Before the final burial of John Wilkes Booth in the family plot in 1869, his mother, brother, and sister viewed the body. The mayor of Baltimore, William M. Pegram, who had known Booth well, was also present. In 1913, Mayor Pegram signed a sworn statement that the remains he saw in 1869 were those of John Wilkes Booth.
This unusual statement was necessary because an alternative history emerged what happened at Garrett’s farm in the early morning hours of April 26. According to that story, John Wilkes Booth did not die at the age of 27 on the front porch steps of Garrett’s farmhouse. A 1911 Washington Post article claimed there were more than 50 theories of what had really become of Booth. In the same article, they described a box containing Booth’s body being sent to Baltimore. The box was decayed but the body itself “was in a fair state of preservation”.
Booth was buried 15 minutes after midnight on a cold February night. Only a handful of people were present. The family wanted privacy and they did not want the public to know exactly where John’s body was.
According to the main alternative theory, Booth died in 1903 at age 65 in Enid, Oklahoma, by his own hand, and the government covered up the truth. Could this possibly be true? Apparently, there is some evidence to support this. Two men, Nate Orlowek and Dr. Arthur Chitty, have spent many years researching John Wilkes Booth. Much of the theory is bolstered by evidence they have brought forward.
According to Orlowek, “There is tremendous physical evidence that proved beyond a doubt that John Wilkes Booth was not killed by the Federal Government Officers as they claimed. In fact, he lived until January 13, 1903, when he died in Enid, Oklahoma territory.”
Let’s go back to Garrett’s farm. The conclusions of Orlowek and Chitty differ from the official version at the point when the federal officers surrounded Garrett’s barn. When Herold ran out of the barn, according to Dr. Chitty’s research, he told the soldiers, “The man in there is not Booth.”
Dr. John May was summoned to make the identification. May was a Washington DC surgeon who removed a tumor from the back of Booth’s neck a few months earlier. He look startled when he saw the body. Speaking in a low tone to the presiding officer, he said whoever the victim was, it was not John Wilkes Booth. According to the research of Dr. Chitty, it was made clear to Dr. May that regardless of what he saw, “this better be Booth.”
Perhaps that’s the key to the extraordinary statement Dr. May wrote. Like much of the documentation about the case, it was hidden from the public for 70 years. Today, the statement is housed in the National Archives.
The summation reads: I’m sure this is Booth. But it doesn’t look like him. But this is certainly John Wilkes Booth. John Frederick May
Supporters of the government’s story cite a 40-page statement David Herold made to investigators 36 hours after his arrest. Herold mentioned Booth by name ten times when he talked about the barn being set on fire. Dr. Chitty claimed Herold was pressured into changing his story. “He was trying to save his neck. When he thought he would survive by changing his story, he changed his story.”
Dr. May was not the only eyewitness to contradict the official version of the story. In 1937, Mrs. Helen Allen, the widow of Lieutenant William C. Allan, said her husband told her the man who was shot and killed at Garrett’s farm had red hair. The government knew it wasn’t Booth but they were determined to pass him off as the assassin.
You can see why the government might be motivated to do this. The Civil War had only ended three weeks ago. The new peace was uneasy and the people, enraged by Lincoln’s murder, demanded vengeance. If the federal authorities could not produce Booth, who knows what would happen?
Several witnesses corroborated Lieutenant Allan’s statement on the record. They said the redheaded man who was shot and killed on the farm did not look at all like the raven-haired actor. Two of the soldiers, Joseph Zisgen and Wilson Kenzie, knew Booth personally, and they agreed that the redheaded man did not look like Booth. Neither mentioned a broken leg.
The soldiers who got close enough to see Booth were told to keep their mouths shut. The officers in charge warned there would be dire consequences to anyone who spoke up.
But the story refused to be snuffed out. In the early 1900s, John Shumaker, General Counsel to the Department of the Army, wrote: “The evidence put forth by the government to support the conclusion that the body was that of John Wilkes Booth was so insubstantial that it would not stand up in a court of law.”
In 1922, Wilson Kenzie, then 77 years old, described what happened at the farm in a sworn affidavit: “As I rode up, Joe Zisgen called, ‘Sergeant, this ain’t John Wilkes Booth at all.’ I could see the color of his hair. I knew at once it wasn’t he. His body was exposed and he had no injured leg.”
That brings us to one of the most compelling pieces of evidence that Booth managed to escape. The government was exhaustively documenting everything related to Lincoln’s assassination, but they inexplicably neglected to photograph Booth’s body. The other conspirators were photographed multiple times, including in prison and at their hanging. Why would they fail to take a photograph of the man who had masterminded the plot? They had plenty of time, for the body was taken to Washington Navy Yard, and placed aboard the Montauk, where the autopsy was conducted by three doctors.
But if Booth did not die at the farm, what happened to him?