There was a substantial amount of eyewitness testimony that the man who was killed at Garrett’s farm was not John Wilkes Booth. But if it wasn’t, where was Booth? And who was the man with red hair who was shot and killed?
Fast forward twelve years to 1877. In a little place called Granbury, Texas, a man named John St. Helen lay dying. He summoned Finis Bates, his attorney, and confessed that he was not John St. Helen. “My name is John Wilkes Booth.”
Bates thought his client was delirious until St. Helen began to explain in detail how he had murdered Lincoln and escaped. According to St. Helen, he did not go to Garrett’s farm. Instead, he left Dr. Mudd’s house hidden in the back of a wagon.
When Booth heard Union soldiers were nearby, he hurriedly got out of the wagon to hide in the woods. In the process, his personal papers, compass, and journal were dropped in the road. Booth knew he dropped them but was too frightened to stop and pick them up. That night he sent a messenger, a young man with red hair, back to retrieve the papers. While the messenger was looking for the actor’s possessions, a second messenger hurried to Booth’s side.
The Union soldiers were closing in, the boy said. Booth, terrified, decamped immediately. When the messenger returned at last, triumphantly carrying Booth’s things, the actor was long gone. Not knowing what to do with Booth’s journal and personal effects, the messenger stuffed them in his pockets. They were still with him when he was killed in Garrett’s barn two days later.
To his great surprise, St. Helen recovered. Making a deathbed confession and then failing to die is bad business, and St. Helen knew it. He left town and was heard from no more.
But in January 1903, St. Helen resurfaced at a boarding house in Enid, Oklahoma. He was now 64 years old and using the name David George.
St.Helen/George had decided to end his mortal miseries. He drank a glass of wine laced with Strychnine. Finis Bates, his attorney from Texas, learned of the suicide and arranged to take custody of the corpse. When he arrived and beheld David George, not only did he recognize his old client, John St. Helen, but he was certain that he was looking at the body of John Wilkes Booth.
Bates had a picture made of the body, and then he had it mummified. In 1907, he wrote a book called The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. By 1913, he had sold more than 70,000 copies.
The attorney then took his show on the road, in a very literal sense, by exhibiting St. Helen’s mummified body in carnival sideshows as the “Man Who Shot Lincoln”.
In 1931, six Chicago physicians examined the mummified body of John St. Helen. According to their sworn affidavit, the body had a scarred right eyebrow, a crushed right thumb, and a broken left leg. John Wilkes Booth had a scarred right eyebrow, a crushed right thumb, and a broken left leg.
In 1977, The Sedalia Democrat reported that the FBI was examining Booth’s diary. Some pages were known to be missing from the diary, and 18 pages, purported to be the missing papers, had been found. The FBI was examining the new pages and comparing them with the diary.
Unconfirmed reports about these pages suggest that Booth wrote he was working for the secretary of war. This would indicate a much broader conspiracy, and I couldn’t find follow up information. The FBI did disclose they felt confident no one had added to or edited the diary entries. They also confirmed nothing was written with invisible ink.
In 1994, a small group of historians from the Smithsonian worked with Booth family descendants to obtain a court order for the exhumation of John Wilkes Booth’s body. They wanted to “prove or disprove longstanding theories on Booth’s escape.”
Their plan was to conduct a photo-superimposition analysis. A Baltimore Circuit Court Judge refused, saying it was a “less-than-convincing” conspiracy theory. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the judge’s ruling.
In 2010, the Booth descendants tried again. This time they sought to exhume Edwin’s body to obtain DNA samples to compare with the DNA in the bones of the man shot and killed at Garrett’s farm. The three vertebrae the doctors had removed were at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Three years later, the museum announced, without further comment, that the family’s request to extract DNA from the vertebrae was denied.
The mummy is owned by a private collector. It was last seen in public in the 1970s.
The government stands by its story that John Wilkes Booth was killed by federal troops on April 26, 1865, eleven days after murdering President Lincoln.
But there are voices that continue to ask troublesome questions about Booth’s story. Why doesn’t the government have photos of the body of the man who was killed at Garrett’s farm? Why did eyewitnesses who knew Booth say the dead man was not him, and describe a man with red hair and no leg injury who bore no resemblance to the actor? Why does the government continue to block petitions by the Booth family to exhume John Wilkes Booth or his brother Edwin so the theory that Booth escaped be proven or disproven, once and for all?
You’ve read the evidence. What do you think: did Booth die on the porch steps of a Virginia farmhouse in April 1865? Or, did he commit suicide in an Oklahoma boarding house in January 1903?
One final extra for you! Joseph H. Hazleton was an errand boy at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. In this recording, made in 1933, he describes talking to Booth that afternoon, just hours before he assassinated President Lincoln, and his memory of those chaotic moments following the murder.