Part I  

by Alva Johnston


John Wilkes Booth - or "John," as he is generally called in outdoor amusement circles - had his first prosperous season last year since 1864. He earned $20,000 in the year before he killed Lincoln. How much he made the last year is a trade secret, but it ran well into four figures.


Historians have raised quibbles as to whether John is the authentic John Wilkes Booth; at any rate, he is the authentic John Wilkes Booth of the street fairs and midways. John is not a member of Equity or the Actors' Guild because of the technicality that he is no longer living. He is America's leading mummy.


Historians of the old school allege that John Wilkes Booth was killed in Garrett's barn in Virginia on April 26, 1865, twelve days after he assassinated Lincoln. Partisans of John have another version. They say that Booth escaped from Garrett's barn and lived in Texas and Oklahoma under the names of Ney, St. Helen, Ryan and George - principally under the name of St. Helen. The Texas-Oklahoma Booth committed suicide by arsenic at Enid, Oklahoma, on January 13, 1903. Forty pounds of affidavits say that this man was the genuine John Wilkes Booth. At any rate, John, in a magnificent state of preservation, has had an interesting professional life since 1903.


The postmortem career of this John Wilkes Booth, whether he belongs to history or folklore, has been marked by almost continual failure and disaster. He has scattered ill-luck around almost as freely as Tutankhamen is supposed to have done. Nearly every showman who exhibited John has been ruined. Eight people were killed in 1920 in the wreck of a circus train on which John was traveling. Bill Evans, the wealthy Carnival King of the Southwest, who exhibited the mummy for years, was ruined financially; he died in 1933, shot in a Chicago holdup.


Finis L. Bates, a Memphis lawyer and original sponsor of John, died in 1923 after suffering much ridicule because of a book he wrote on John. The Rev. Dr. Clarence True Wilson, one of the great leaders of the prohibition movement, was an enthusiastic champion of John; he experienced no ill effects, however, except that his heart was nearly broken by repeal.


John has had a strange knockabout existence. He has been bought and sold, leased, held under bond, kidnapped and seized for debt; has been repeatedly chased out of town by local authorities for not having a license or for violating other ordinances; has been threatened with hanging by indignant G.A.R. veterans. Up until 1937 he had been a consistent money loser.


John's present owner is John Harkin, of Wheatfield, Indiana, formerly the chief tattooed man of the Wallace-Hagenbeck circus. Harkin made a fortune in the circus and carnival business, invested it in Chicago residential property and retired. But six years ago he saw the mummy, was fascinated by it and bought it for $5000. John appealed strongly to Harkin because Harkin is a rugged individualist in his interpretation of history; he holds, for example, that Napoleon escaped after the Battle of Waterloo and that a dummy made up to resemble him was sent to St. Helena.


The Villain of the Place


After making the purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Harkin set out in a battered exhibition truck which can be converted into a small amusement palace. They traveled economically. At night they slept on bunks on either side of the truck; John, who was considered practically a member of the family, had a berth on the floor between them.


Now and then they had streaks of luck. They struck it richest at Shawano, Wisconsin, which is near the Menominee Indian Reservation. The Indians came in droves.


Mr. Harkin made inquiries and learned that several years before, a white schoolteacher on the reservation had stated that the assassin of Lincoln was an Indian. The chief of the Menominee was so happy to discover that John was a Caucasian that he ordered the entire tribe to attend the show. But Shawano was a great exception. In Springfield, Missouri, for example, John played an entire week to twenty-five cents.


In the meantime everything went wrong with Harkin's Chicago property. Negroes moved into the block and Harkin's tenants moved out. John was seized by the former owner because the last installment had not been paid. Harkin sold his real estate for $300 above the mortgage in order to raise money to recover the mummy. If, as Charles Evans Hughes has said, truth is to be found even in affidavits, John must be what he purports to be. When the exhibition truck is packed for traveling, there is hardly room for the three occupants, so much space is taken up by affidavits. Harkin complains that he is up to his neck in sworn statements all the time. These documents have even silenced college professors, who inclined to the reactionary view that John Wilkes Booth was killed in 1865.


Anyway, these affidavits have convinced Harkin. During all exhibitions he flaunts a banner which reads, $1000 REWARD TO ANYONE WHO CAN PROVE THAT THIS IS NOT JOHN WILKES BOOTH. That reward, according to the showman, has never even been claimed.


So confident is the showman of the justice of his cause that, even when flat broke, he has continued to hurl his $1000 challenge at the public. He has been reduced to trading the colored electric bulbs which illuminate John at night shows for gasoline to get to the next town; but even in this extremity, he has maintained the $1000 challenge. He has been so impoverished that, in order to eat, he has been forced to go to the hospitable Rio Grande Valley, where the farmers give you all the vegetables you want for nothing; even in this emergency he has continued to throw down his $1000 gage to the scholarship of America.


The spell of adversity which pursued John for many years was reversed the last season, when the Harkins became connected with the Jay Gould Million-Dollar Show which toured Minnesota and South Dakota. The Jay Gould troupe consisted of Mr. Gould and Mrs. Gould, their four daughters, four sons and three daughters-in-law, plus a trained elephant, trained dogs and ponies and a collection of midgets. Always on the lookout for a good cultural attraction, Jay Gould annexed the John Wilkes Booth outfit the last year. He made it pay. He is the first showman who had the genius to operate a modern American mummy successfully. After the million-dollar performance is completed, Gould steps to the loud-speaker, delivers a lecture on John, and crowds swarm to see him.


Before Gould took general supervision over the attraction, its worst enemies were skeptics who would look at John and jeeringly exclaim "Wax!" Mr. and Mrs. Harkin tremble with indignation at the mere mention of wax. Their $5000 historical and educational item has for years been up against the unfair competition of wax outlaws and heroes. Jay Gould solved this problem immediately. His first move on hitting a new town is to summon the undertakers, admit them free of charge and send them away raving. Even after decades of rough carnival and sideshow life, John is a masterpiece compared to the Pharaohs in the museums. He is as tough and leathery as a tackling dummy. One reason for this is that the Enid undertaker used arsenic in embalming the body. This is said to be the best preservative, but in recent years its use has generally been forbidden, because it may be employed to destroy the evidence in cases where murder has been perpetrated by arsenic. The fact that the suicide was by arsenic is said to have been an additional factor in preserving this mummy.


Although the cry of "wax" was a business killer, other criticisms of John have been helpful. Educators who come to show off their learning at the mummy's expense are the show's best advertisements. John thrives on controversy of this nature. A hot argument about his historical authenticity always brings in a good house.

"There's nobody," said Harkin, "that we welcome so much as one of these half-wise schoolteachers."


Another reason for the mummy's big season in 1937 was the volume of newspaper controversy over the assassination of Lincoln. The subject was opened upon a large scale by Otto Eisenschiml's book, Why Was Lincoln Murdered? This author produced a vast amount of material suggesting that Secretary of War Stanton was the ringleader of a plot to kill Lincoln and that Stanton arranged to facilitate the escape of Booth. The Eisenschiml volume makes it appear plausible that Booth might have lived for many years after 1865. Another historical volume published last year which may promote John's future career is This One Mad Act, by Izola Forrester, a granddaughter of John Wilkes Booth, who presents evidence that members of her family were in personal contact with the assassin for a generation after 1865. Izola Forrester, however, is not impressed with the theory that the late St. Helen-Ney-Ryan-George, now known as John, was her grandfather.


Finis L. Bates, of Memphis, did more than anybody else to make John famous, but he also did more than anybody to discredit him. Bates was a twenty-one-year-old lawyer in Granbury, Texas in 1872. He represented his fellow townsman, John St. Helen, in an excise case. The two men became close friends. John St. Helen fell ill. On what he apparently thought was his deathbed, St. Helen called Bates and confessed to be John Wilkes Booth. Bates says he saved St. Helen's, or Booth's, life on that occasion by rubbing him vigorously from head to foot with "strong brandy." St. Helen made other deathbed confessions and survived them, but in 1903 he ratified his final deathbed confession by actually dying. There is documentary evidence of the honesty of Bates in this matter. He wrote a letter to the War Department to see if he could get a reward by delivering John Wilkes Booth alive. Rewards totaling $100,000 had been offered by the War Department in 1865, but they had been collected by the men who trapped the alleged Booth in the Garrett barn in Virginia. The War Department wrote to Bates that it took "no interest" in the matter. Years after he had sought to deliver Booth on the hoof, Bates identified the suicide at Enid as the self-confessed assassin of Lincoln. An undertaker at Enid embalmed the body on the expectation that the Booth family or the War Department would claim it. It remained unclaimed for years; Bates finally procured it. This transfer was sanctioned by an Oklahoma judge, apparently on the theory that the Memphis lawyer would accord decent burial to his former client. Instead of this, Bates set out to commercialize his acquisition. He leased and rented his old friend and wrote a book with the title The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, and the subtitle, Written for the Correction of History.


This book is the greatest obstacle which the present champions of John have to contend with. Published in 1908, it purports to related conversations between Bates and St. Helen-Booth in 1872. During the years intervening, Bates had steeped himself in the literature relating to the assassination. He got his historical reading badly mixed up with his conversations with St. Helen. Although probably made in good faith, many of the statements of Bates were easily proved to be false. Even if Bates had established his case to a mathematical certainty, his flowery and ridiculous style would have made skeptics of his readers.


Bates hired the body out to showmen from time to time. At the Waco Cotton Palace about eighteen years ago, it attracted the attention of William Evans, the Carnival King of the Southwest, who started John on his big-time career. Evans hired the attraction at the rate of $1000 for every twenty weeks, the $1000 to be paid in advance; he also posted a $40,000 bond as a guaranty that John would be returned in good repair.


Bill Evans had made his start in the entertainment field by marrying one of his own wives twenty times in twenty towns. Public weddings used to be big civic celebrations in the Southwest, and Evans staged his like operas. He differed from some of his competitors in that he always married the same bride, and in later life he used to claim to be the greatest polygamist in the United States. Evans would begin by stampeding newspaper offices with the romantic details of his approaching outdoor nuptials. Hammering away at the slogan that "all the world loves a lover," he convinced local merchants that there was no better way to advertise than to give the happy couple wedding presents. From the sale of the loot of twenty weddings he obtained a modest stake and soon had his own tent. In time he became known as the Carnival King of the Southwest and the possessor of the greatest freak-animal show in the country.


Evans had intended to use John as the headliner of his carnival, but the new attraction was a disappointment from the start. John never paid expenses. In his days on the legitimate stage, John Wilkes Booth had been a great actor. Some of his contemporaries thought him greater than his father, Junius Brutus Booth, or his brother, Edwin Booth. John Wilkes Booth was, however, an almost perfect ham. Vanity was his ruling motive. His assassination of Lincoln was an act of pure vanity. Booth had gone through the Civil War without fighting; he could not bear to have the war heroes towering over him; he killed Lincoln in the hope of stealing the show from the fighting men. The poor ham broke into history, but it might have given him pause, back in 1865, if he could have looked forward to 1920 and could have seen what was left of him competing unsuccessfully with bulldog-faced cows and six-legged sheep.


Evans did not blame John for his poor showing. He chiefly blamed the American public-school system for its failure to make people history-conscious. He blamed himself for over-estimating the serious-mindedness of carnival lovers. He decided that it was necessary to detach John from the midway attractions and send him on a separate tour under more dignified auspices. Before he would work out his plan, however, the Evans carnival train was wrecked en route to San Diego. John escaped intact, so the $40,000 bond was saved; but eight employees and most of the freak animals were killed.


When the Carnival King was seeking to reorganize his show, John was kidnapped. This was a serious matter; not only was the mummy costing Evans a rental of $1000 every twenty weeks but its continued disappearance would mean the forfeiture of the $40,000 bond. Week after week Evans ran an advertisement in The Billboard, the Bible of the circus and carnival world, offering a reward of $1000 for information leading to the recovery of John. One day he met the alleged kidnaper on the street in San Diego. They had a knock-down-and-drag-out fight, ending in jail. The controversy ended in a stalemate. Evans had little chance of winning a civil suit, because it would be impossible to establish title. The law is somewhat whimsical on the subject. It will back up your property right in an ancient citizen of Egypt or Peru, but not in a modern American citizen. The judge might not only throw the case out of court but he might also order the body, if found, to be buried in accordance with the California health laws.


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