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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Phantom Booth

by Clay Coppedge

Did John Wilkes Booth live in Texas after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln? The history books tells us that Union soldiers killed Booth, a well-known actor of his day, in a Virginia barn twelve days after Booth shot Lincoln at the Ford Theatre on April 14, 1865?

Revisionists say he escaped and moved to-where else?-Texas.

One of the early reports of Booth in Texas, decades after the assassination, comes to us from Fort Worth newspaper editor M.W. Connolly, who wrote about an incident involving General Albert Pike and an alleged John Wilkes Booth. According to Connolly, he was sitting with Pike-a lawyer, poet, soldier and adventurer of note-in the Pickwick Hotel barroom in either 1884 or 1885. Temple Houston, Sam's son, was there too. Pike was preparing to leave when Pike "suddenly threw up his hands" and exclaimed, "My God! John Wilkes Booth!'"

Connolly didn't speculate as to why Pike, a man of action and no shrinking violet, didn't confront the man or do anything beyond suffering a mild breakdown. Those who believe that John Wilkes Booth escaped the Union soldiers and made his way to Texas might suggest that Pike was part of a conspiracy and cover-up of Lincoln's assassination, a conspiracy conceived and led by then Vice-President (soon to be President) Andrew Johnson.

To believe that Booth escaped justice and lived out his life under an assumed name means we have to believe not only Connolly but also a lawyer named Finis Bates, who in 1907 wrote a book called The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth.

Bates knew the phantom Booth as John St. Helen, who settled on the Paluxy River near Glen Rose in the late 1860s or early 1870s and sold whiskey, tobacco and other necessities of life from a small store. Bates defended St. Helen in 1872 against charges of selling whiskey and tobacco without a license. Bates noted that St. Helen also acted in local theatrical productions where his "polished manner and cultivated bearing" and his ability recite long passages of Shakespeare from memory greatly impressed the locals. St. Helen left the Paluxy River Valley about the same time a federal marshal arrived in town to marry a local woman. Coincidence? Bates thought so at the time.

Years later, John St. Helen was working in Granbury as a bartender when he fell gravely ill and believed he was about to meet his maker. He called Bates to his bedside and confessed that he was actually John Wilkes Booth, not John St. Helen. The situation turned awkward when St. Helen, a.k.a. John Wilkes Booth, made a full recovery and remained among the living. St. Helen left Granbury a few months later and never returned, unless you count the appearance there many years later of his alleged mummy. More about the mummy later.

Bates said he found a Colt single-action pocket pistol in St. Helen's room after his friend left town. The gun was wrapped in a Washington, D.C. newspaper dated April 15, 1865 that carried the story of Lincoln's assassination. Bates initially chalked St. Helen's confession up to delirium brought on by illness but the more he thought about it and researched it the more he wondered if St. Helen was telling the truth.

In 1903, when a house painter known as David E. George poisoned himself in Enid, Oklahoma Territory and confessed that he was really John Wilkes Booth, Bates went to Enid to see if George was actually John St. Helen. He decided that he was, though decades of alcohol abuse had clouded his old friend's features.

Bates' book claims that the man Union soldiers killed in Virginia was not Booth. David Herold, a twenty-two year-old co-conspirator who surrendered to the soldiers, told them that the man still inside the barn was not Booth. Lieutenant Edward Doherty decided to smoke out whoever was in there by setting the barn on fire, but one of his soldiers, Boston Corbett, developed an itchy trigger finger and shot Booth in the neck with his rifle. Booth died a few hours later. Or did he?

At least a couple of Union soldiers who knew Booth claimed the dead man was not Booth, the victim's freckles and red or sandy hair being a dead giveaway; Booth had jet black hair. Higher ranking officers overruled the dissenters and ordered the body carted away.

According to Bates, Booth had unwisely decided to take personal papers that could identify him as Lincoln's assassin with him when he fled. When he and his cohorts felt Union troops closing in, his friends hauled Booth from the wagon and hustled him into the woods. In the process, his papers and personal effects fell out. Booth sent a messenger to retrieve the papers, but Union troops were at hand and Booth had to hightail it out of there without them.

Historian Nate Orlowek, who has researched this story for more than forty years, beginning when he was fifteen, believes Booth dispatched another co-conspirator to retrieve the incriminating papers and that the unfortunate courier was the man in the barn with Herold. Because he carried Booth's papers the government declared he was Booth.

"Now, had the government really believed that body was Booth's, they would have taken pictures of it, they would have had many, many, hundreds of people identify it, but the war department didn't do that," Orlowek said in an episode of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries. "The government knew that man was not Booth."

Bates, after satisfying himself that George was really John Wilkes Booth, managed to have the body mummified. How this came about is not clear, but Bates apparently took the mummy of Booth (or St. Helen or George or none of the above) on a tour with him to promote his book. But, as Sarah Vowell noted in her book Assassination Vacation, "Surprise, surprise, the academic record on a mummy made of an Okie suicide is rather dodgy."

After Bates died in 1923 his widow sold the mummy to carnival director Bill Evans, the "Carnival King of the Southwest." Evans soon quit the carnival business and took his sideshow oddity back to his Idaho potato farm where he posted a sign that read: "SEE THE MAN WHO MURDERED LINCOLN."

A Lincoln assassination buff convinced Evans to resume the mummy's tour of America, but audiences stayed away in droves. The Saturday Evening Post reported that Evans was ordered out of Salt Lake City for "teaching false history" and fined fifty dollars in Big Spring, Texas for transporting a corpse without a license.

The mummy made a few more public appearances in sideshows and with the "Jay Gould Million Dollar Show" in the 1930s. The last alleged sighting was in the 1970s. No one knows where the mummy is now, or if they do know they're not saying.

The army, after returning the body to Booth's mother (Mary Ann Booth) in 1869, kept three cervical vertebrae surrounding the path Boston Corbett's bullet had taken. The vertebrae reside today in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, which, coincidentally, is Orlowek's hometown. Orlowek, after failing to have the body of John's brother Edwin Booth exhumed for a DNA comparison, asked the museum for permission to do a DNA test on the vertebrae. The museum refused permission, partly because the test would destroy the vertebrae.

Orlowek tried again 2013, proposing a new technology that would destroy only part of the vertebrae, but the museum's overseer again declined, saying the museum was dedicated to protecting the integrity of its collection and preserving those artifacts for future generations.

With no mummy and no DNA, we can't know for sure how long John Wilkes Booth lived after he killed Lincoln, only that he never lived it down.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" May 17, 2019 column

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