Sunday, March 21, 2010

Lincoln's Assassin John Wilkes Booth: Surprising Footnotes

President Lincoln's family became personally acquainted with the family of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, long before the assassination on April 14, 1865.

In 1863 or 1864, President Lincoln's teenage son Robert Todd Lincoln was on a train station platform in Jersey City, New Jersey, waiting for the train which would carry him to Washington, D.C.
Robert Todd Lincoln

Walking through the crowd on the platform only a few feet away from Robert was renowned Shakespearean performer Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, talking to John T. Ford, owner of Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. where Robert's father would ultimately be assassinated.

Edwin Booth, brother of
John Wilkes Booth

As Robert stood near the edge of the platform, a crowd gathered nearby surged toward him, squeezing him against the car of a train stopped on the track next to the platform. At the same moment, that train began moving forward, pulling Robert off balance, and throwing him down into the space between the platform and train, where death was near certain.

Before Robert fell all of the way, a powerful hand reached down from above, gripped his jacket and pulled him up, onto the platform. Astonished at this turn of events, Robert turned and found himself face to face with his savior, the famous actor, whom he recognized immediately. He said something like, "Mr. Booth, sir, thank you! You saved my life!" And so, many months before John Wilkes Booth took President Lincoln from us, Lincoln's most precious possession, his son, for whom Lincoln would gladly have given his own life, was saved by Booth's own brother, as his brother talked to the owner of the theatre where Lincoln would be shot!

In early 1865, after Lincoln gave a speech in which he indicated that he favored extending the right to vote to African American citizens, John Wilkes Booth reacted explosively, declaring that that would be the last speech Lincoln ever gave. As he and a club of Southern sympathizers planned Lincoln's assassination, Booth was allowed to sleep in a bed of Union Army Pvt. William Clark in the boarding house of William A. Petersen, across the street from Ford's Theatre, in Washington, D.C.
Lincoln's assassination

On April 14, 1865, after Booth mortally wounded President Lincoln in Ford's Theatre with the shot to the head, Lincoln was carried across the street to Petersen's boarding house, taken to Pvt. Clark's room, and laid in the bed Booth had only recently been sleeping in!

Lincoln, after his assassination, in the bed which
had been occupied by John Wilkes Booth

History books record that Booth, Lincoln's assassin, after he injured his ankle as he jumped from Lincoln's balcony box in Ford’s Theatre, was pursued and finally cornered in a barn near Bowling Green, Virginia, 12 days later. Soldiers set fire to the barn and one of them, Sgt. Thomas "Boston" Corbett, disobeying orders, shot Booth, killing him.
The porch of house where John Wilkes died after
Thomas "Boston" Corbett disobeyed orders,
shooting him

That, in any event, is how the story has come down to us.

Research into the details, however, immediately discloses that the evidence is almost as confused as that connected to Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of President Kennedy nearly 100 year later. There was no agreement as to which ankle Booth injured in his escape. There was no agreement on which of his wrists bore Booth's tattooed initials. In other words, the most basic facts were not available to confirm the identity of the man killed by Corbett. Sgt. Thomas Boston Corbett, the soldier named as Booth's killer, was disobeying orders when he shot the man later identified in an autopsy as Booth, thus preventing the man he, himself, identified as Booth from ever being questioned to verify identity, just as Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald, thus preventing Oswald from ever being questioned. Finally, there is evidence that Corbett, after he was ordered released on orders of Secretary of War Stanton, whom some have accused of conspiring to kill Lincoln, ended up being buried in Enid, Oklahoma.

Thomas "Boston" Corbett, alleged killer of
John Wilkes Booth, ended up dying
in the same obscure Oklahoma town, Enid,
David George, the man claiming to be
John Wilkes Booth, lived and died in
The significance of this burial site will become apparent as we review the story of another man.

In 1870, a man calling himself John St. Helen -- a surname which had become synonymous with "exile," on account of Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena island after his defeat at Waterloo -- appeared in Glen Rose, Texas and began working as a bartender, while he exhibited an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare as he engaged in acting, in Glen Rose on the side. After about a year, Mr. St. Helen left suddenly, just before the arrival in town of a number of federal dignitaries, some connected with the investigation of the Lincoln assassination who had been invited to a wedding there.

Next Mr. St. Helen turned up in Granbury, Texas, where he became gravely ill, and, fearing death, he confessed to lawyer and friend Finis Bates, "My name is not John St. Helen. I am John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln."

Mr. St. Helen, however, recovered, and fled.
John Wilkes Booth,
a/k/a John St. Helen,
a/k/a David George

Years later, in 1903, a drunken derelict calling himself David George -- the first names of Booth's two co-conspirators David Herrold and George Atzerodt -- died in Enid, Oklahoma, confessing to his caretakers, again, before his demise, that he was John Wilkes Booth.

On being informed of the derelict's dying words, Bates rushed to Enid and, recognizing his friend John St. Helen, claimed the body, had it embalmed, put it in storage, and offered it to federal authorities, who denied having any interest in the corpse.

Bates held the body for some time, and eventually sold it to a traveling circus, who featured the corpse in a sideshow as that of John Wilkes Booth.

The corpse, at this juncture, is lost.

The bottom line is a question: Is it a coincidence that the man accused of disobeying orders by shooting and killing the man thought to be John Wilkes Booth, who after his arrest for killing Booth was released by Stanton, the Secretary of War believed by a few to have been "in on" Lincoln's assassination, ended up dying in the same obscure town the man who claimed to be Booth died in?
Is it possible that the man who died at Garrett's barn was a volunteer impostor (dying of some disease) killed by Corbett because Corbett was working with Booth, and was doing what needed to be done to stop the manhunt for Booth by creating the illusion that Booth was dead?

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