JOHN WILKES BOOTH ON TOUR
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
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
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
"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
"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
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.
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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