April 26, 1865: John Wilkes Booth dies


… or did he? As questioned by this LIFE Magazine article:

The cadaver shown on the opposite page is the mummy of a house painter named John St. Helen who committed suicide in Enid, Okla., Jan. 13, 1903. His mortal remains, embalmed with arsenic, are now a main attraction of Jay Gould’s Million Dollar Spectacle, a carnival traveling the Midwest. The carnival bills the corpse as that of John Wilkes Booth, the actor who shot Lincoln.

Officially, Booth was shot as he tried to flee a burning barn near Bowling Green, Va., on April 26, 1865, twelve days after the assassination. But the story persists that the man shot was not Booth, that Booth escaped and live for years in the Southwest. Usually he calls himself St Helens, though sometimes he said he was the son of Marshal Ney who, according to legend, fled France and settled in North Carolina. St. Helen confessed that he was Booth to Finis Bates, later Attorney General of Tennessee, who obtained his corpse after his death and rented it to carnivals. Bate’s widow sold it for $1,000. It has changed hands many times since, bringing bad luck to its owners. One went broke and was killed in a hold-up. The present owner, Joseph B. Harkin, a former Tattooed Man, lost a comfortable fortune since he bought the mummy for $5,000 in 1932. Since he joined Gould’s show last year, however, his fortunes have changed. The mummy is a big attraction.

In 1931 a group of doctors examined the corpse and found that it had certain marks which Booth had: short left leg, distorted right thumb, scar on neck. But these findings did not convince historians, who generally pooh-pooh the story, agree that this mummy is not and never was the body of John Wilkes Booth.

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