Hallowe’en is certainly the time for one to ponder the unknown. It had never occurred to me that John Wilkes Booth would fit into this category, but once again . . . I was wrong. Most people agree on an established set of facts:
- John Wilkes Booth was killed in Garrett’s barn in Virginia on April 26, 1865, twelve days after he assassinated Lincoln.
- His body was wrapped in a blanket and carried in a farm wagon to Belle Plain.
- From there his corpse was taken aboard the ironclad U.S.S. Montauk and brought to the Washington Navy Yard for identification and an autopsy. Over ten people identified the remains as being those of Booth.
- The body was then buried in a storage room at the Old Penitentiary, and later moved to a warehouse at the Washington Arsenal on October 1, 1867.
- 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.
Some, however, believe that the story above is fake news, and that Booth really escaped and lived until 1903. This fabulously unbelievable story comes from a book written by Finis L. Bates (grandfather of actress Kathy Bates) and published in 1907.
According to Finis, Booth escaped and made his way to Texas where he lived under the alias John St. Helens. St. Helens fell ill and thought he was approaching his end. His friend, Bates, heard his bedside confession; “I am dying. My name is John Wilkes Booth and I am the assassin of President Lincoln.” St. Helens then told Bates that Vice President Johnson had masterminded the entire assassination plot, and that an innocent man now lay in Booth’s Baltimore grave. Then John St. Helens recovered from his illness.
Within a year St. Helens had moved to Oklahoma. There he took the name David E.
George. He was known as a drunk who frequently quoted Shakespeare. When he really died from ingesting strychnine nine months later his last words were again, “I am not David Elihu George. I am the one who killed the best man that ever lived. I am John Wilkes Booth.” The undertaker embalmed the mummy with more arsenic but did not bury the remains. No one claimed the body, so he propped Mr. George up at Penniman’s Grocery Store & Funeral Home, daily newspaper in hand.
Several years later, Finis Bates showed up at Penniman’s and identified the now-mummified remains of his old friend John St. Helens. Bates claimed it and began to display it as the corpse of none other than John Wilkes Booth. And so began the long and curious travels of the mummy known as “John.” It was leased to circuses and sideshows throughout the South-and-Midwest. It was in a train wreck that killed eight people and a lot of circus animals, but was recovered intact. A group of Union veterans tried to steal the body and hang it.
The cadaver was even kidnapped. A $1000 reward was offered for its return, and the kidnapper himself returned the body and claimed the reward. In 1931, doctors examined the body in the hope of proving something definitive, but such was not the case. By this time, poor old John had, however, lost his right toe and most of his moustache to “souvenir hunters.” Nevertheless, the examination put the mummy back in the national spotlight. The now-incomplete remains were put on exhibit as the World’s Greatest Educational Attraction–“Please see that the children come.”
In 1930, an enterprising couple, Agnes and Joseph Harkin, bought “John” for $5000. They toured the country with their purchase and a stack of affidavits that swore it was, indeed, John Wilkes Booth. The Harkins garnered publicity from Life Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post for their exhibit, which increased public interest in the morbid oddity. The Harkins claimed they were inspired not by “greed for gold but truth.”
Peripatetic “John” changed hands once again, going to the Jay Gould Million Dollar Show in 1937, but after that it becomes more difficult to track him. In the 1960s, C. P. Fox of Wisconsin’s Circus World Museum contacted Gould to see of he could acquire the mummy, but by then Gould no longer had it. Only swirling rumors now exist as to its current whereabouts, although PBS has reported that the mummy was last seen in the late 1970s and may be in the hands of a private collector.
Now we know the truth, . . . and if you know where the mummy is, let Emerging Civil War know as quickly as possible!