidavits have convinced Harkin. During all exhibitions he flaunts a banner which reads, $1000 REWARD TO ANYONE WHO CAN PROVE THAT THIS IS NOT JOHN WILKES BOOTH. That reward, according to the showman, has never even been claimed.
So confident is the showman of the justice of his cause that, even when flat broke, he has continued to hurl his $1000 challenge at the public. He has been reduced to trading the colored electric bulbs which illuminate John at night shows for gasoline to get to the next town; but even in this extremity, he has maintained the $1000 challenge. He has been so impoverished that, in order to eat, he has been forced to go to the hospitable Rio Grande Valley, where the farmers give you all the vegetables you want for nothing; even in this emergency he has continued to throw down his $1000 gage to the scholarship of America.
The spell of adversity which pursued John for many years was reversed last season, when the Harkins became connected with the Jay Gould Million-Dollar Show which toured Minnesota and South Dakota. The Jay Gould troupe consisted of Mr. Gould and Mrs. Gould, their four daughters, four sons and three daughters-in-law, plus a trained elephant, trained dogs and ponies and a collection of midgets. Always on the lookout for a good cultural attraction, Jay Gould annexed the John Wilkes Booth outfit last year. He made it pay. He is the first showman who had the genius to operate a modern American mummy successfully. After the million-dollar performance is completed, Gould steps to the loud-speaker, delivers a lecture on John, and crowds swarm to see him.
Before Gould took general supervision over the attraction, its worst enemies were skeptics who would look at John and jeeringly exclaim “Wax!” Mr. and Mrs. Harkin tremble with indignation at the mere mention of wax. Their $5000 historical and educational item has for years been up against the unfair competition of wax outlaws and heroes. Jay Gould solved this problem immediately. His first move on hitting a new town is to summon the undertakers, admit them free of charge and send them away raving. Even after decades of rough carnival and sideshow life, John is a masterpiece compared to the Pharaohs in the museums. He is as tough and leathery as a tackling dummy. One reason for this is that the Enid undertaker used arsenic in embalming the body. This is said to be the best preservative, but in recent years its use has generally been forbidden, because it may be employed to destroy the evidence in cases where murder has been perpetrated by arsenic. The fact that the suicide was by arsenic is said to have been an additional factor in preserving this mummy.
Although the cry of “wax” was a business killer, other criticisms of John have been helpful. Educators who come to show off their learning at the mummy’s expense are the show’s best advertisements. John thrives on controversy of this nature. A hot argument about his historical authenticity always brings in a good house.
“There’s nobody,” said Harkin, “that we welcome so much as one of these half-wise schoolteachers.”
Another reason for the mummy’s big season in 1937 was the volume of newspaper controversy over the assassination of Lincoln. The subject was opened upon a large scale by Otto Eisenschiml’s book, Why Was Lincoln Murdered? This author produced a vast amount of material suggesting that Secretary of War Stanton was the ringleader of a plot to kill Lincoln and that Stanton arranged to facilitate the escape of Booth. The Eisenschiml volume makes it appear plausible that Booth might have lived for many years after 1865. Another historical volume published last year which may promote John’s future career is This One Mad Act, by Izola Forrester, a granddaughter of John Wilkes Booth, who presents evidence that members of her family were in personal contact with the assassin for a generation after 1865. Izola Forrester, however, is not impressed with the theory that the late St. Helen-Ney-Ryan-George, now known as John, was her grandfather.
Finis L. Bates, of Memphis, did more than anybody else to make John famous, but he also did more than anybody to discredit him. Bates was a twenty-one-year-old lawyer in Granbury, Texas in 1872. He represented his fellow townsman, John St. Helen, in an excise case. The two men became close friends. John St. Helen fell ill. On what he apparently thought was his deathbed, St. Helen called Bates and confessed to be John Wilkes Booth. Bates says he saved St. Helen’s, or Booth’s, life on that occasion by rubbing him vigorously from head to foot with “strong brandy.” St. Helen made other deathbed confessions and survived them, but in 1903 he ratified his final deathbed confession by actually dying. There is documentary evidence of the honesty of Bates in this matter. He wrote a letter to the War Department to see if he could get a reward by delivering John Wilkes Booth alive. Rewards totaling $100,000 had been offered by the War Department in 1865, but they had been collected by the men who trapped the alleged Booth in the Garrett barn in Virginia. The War Department wrote to Bates that it took “no interest” in the matter. Years after he had sought to deliver Booth on the hoof, Bates identified the suicide at Enid as the self-confessed assassin of Lincoln. An undertaker at Enid embalmed the body on the expectation that the Booth family or the War Department would claim it. It remained unclaimed for years; Bates finally procured it. This transfer was sanctioned by an Oklahoma judge, apparently on the theory that the Memphis lawyer would accord decent burial to his former client. Instead of this, Bates set out to commercialize his acquisition. He leased and rented his old friend and wrote a book with the title The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, and the subtitle, Written for the Correction of History.
This book is the greatest obstacle which the present champions of John have to contend with. Published in 1908, it purports to related conversations between Bates and St. Helen-Booth in 1872. During the years intervening, Bates had steeped himself in the literature relating to the assassination. He got his historical reading badly mixed up with his conversations with St. Helen. Although probably made in good faith, many of the statements of Bates were easily proved to be false. Even if Bates had established his case to a mathematical certainty, his flowery and ridiculous style would have made skeptics of his readers.
Bates hired the body out to showmen from time to time. At the Waco Cotton Palace about eighteen years ago, it attracted the attention of William Evans, the Carnival King of the Southwest, who started John on his big-time career. Evans hired the attraction at the rate of $1000 for every twenty weeks, the $1000 to be paid in advance; he also posted a $40,000 bond as a guaranty that John would be returned in good repair.
Bill Evans had made his start in the entertainment field by marrying one of his own wives twenty times in twenty towns. Public weddings used to be big civic celebrations in the Southwest, and Evans staged his like operas. He differed from some of his competitors in that he always married the same bride, and in later life he used to claim to be the greatest polymonogamist in the United States. Evans would begin by stampeding newspaper offices with the romantic details of his approaching outdoor nuptials. Hammering away at the slogan that “all the world loves a lover,” he convinced local merchants that there was no better way to advertise than to give the happy couple wedding presents. From the sale of the loot of twenty weddings he obtained a modest stake and soon had his own tent. In time he became known as the Carnival King of the Southwest and the possessor of the greatest freak-animal show in the country.
Evans had intended to use John as the headliner of his carnival, but the new attraction was a disappointment from the start. John never paid expenses. In his days on the legitimate stage, John Wilkes Booth had been a great actor. Some of his contemporaries thought him greater than his father, Junius Brutus Booth, or his brother, Edwin Booth. John Wilkes Booth was, however, an almost perfect ham. Vanity was his ruling motive. His assassination of Lincoln was an act of pure vanity. Booth had gone through the Civil War without fighting; he could not bear to have the war heroes towering over him; he killed Lincoln in the hope of stealing the show from the fighting men. The poor ham broke into history, but it might have given him pause, back in 1865, if he could have looked forward to 1920 and could have seen what was left of him competing unsuccessfully with bulldog-faced cows and six-legged sheep.
Evans did not blame John for his poor showing. He chiefly blamed the American public-school system for its failure to make people history-conscious. He blamed himself for over-estimating the serious-mindedness of carnival lovers. He decided that it was necessary to detach John from the midway attractions and send him on a separate tour under more dignified auspices. Before he would work out his plan, however, the Evans carnival train was wrecked en route to San Diego. John escaped intact, so the $40,000 bond was saved; but eight employees and most of the freak animals were killed.
When the Carnival King was seeking to reorganize his show, John was kidnapped. This was a serious matter; not only was the mummy costing Evans a rental of $1000 every twenty weeks but its continued disappearance would mean the forfeiture of the $40,000 bond. Week after week Evans ran an advertisement in The Billboard, the Bible of the circus and carnival world, offering a reward of $1000 for information leading to the recovery of John. One day he met the alleged kidnaper on the street in San Diego. They had a knock-down-and-drag-out fight, ending in jail. The controversy ended in a stalemate. Evans had little chance of winning a civil suit, because it would be impossible to establish title. The law is somewhat whimsical on the subject. It will back up your property right in an ancient citizen of Egypt or Peru, but not in a modern American citizen. The judge might not only throw the case out of court but he might also order the body, if found, to be buried in accordance with the California health laws.
Held for Ransom
Tex Rickard, for example, had a narrow escape from trouble when he exhibited some stuffed bandits in Madison Square Garden. They were very bad men from the Southwest and came to Tex with the highest credentials. Tex thought them marvelous and used to stare at them by the hour, exclaiming from time to time, “I never seed such a thing.” The famous promoter was notified that the New York law required them to be buried in three days, whether they were stuffed or not. After that Tex ran the show like a speak-easy; kept two lookouts at the door and allowed only his personal friends to enter.
The Carnival King had a wholesome respect for the courts and saw the folly of going to law over the unburied dead. His problem was solved one day, however, when the kidnaper of John came in and said: “I claim the reward. Pay me the $1000 and I’ll return him in good condition.”
It was agreed that Evans should pay $500 ransom money in advance and $500 after the body had been restored. The Carnival King paid the first $500 in cash and the second $500 in a rubber check. His next step was to return the mummy to Finis L. Bates, of Memphis, and cancel the $40,000 bond. Bates died. His widow was disappointed in her first efforts to market the Booth chattel, but she finally sold it to the misguided Carnival King for $1000. It brought Evans nothing but bad luck. He suffered setback after setback in the carnival business, until he finally quit and retired to a small potato farm at Declo, Idaho. He took John with him, and in the hope of getting small change from tourists, hung out a sign in front of his farmhouse reading, SEE THE MAN WHO MURDERED LINCOLN.
An Echo of the Civil War
The mummy might have still been there, casting a mild blight over the potato patch, except for the fact that an automobile drove into Declo one day in 1928 containing J.N. Wilkerson, a Kansas City lawyer and one of the leading authorities on Booth. In the early 20’s Mr. Wilkerson had picked up a set of books called Modern Eloquence for $1.50 at a second-hand bookstore. Turning its pages one day he had read the oration of Special Judge-Advocate John A. Bingham against Booth’s alleged co-conspirators in the assassination of Lincoln. Among other things, Bingham had charged that Jeff Davis had offered a reward of $100,000 for the assassination of Lincoln. Wilkerson, who had been born in Alabama, believed this to be false. He first read the transcript of the trial and then began to dig into the history of the period. He traced the movements of Booth in Canada, where the conspiracy against Lincoln was organized. The first intention had been to kidnap Lincoln and hold him as a hostage to compel the North to exchange prisoners with the South; Grant having, in the later days of the war, put a stop to the practice of exchanging.
The kidnapping plot fell through. Wilkerson collected evidence which convinced him that the actual assassination was a Northern rather than a Southern plot; that Stanton, Vice-President Johnson and other extreme haters of the Confederacy wanted to put Lincoln out of the way because they were disturbed over his plans for lenient treatment of the South. These Northern statesmen, as Wilkerson interpreted his evidence, set the stage for Booth’s crime and made arrangements for Booth’s escape. Wilkerson became convinced that another man had been killed and buried in his stead. The investigator had gone deep into this before he heard that an alleged mummy of Booth had been barnstorming the country. Wilkerson wrote at once to Finis L. Bates, the original sponsor for the mummy, but Bates in the meantime had died. The Kansas City historian dropped the subject from his mind then until, as he happened to be motoring through Declo, his attention was attracted by the sign, SEE THE MAN WHO MURDERED LINCOLN.
Wilkerson looked up the broken Carnival King in his potato patch and asked several questions that the King could not answer.
“To tell the truth,” said the King, “I don’t know whether it is the body of Booth or not. They told me it was and I believed them.”
“If it is Booth,” said Wilkerson, “there ought to be a cut on the right eyebrow. When he was playing Richard in Richard III, another actor slashed him over the right eye with the sword in the duel scene.”
The two men examined John and satisfied themselves that the scar was in its right place.
“Booth’s right thumb was broken when a curtain fell on it,” continued Wilkerson. “It was a deformity that made him very sensitive and he always tried to conceal it. Let’s take a look.”
The Kansas City historian and the Carnival King satisfied themselves that the mummy had Booth’s deformed thumb.
“Now this ought to clinch it one way or another,” said Wilkerson. “Booth had a scar on the back of his neck. It was been described by Doctor May, of Washington, who removed a wen from his neck. The wound was healing nicely when, in a love scene, the famous actress Charlotte Cushman seized him in such a violent embrace that the stitches were broken. An ugly scar resulted.”
The two men turned John over. They found what they considered to be the scar. This nearly convinced Wilkerson, but he still wanted to know more. He suggested a tour through all the towns in the Southwest where John Wilkes Booth was supposed to have ranged under various aliases from about 1870 until his suicide in 1903. Wilkerson offered to break off his own trip and go along as barker for John. The Carnival King figured that, with a real historian to gather affidavits backing up the mummy, John might still have a future.
The trip was historically rich, but financially unprofitable. Here and there John was a draw, but usually he lacked magnetism. After leaving Declo, the first stop was Salt Lake City. The historian and the Carnival King took in $200, but were then ordered to leave town.
“There has been a complaint against you,” said the policeman. “The principal of the high school charges that you are teaching false history.”
Business was good at Big Spring, Texas, until the local authorities seized them. They were tried by the justice of the peace in the back room of his bakery and fined fifty dollars for transporting a corpse without a license. In order to avert trouble of this kind, they went to the state capitol at Austin and showed their traveling companion to the chief health officer of the state.
“This is not a corpse but a mummy,” said the health official. “If you get into any more trouble of this kind, refer the local people to me.”
Barnstorming With John
While at Austin, Mr. Wilkerson took the precaution of incorporating. He obtained, for a fee of ten dollars, a charter for the American Historical Research Society. This is an imposing document with the Lone Star seal on it, and it has saved the operators of the mummy from trouble on innumerable occasions. John now travels in a truck with THE AMERICAN HISTORICAL RESEARCH SOCIETY painted on the front of it. The attraction is advertised by handbills, the first words of which are: THE AMERICAN HISTORICAL RESEARCH SOCIETY PRESENTS–JOHN WILKES BOOTH.
For a while Wilkerson and his partner operated successfully at Odessa, Texas, where there had just been an oil strike. Everybody wanted to spend money, and they threw silver dollars into the collection plate. John was hitting upwards of twenty-five dollars an hour when a woman spectator said to Wilkerson:
“If you want to know about Booth’s life after the assassination, you ought to go and see Judge G.M. Schenck, of Lubbock. He knows all about it.”
In spite of the rain of money, Wilkerson stopped the show at once and started on the long trip to Lubbock, Texas, where he found Circuit Judge Schenck. The judge told of meeting a stranger at breakfast in Guthrie, Oklahoma, in 1901. They got into conversation and the judge stated that he hailed from Meridian, Texas.
“Why, that John Wilkes Booth’s old hiding place,” said the stranger, who then started to tell of the ramblings of Booth after the assassination. The judge was held spellbound and spent most of the day and night with his new friend, who was full of sensational details of Booth’s escape in 1865 and his meanderings in the Southwest. From the description of the man, Mr. Wilkerson concluded that the judge was hearing the tale from the lips of Booth himself. The story cleared up many points that had puzzled Wilkerson, but particularly the matter of certain tattoo marks missing on John. Before the assassination, Wilkes had the initials “J.W.B.” tattooed on his right hand. They are not found on the mummy. The stranger who talked to Judge Schenck said that Booth had had the initials removed by a friendly tattoo remover in New Orleans.
A Texas Tradition
Wilkerson made almost a house-to-house canvass in Glen Rose, Iredell, Granbury and other towns in Texas where the alleged Booth had been known as John St. Helen. From scores of people Wilkerson obtained descriptions of St. Helen which seemed to fit Booth. Everybody was particularly emphatic about St. Helen’s elegance of dress and courtliness of manners. St. Helen ran two saloons at Granbury – the Blackhawk and the Lady Gay. Wilkerson found old patrons who testified that drinking men went to those saloons as to a school of etiquette and learned the ways of high society merely by observing St. Helen. One of Wilkerson’s witnesses was Ashley W. Crockett, a grandson of Davy Crockett. Ashley, a Texas journalist for more than half a century, was a cub reporter of the Granbury Vidette in the early 70’s. He recalled how St. Helen came in to the Vidette office one day with a tray covered with choice liquors, bowed in his most distinguished manner and said, “A treat for the office force,” then withdrew elegantly before anybody could thank him. Many old-timers recalled John St. Helen as the man who introduced backgammon into that part of the world. Wilkerson has found nothing in the literature to show that John Wilkes Booth played backgammon in this country before 1865. His conjecture is that the assassin picked it up in England, where he is believed to have spent some years between 1865 and 1870. At Granbury, Wilkerson found Mrs. Eula Carter, who said that her late husband knew St. Helen to be Booth.
St. Helen’s earliest known appearance in Texas was at Iredell, in Bosque County, where he taught school. At that time he boarded with a man named Green Williams. Wilkerson here found, to his dismay, that St. Helen had confessed, not that he was Booth but that he was a son of Marshal Ney, who, according to some authorities, escaped after Waterloo and settled in the United States. St. Helen went so far as to tell some of his Iredell friends that he had called himself St. Helen after the island of St. Helen and did this as a tribute to Napolean – the least that a son of Marshal Ney could do to honor his old commander. This complicated matters and puzzled Wilkerson for some time. His conclusion, however, was that the stranger obviously had a past, and told the Ney story in order to parry the suspicion that he might be Booth.
Another awkward episode occurred in Texas. The technique of operating the mummy was a delicate one. If an admission charge was made, it was necessary to take out a local theatrical license. The license fee was prohibitive, in view of John’s low average earning power. Therefore, admission was free. But, as the spectator filed out of the exhibition truck, gentle pressure was put on him to contribute toward paying the expense of the culture-spreading institution. A plate was conspicuously exhibited with a few quarters and half dollars in it. Dimes, nickels or pennies that got into the plate were deftly removed to avert their unfavorable psychological effect. Wilkerson had made an admirable rule to the effect that the contributions of children should be graciously returned. But Wilkerson was absent for a time while John was playing in Temple, Texas. The Carnival King, who had never approved of the practice of depriving minors of the right to contribute, high-pressured a lot of school children for small change. Local indignation developed, and the entire American Historical Research Society was run out of town by the police.
The Trail of an Assassin
During his long search for evidence, Wilkerson uncovered five living John Wilkes Booths, four of whom were related to the assassin of Lincoln. All had changed their names. By personal interviews and by correspondence, he made contact with many other relatives of Booth. From many of these he obtained accounts of meetings with John Wilkes Booth long after the assassination. Blanche Booth, a niece of John Wilkes Booth, was in El Reno, Oklahoma, with a touring company in December, 1902. She made an affidavit that a man called at her lodgings, gave her a card and said, “Blanche, wouldn’t you like to see Johnny?” She slammed the door in his face, regarding him as a stage-door Johnny, but when she looked at the card, she found the name “John Wilkes Booth” in what seemed to be her uncle’s handwriting. Wilkerson’s researches indicate that Booth – then using the name David E. George – went to Enid immediately thereafter, stayed drunk for three weeks and then committed suicide. The historian conjectures that the rebuff from his niece broke Booth’s heart.
During his travels in connection with the Booth saga, Wilkerson stumbled on to some interesting historical material in Beloit, Wisconsin. In April, 1898, American newspapers had carried reports that John Wilkes Booth had been seen in Brazil. This report stimulated Booth history or myth all over the country. Walter Hubbell, an actor, carried the news to Dr. Joseph Booth, a brother of John Wilkes Booth; according to Hubbell, Joseph exclaimed, “South America! Why, the last we heard of him he was in Oklahoma.” In Beloit the Brazil report brought two witnesses to light who testified that Booth had made his escape in 1865. The first of these was Mrs. J.M. Christ whose story appears in the Beloit Daily News of April 19, 1898. In 1865 she was Mrs. Thomas Haggett, the wife of a Confederate blockade runner. According to her story, she and her husband were on board the Mary Porter in Havana six weeks after the assassination when John Wilkes Booth came aboard and sailed with them to Nassau. She stated that, because Booth was still suffering from a broken leg, she gave up her cabin to him, and at the end of the voyage he rewarded her by giving her his ring with “J.W.B.” engraved inside. Having kept the secret for thirty-three years, Mrs. Christ now felt entitled to talk. On the following day, Wilson D. Kenzie, of Beloit, gave an interview to the same paper. He said that he had known Booth intimately at New Orleans and had been at the Garrett barn in Virginia when the man supposed to be Booth was killed. Kenzie said that the slain man was a sandy-headed fellow who bore no resemblance to Booth.
Wilkerson later found evidence indicating that Booth had intended to go to Nassau if he escaped. One of Booth’s accomplices in the kidnapping plot was Sam Arnold. After his release from prison, Arnold wrote a magazine article on the scheme to abduct Lincoln. On of his statements was that delay had resulted because John Wilkes Booth had busied himself with arrangements to ship his stage wardrobe and other effects to Nassau. According to Mrs. Christ, Booth sailed from Nassau on the Wild Pigeon for England. Incidentally, when St. Helen first appeared in Texas in 1870, he called himself a British subject.
Wilkerson ended his travels with John at Aberdeen, Washington. He had gone into the Northwest in search of more Booth relatives. At Aberdeen, according to his custom, he went to the mayor and got permission to place the mummy on exhibition. There was, however, a feud on between the mayor and the license commissioner, and the license commissioner had Wilkerson arrested. The historian had to plead eloquently to avoid being locked up. The judge fined him ten dollars and then suspended sentence. But Wilkerson had had enough. He broke up his partnership with Carnival King Evans, who, shortly before he was killed, sold John to the present owners.
Wilkerson researches have won recognition from Lincoln experts. He delivered a lecture on his investigations before the Lincoln Club in Chicago, and several distinguished Lincolnians were considerably impressed. Dr. Otto L. Schmidt, president of the Illinois State Historical Society and president of the Chicago Historical Society, wrote a modified testimonial in favor of John, saying that the subject was of great interest and well worth further scientific investigation. The mummy was exhibited on the campus of Northwestern University at Evanston; the faculty ordered it off; Doctor Schmidt, however, interceded for it and the show was allowed to go on.
In 1933 John was X-rayed, operated on and otherwise studied by a group of medical men and criminologists in Chicago. It was claimed that the fractured leg, the broken thumb and the scar on the neck were all verified. The operation was performed because it was alleged that the X ray revealed a metal object deep inside of the old trouper. After prolonged drilling into the mummy, which was stated to be as hard as a rock, a bit of metal was produced with an engraving that looked like the letter B. This resulted in the speculation that Booth, in some great emergency, had sought to conceal his identify by swallowing his ring, which had been gradually digested until only a fragment was left. The exploration of John, however, took place under the flashlights of newspaper photographers, and its results failed to gain wide acceptance. Further, one medical man asserted there was no sign of the all-important identifying scar on the neck.
There is not much conflict among the authorities on the assassination and on the flight of Booth into Virginia. Booth entered the carelessly guarded box of Lincoln at the Ford Theater a little after ten p.m. on the night of April fourteenth and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. The actor then jumped to the stage fourteen feet below. His spur caught on the American flag draped in front of the box and he fell heavily, breaking his leg. After limping across the stage, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis,” he made his way out of the theater to his horse. In spite of the broken leg, he was able, through Southern sympathizers, to baffle his pursuers twelve days, until he was finally located in Garrett’s barn near Bowling Green, Virginia. The barn was surrounded and set on fire.
The conflicting theories begin here. Those who believe in the escape tell it two ways: No. 1 is that Booth was warned and made his escape several hours before the barn was surrounded; No. 2 is that he escaped by an unwatched door after the barn was in flames. Those who believe that Booth was killed in the barn have different versions. One is that he committed suicide; the other is that he was shot by a Federal, through a crack in the barn. Credit for the killing has generally been assigned to Sergeant Boston Corbett. The orders were to take Booth alive, but Corbett said that God had instructed him to kill the man.
The Riddle an Actor Left
The Garretts, who had been with Booth shortly before he was killed, identified him immediately after. In fact, one of the Garrett young ladies, who had been smitten with the young actor, was caught in the act of attempting to snip a lock of hair from the dead man’s head. The tattooed initials “J.W.B.” were found, although witnesses disagreed on the location. Doctor May, who had attended Booth, at first said the dead man bore no resemblance to Booth, but he reversed his opinion on seeing the scar on the neck. In 1869 the body was turned over by the War Department to the Booth family and buried in the Booth plot in the Greenmount Cemetery at Baltimore. The body was identified by members of the family and by a dentist’s report.
From the very beginning, however, witnesses appeared, who denied that the dead man was Booth. The identifiers varied in their descriptions. Izola Forrester, quoting from different witnesses, sets forth that one said the dead man’s hair was gray; another that it was reddish brown; another that it was jet black. One of the reasons that Miss Forrester gives for scoffing at the theory at St. Helen – now John – was Booth is that St. Helen was a commonplace individual. This, however, flies in the face of all the affidavits which picture St. Helen as outrageously elegant and distinguished.
The handwriting of St. Helen and of Booth have been compared, with negative results. The experts of one side say there is no resemblance; the experts of the other side say that there is.
John’s schedule for the coming season has not been settled yet. He will probably open up sometime in May. The $1000 challenge still holds good. Incidentally, it is believed to be John’s centenary. At any rate, John Wilkes Booth was born 100 years ago this year.