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 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
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