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,
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.
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,
REWARD TO ANYONE WHO CAN PROVE THAT THIS IS NOT JOHN WILKES BOOTH.
That reward, according to the showman, has never even been
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
"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
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
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
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.