Wednesday, April 15, 2015

John Wilkes Mississippi?

Soon after the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, an actor and a Confederate sympathizer by the name of John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box at Ford’s Theater in Washington and fired a pistol shot into the back of President Abraham Lincoln’s head. Although the assassin’s bullet did not immediately kill the president, Lincoln was paralyzed and had difficulty breathing and died at 7:22 a.m. the next morning. The date was April 15, 1865, another day which will live in infamy. The president’s body was taken from the house across the street from Ford’s Theater, where he died, to the White House, where an autopsy was performed by surgeons. Three days later, Lincoln’s body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol and the nation lapsed into a deep mourning. During the funeral train's journey to Springfield, Illinois, tens of thousands lined the route to pay their respects. Meanwhile, John Wilkes Booth was on the run from the authorities. On April 26, Booth and another conspirator were surrounded in a barn on the Garrett farm in Virginia. According to accounts, the pursuing party set the barn on fire to force Booth and an accomplice to come out, but Booth refused to surrender and was fatally shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett, despite orders to take him alive. Booth died as the sun began to rise. His dying words (or least some of them) were reportedly “Tell my mother I died for my country.”

Unlike Lincoln’s body, which was given the honors of a nation, Booth's body was wrapped in a blanket, tied to a wagon and taken to the Washington Navy Yard, where an autopsy was performed. As Booth was a well-known actor, it wasn’t difficult to identify him and more than ten people who were acquainted with him did so, including his mother, brother, sister and the mayor of Baltimore. In addition, there were identifying marks on his body, including a tattoo, which helped verify that the right man had been killed. After the autopsy, Booth’s corpse was placed in storage until 1869, when his remains were finally released to family members and he was buried in an unmarked grave in Baltimore at the Green Mount Cemetery. In all, eight others implicated in the Lincoln assassination plot were tried and four were hanged, including Mary Surratt, who thus became the first woman to be executed by the Federal government (a dubious honor indeed). And so ends the sordid tale of John Wilkes Booth.

Or is that really the end of the story?

Like many tragic events in American history, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – as with the assassination of John F. Kennedy – has spawned numerous conspiracy theories. In the case of John Wilkes Booth, claims that he was not killed by Sgt. Corbett and in fact escaped his captors and died years later under an assumed name has been revived from time to time, and in this case the conspiracy theories have a Mississippi connection. In 1907, Finis Langdon Bates (right), a Memphis attorney, published a 300+ page book called The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, Or the First True Account of Lincoln's Assassination, Containing a Complete Confession by Booth Many Years After the Crime. Giving in Full Detail the Plans, Plot and Intrigue of the Conspirators, and the Treachery of Andrew Johnson, then Vice-President of the United States. Bates, born in 1848, was a native of Itawamba County. After studying for the law in Carrollton, Bates moved to Texas in the 1870s, where he met a gentleman named John St. Helen in Granbury, Texas. St. Helen was a tobacco and liquor salesman who seemed to have a knack for reciting lines from Shakespeare. After the two became friends, St. Helen confessed Bates in 1878 (as he thought he was near death) that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth and asked Bates to notify his (Booth’s) brother Edwin in New York of his demise. When John St. Helen recovered (much to his surprise), he explained in further detail the story of how he escaped. After reveling this remarkable story to Bates, St. Helen moved to Leadville, Colorado, and Bates returned to Memphis, where he tried to claim a $100,000 reward which had been posted following Lincoln’s assassination. Needless to say, it was denied. *

In 1903, a man named David E. George – who also seemed to have a penchant for quoting Shakespeare - committed suicide by drinking strychnine poison in a room in the Grand Avenue Hotel in Enid, Oklahoma (the hotel building is still there and is now a furniture store). As with John St. Helen, David George had also confessed to someone that he was actually John Wilkes Booth. No one seemed to believe his story, though, and no one came to claim his body. Without any apparent family, the local undertaker embalmed him and displayed his corpse in the funeral home as a prop, which proved very popular in Enid. Presumably, 10,000 people at some point viewed the body and even clipped pieces of hair and buttons from the corpse as souvenirs. Although there was no known family, there were papers belonging to David George which identified Finis L. Bates as a contact, and Bates ultimately identified the body as that of his friend John St. Helen and claimed the mummy. It was after this that Bates wrote his book exposing the "true" story of John Wilkes Booth, aka John St. Helen, aka David E. George. While perhaps not a page-turner, he sold 70,000 copies of the book and it later inspired a 1970s book and even a movie about the supposed Lincoln assassination conspiracy. As for the corpse, Bates at first stored it at his home in Memphis and then started leasing the mummy to circuses and other entertainment venues in the years leading up to World War I. At some point, he tried to sell the body (as John Wilkes Booth, of course) to Henry Ford (who politely declined). The post mortem adventures of “John Wilkes Booth” included a kidnapping for ransom and a circus train wreck. Finis L. Bates never made his fortune promoting the mortal remains of St. Helen/George/Booth and he died in 1923 in Memphis. But the mummy continued to tour the country after Bates’ death, and was at one time the property of William Evans, who was known as the “Carnival King of the Southwest.” Its last appearance was in 1976, when this most curious object was purchased by a private collector. The mummy's current whereabouts is unknown.

So is that the end of the story? Well, not quite.

Incredibly, Guntown, Mississippi, located near Tupelo in Lee County, is also part of the John Wilkes Booth survival story. According to local legend – and it's considered fact by some – Booth escaped from the Garrett Farm in Virginia but did not go to Oklahoma or Texas at all. Instead, he made his way to Mississippi with the help of friends and went to live with a cousin, Dr. John Fletcher Booth. For the rest of his life, so the story goes, John Wilkes Booth lived upstairs in his cousin’s home in Guntown. To protect his identity, the children in the family were admonished to never discuss the mysterious occupant with any outsiders. According to family members, the man had a distinct limp and was well-educated. Dr. Booth died in 1896. At the time – presuming he actually had survived and made his way to Guntown – Lincoln’s assassin would be fifty-eight years old in 1896, still a relatively young man. Other than this scant information, however, there seems to be little support for Booth living in Guntown. But he does have a grave marker in a local cemetery. According to family lore, Booth eventually died and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Smith Cemetery near Guntown, where his supposed benefactor, Dr. John Fletcher Booth, is also buried. The gravestone for John Wilkes Booth was erected about 1990.

Did John Wilkes Booth somehow manage to escape and make his way to Mississippi to live out his life in peaceful obscurity? Or did he flee to Texas and die a lonely death in a hotel room in Oklahoma? Or did he, as most people agree, die as a fugitive after committing one of the most heinous acts in American history? Perhaps we’ll never know for sure...

Bates' granddaughter is actress Kathy Bates, who was born in Memphis in 1948.


(1) Lincoln assasination:
(2) John Wilkes Booth:
(3) Bates:
(4) Book:
(5)Corpse:                                                                                                          (6) Grave marker: