JOHN WILKES BOOTH ON TOUR

 

   Part 3  

by Alva Johnston

 

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 onto 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 10 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.

 

                                                                      Article from the Saturday Evening Post - February 10, 1938

 


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