JOHN WILKES BOOTH ON TOUR

 

   Part 2  

by Alva Johnston

 

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.

 

Article from the Saturday Evening Post - February 10, 1938

 


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