The Postmortem Career of John Wilkes Booth
By R. J. Brown
Most historians allege that John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, was killed in Garrett's barn on April 26, 1865. Because there was so much mystery surrounding the autopsy and subsequent burial of Booth, some held the belief that Booth didn't really die that night. Some claimed that Booth had actually escaped and that the man shot in the barn wasn't really Booth. They further believe that when officials in the American government discovered that they had the wrong man, to escape embarrassment, the matter was quickly covered up. The controversy settled down by the time that the conspirators' trial was over. There were a few brief rumbles again in 1867 with the John Surratt trial but they too quickly ended. In the Spring of 1898 there was much newspaper coverage relating that Booth had escaped death in the burning barn in 1865 and made his way to South America. It wasn't until 1903 that the question of Booth's escape surfaced again.
On January 13, 1903 a man in Enid, Oklahoma, by the name of David E. George died. in his last dying statement, the man confessed to his landlord, Mrs. Harper, that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. This was soon the topic of discussion around town. The January 22, 1903 Enid Wave bore the following article banked with headlines:
WAS IT BOOTH?
The Impression Growing, From Evidence,
Circumstantial and Otherwise, that
the Supposed Remains of
David E. George are None
Other Than the Remains of
JOHN WILKES BOOTH!
From the first the Wave has not believed that it is probable that David E. George... was John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, however, it is possible. The evidence of Mrs. Harper as to the fact George confessed to her... that he was none other than Booth, the assassin, in connection with the striking likeness to the assassin and the general demeanor of the man in producing parts of Shakespeare's' plays and songs around the saloons leads to a possibility in this case...
The most remarkable circumstance surrounding the dead man, as links to the fact that his right leg was broken just above the ankle, years ago,... Besides these lines, comes to the fact that J. Wilkes Booth was born in 1839 and was twenty-six years of age when the assassination took place and sixty-three years old in 1902, if living, which is the exact age of George as found in his papers...
One thing is certain, the remains now lying embalmed in the Pennimann Undertaking Rooms should not be buried until the identity is made more clear..."
The remains of David E. George's body were mummified and kept on display at the undertakers' for many months. Shortly thereafter, Finis L. Bates, a Memphis Lawyer, bought the mummy and began presenting it on the circus side show circuit. Such were the beginnings of a second career for John Wilkes Booth.
The postmortem career of John Wilkes Booth, whether it belongs to true history or folklore, none-the-less provides a fascinating story. The mummy scattered ill-luck around almost as freely as Tutankhamen is alleged to have done. Nearly every showman who exhibited the mummy was subsequently ruined financially. Eight people were killed in the wreck of a circus train in 1902 on which the mummy was traveling. Bill Evans, a wealthy carnival king, who bought the exhibit in later years was financially ruined by continual strokes of bad luck after the purchase. Finis L. Bates, the original owner, wrote a book in 1908 entitled "The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth" which attempted to prove that the mummy was in fact John Wilkes Booth. he suffered much ridicule because of that book and died penniless in 1923. Perhaps the only person to sponsor the mummy and not suffer strokes of financial bad luck was Reverend True Wilson. It must be pointed out that Wilson was largely responsible for originally getting the prohibition law passed. However, shortly after Wilson bought the mummy, the repeal of the prohibition law was made official. (Let each reader make their own determination as to whether this was a cause-effect in this case or not.)
A MOST UNUSUAL AUTOPSY
In 1931, at the urging of a showman that owned the mummy, the remains were X-rayed, operated on, and otherwise examined by a group of medical men and criminalists in Chicago, Illinois. It was claimed that the fractured leg, the broken thumb, and the scar on the neck were all verified. The panel was convinced that they had proven that the mummy was in fact the remains of John Wilkes Booth. Despite the fact that the panel consisted of recognized experts in their field, the investigation failed to gain wide publicity. A few pulp magazines and otherwise "tabloid" newspapers were the only ones to carry the story. This, combined with the fact that a showman brought about the investigation, tended to take credibility away from the conclusions of the panel.
The mummy had a strange knock-about existence. It had been bought and sold, held under bond, sized for debt, repeatedly chased out of town by local authorities for not having a license or for violating other ordinances, been threatened by indignant Grand Army of the Republic (Civil War) veterans, and, at least one time, kidnapped. (Ads in certain 1928 issues of "Billboard" offer a $1000 reward for its safe return.) Until 1937 the mummy had been a constant money loser.
PAY DIRT AT LAST!
1937 saw several events that helped to make the financial turn-a-round for the seemingly ill-fated mummy. This was the year that Otto Eisenschimil released his book "Why Was Lincoln Murdered?" This author produced a vast amount of documentation that suggested that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was the ringleader of the plot to kill Lincoln and that Stanton arranged to facilitate the escape of Booth. This book, while not exactly expounding on the possibility for Booth's escape, none-the-less made it seem feasible. Another historical volume published in that year was "This One Mad Act" by Izola Forrester, a great daughter of John Wilkes Booth. This book presented evidence that members of her family were in personal contact with the assassin for a generation after 1865. As a result of these two books, 1937 saw much newspaper coverage of the controversy of the Lincoln assassination in general.
Wide-spread newspaper coverage of the topic certainly helped make more people aware that there were still some unsolved mysteries surrounding Lincoln's assassination.
As an interesting side point here, I have conducted extensive research and discovered that in the height of his career John Wilkes Booth earned about $20,000 a year. (This was both by acting fees and profits from investments.) In 1937, the mummified remains of the alleged John Wilkes Booth earned in excess of $100,000.
Mr. and Mrs. John Harkin owned the mummy from 1937 until at least 1942. (Mr. Harkin had been the former tattooed man for the Wallace-Hagenbeck Circus.) They toured the country with the Jay Gould Million Dollar Shows for several seasons. After that point in time, I have lost track of just whom owned the mummy or where it went.
HOW THE STORY OF THE MUMMY BEING J. WILKES BOOTH GOT STARTED
In 1903 when Finis L. Bates (mentioned earlier) read the news concerning the death of David E. George in Enid, Oklahoma, he rushed to Enid to check it out. Bates, in the early 1870's, in Texas, had been a close friend with a man going by the name John St. Helen. When St. Helen became very ill he confided to Bates (he thought he was on his death-bed) that HE was John Wilkes Booth. St. Helen recovered. Later, when Bates asked St. Helen about the confession, St. Helen denied he ever said it. When Bates read the news of David E. George, nearly 30 years later, claiming to have been John Wilkes Booth, Bates became curious. he wondered if John St. Helen and David E. George were one in the same person.
Upon arriving in Enid, Bates headed to the Pennimann Undertakers Rooms to see the body of David E. George. Yes! This was the man he had known as John St. Helen. Bates secretly bought the mummy and took it back to Memphis. He spent five years conducting what he called research to prepare a book about this matter. (He hid the mummy in his garage during this time!) In 1908, Bates released his book. According to his book, the main plot goes something like this:
On the afternoon of April 25, 1865, Booth remembered that he had left his diary, wallet and other personal effects in the marsh a few miles from the Garrett farm. He asked a man by the name of Ruddy, who was caretaker at the Garrett farm, to retrieve them for him. Ruddy left to get them. Meanwhile, Booth got wind that government agents were closing in on him so he took off on his own leaving Herold behind. When Ruddy returned with Booth's personal items he found that Booth was gone. Expecting him to return, Ruddy kept the personal items on his own person. Herold and Ruddy slept in the barn that night. When the government agents arrived this is why the man in the barn denied he was Booth. This is also why Booth's personal belongings were found on the body of the man shot in the barn. Lastly, Bates made the claim that no reward money was ever actually paid to anyone for the capture of Booth but yet rewards were paid for the capture of Atzerodt and Payne. Therefore, this proved that the government knew they had the wrong man and that Booth was never caught.
WAS THE MUMMY REALLY JOHN WILKES BOOTH?
Transcripts of the trial of the conspirators relate the following as to how the body taken from the Garrett farm was identified. Colonel Everton J. Conger was present at the Garrett farm for the entire ordeal. he testified at the trial the he had met John Wilkes Booth in Washington on several occasions prior to the incident at the Garrett farm. he further stated that both men were the same. Also on the witness stand were L. B. Baker, Lt. Doherty, and several others. Each told of how they knew the body was that of Booth.
At the Surratt trial in 1867, a new piece of information became known. Lt. Luther Byron Baker testified that "there was a pin which Colonel Conger took off his undershirt after we tore open the collar." Baker then identified the pin which had been taken from Booth's body. Conger then took the stand and testified that after Booth was shot and before he died, he took a stone set in jet from Booths' person on which was engraved "Dan Bryant to J. W. Booth." (Bryant was an actor and friend of the Booth family. I have found two independent sources from prior to the assassination that confirm that Bryant did in fact give Booth such a pin and that he kept it pinned to his undershirt.)
While Booth, as Mr. Bates' book suggests, might have left his personal belongings in the marsh and that a man, under instructions from Booth, go to retrieve them, it strains the probabilities to expect the pin belonging to Booth to also be fastened to his undershirt where John Wilkes Booth kept it. The fact that he even had a pin and that he kept it fastened to his undershirt was not public knowledge at the time.
In the matter of the unclaimed reward money, one only need look in the National Archives in Washington, D. C. to see the original signed receipts. In addition, the Congressional Globe (Part 5, 1st session, 39th Congress), made their report on July 26, 1866 and appropriation was made by the acts of July 28, 1866. (14 stat, 341.)
In 1869, when the body was finally turned over to the Booth family, to make absolutely certain that the body was really Booth, they had the family dentist examine the remains. Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes, represented that the family dentist identified the body as that of John Wilkes Booth by a close examination of the skeletons' teeth. The dental work corresponded. Edwin and the rest of the family were satisfied that they body was really that of John Wilkes Booth.
To lay the matter to rest (pun intended), yes there was a mummy that its owners represented to have been the remains of John Wilkes Booth. No, the remains were not those of John Wilkes Booth. Rather, they were those of David E. George -- a man unknown in life that became famous in death.
Artist rendering of "Booth the Mummy" 1922 sideshow display
Photo of "Booth the Mummy" taken in 1931