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Historical vertebrae, a sideshow mummy and the lingering mystery of John Wilkes Booth

One April night 146 years ago, as the audience at Ford’s Theatre laughed at an actor’s joke, a shot rang out from President Abraham Lincoln’s box. “Stop that man!” cried members of the audience as John Wilkes Booth leapt from the box and escaped into the night, Union soldiers close behind.

John Wilkes Booth when he was among the living.

Our history books tell us that Booth’s flight ended two weeks later when a Union soldier shot and killed the assassin in a Virginia tobacco barn. But some have questioned this official story, including a few who claimed to have met the assassin in Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma decades after his supposed death. Now, some of Booth’s descendants want to use DNA testing to end the speculation.

“If the DNA matches, then it means that the other side was right and John Wilkes Booth was killed in the barn,” said Nate Orlowek, a Booth researcher who, along with the late Dr. Arthur Ben Chitty of the University of the South, has been leading efforts to reexamine the story of Booth’s death since the mid-1970s. “If it doesn’t, then that means that history was recorded wrong for 150 years.”

Orlowek was 15 when he began studying Booth’s death. More than 20 years later, in 1995, Booth’s living relatives were persuaded by Orlowek’s evidence that Booth may have escaped capture to exhume their infamous ancestor’s body from the family plot in Maryland. According to Orlowek, forensic scientists from around the country, including representatives from the Smithsonian Institution, expressed their interest in helping to conduct a series of studies which would have determined once and for all whether the body there is Booth’s. But while the state’s attorney supported their efforts, the cemetery did not. The case went to the courts, where Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan ruled that the inconvenience of disinterring a century-old body, “coupled with the unreliability of petitioners’ less than convincing escape/cover up theory” outweighed the historical value of exhumation.

Several years passed before Orlowek’s team and Booth’s relatives began to explore other ways to test the identity of “the man in the barn,” as they call the man who is buried as John Wilkes Booth. In December, Lois Trebisacci, the great-great-great granddaughter of John Wilkes Booth’s brother Edwin, told the Boston Globe that she would be helping with efforts to exhume Edwin from his grave in Massachusetts. The plan is for scientists working with Orlowek and the Booth family to compare DNA from Edwin’s body with DNA samples from a few vertebrae removed from Booth’s body before his burial, which are now in the possession of the Armed Forces Institute for Pathology.

Orlowek and his colleagues still need permission from the institute to use those vertebrae before they contact the cemetery where Edwin Booth is buried. Despite complaints that DNA testing could damage the vertebrae, Orlowek is optimistic about his side’s chances. “If you wouldn’t let a specimen be used to solve the greatest mystery in American history,” he says, “when would you ever let any specimen be used?”

An engraving of the postmortem examination of Booth's body on board the monitor "Montauk"

But why do Orlowek and his colleagues believe the wrong man is buried in Booth’s grave? First, they say, “the man in the barn” – described by some soldiers as a redhead with freckles – didn’t look like the black-haired assassin. They say that the people who identified the body as Booth’s hardly knew him and suggest that the rush and secrecy around Booth’s identification, autopsy and burial could be evidence that the government knew it had the wrong man.

And when Booth’s descendants – all indirect, because the actor never had children – got together in the 1990s at the behest of Orlowek’s team, they discovered that they had all been told by parents and grandparents that Booth had escaped and lived on for decades under another name.

The most common theories about Booth’s escape are based on the book “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth,” written in 1907 by Memphis attorney Finis Langdon Bates. Bates, the grandfather of actress Kathy Bates, was living in Granbury, Texas, in the early 1870s when he was called to the bedside of a dying man named John St. Helen. A fiery, Shakespeare-quoting businessman, St. Helen had once panicked when called to testify in federal court on behalf of another of Bates’ clients. He had admitted then that his last name was not actually St. Helen but had refused to elaborate.

According to Bates’  book, as John St. Helen struggled to maintain consciousness, he whispered, “I am dying. My name is John Wilkes Booth, and I am the assassin of President Lincoln.”

St. Helen then recovered and told Bates more before leaving town, revealing in his stories a vast knowledge of the Booth family and of the events surrounding the assassination. “This man, if he wasn’t John Wilkes Booth,” said Nate Orlowek, “it’s pretty darn amazing that he knew all these things.”

St. Helen claimed the plot to kill Lincoln had been initiated by Vice-President Andrew Johnson. After the assassination, St. Helen had escaped Washington using a password that Johnson had given him. St. Helen told Bates that he didn’t know who had died in his place, but guessed that it was a man whom he had sent to retrieve some of his belongings, including letters and personal identification, from a place along his escape route.

Dr. Arthur Ben Chitty’s research in Sewanee, Tenn., both supports and contradicts Bates’ story of John Wilkes Booth’s escape. In Bates’ book, Booth travels through Utah and California between the assassination and his arrival in Texas. Chitty uncovered stories that Booth, using the alias John St. Helen, had arrived in Tennessee after Lincoln’s assassination and married a woman named Louisa Payne. Local legend says that Payne, a devout Christian, insisted that St. Helen remarry her under his given name. Sure enough, Chitty uncovered a document in the Franklin County Courthouse recording the 1872 wedding of Louisa Payne and a “Jno. W. Booth.”

Louisa’s son, McCager Payne, told the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle in 1926 that he had overhead his stepfather, who had a bad left leg, confess to his mother that he was John Wilkes Booth. “If you ever tell what you heard me say,” St. Helen said, when he caught the boy listening, “I’ll rip your throat from ear to ear.” Later, according to McCager Payne, St. Helen moved west to Texas and lost touch with his family.

In 1903, a man named David E. George committed suicide in Enid, Okla., and several locals came forth claiming that George had confessed to them that he was John Wilkes Booth. George carried papers requesting that Finis Bates be contacted upon his death. When Bates arrived in town, he recognized the body as that of his friend John St. Helen. Bates claimed George’s body, which had been mummified and put on display at an Enid funeral home, and returned to his home in Memphis, where he published his book and spent the rest of his life advocating for it.

The mummy of David E. George, aka John St. Helen, aka John Wilkes Booth

David E. George’s mummy enjoyed a long career as a carnival sideshow attraction during Bates’ lifetime and after his death. In 1930, at the prompting of its showman owner, the mummy was examined by a group of Chicago doctors, who discovered a fractured leg, broken thumb and neck scar consistent with reported injuries on Booth’s body. The doctors’ tests were less than thorough, however, and the examination was passed off as a publicity stunt by most historians and the mainstream media. The mummy was last seen in public sometime in the late 1970s and may currently be in the hands of a private collector.

As exciting as this alternate history is, it is often challenged by documented historical fact. On the issue of the body, for example, Laurie Verge, Booth historian and director of the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Md., said that about 100 different people, including several close acquaintances, were able to identify Booth’s body before it was buried. “JWB” was tattooed on the dead man’s hand, as it had been on the actor’s, and the body, like the mummy, was scarred in all the right places. When Booth was undressed for autopsy, his undershirt was held together by an engraved cravat pin, which had been a gift to Booth from an actor friend and was unlikely to be in anyone else’s possession. The clerk at Washington’s National Hotel, where Booth was a frequent guest and had stayed the night before the assassination, confidently identified both the body and the clothes it was wearing as Booth’s. And in 1869, when Booth’s family was given his skeleton for burial, the family dentist identified what was left of the assassin by his teeth.

As for Finis Bates, Verge said he was probably “a gullible young man when he met this old drifter with a drinking problem who claimed to be John Wilkes Booth and spouted Shakespeare.” Bates may also have been interested in money: the reward for finding John Wilkes Booth that he tried to claim from the government in 1900, the sales of his attention-grabbing book, or the proceeds from renting George’s mummy to carnival showmen. Bates’ book is riddled with inconsistencies, say most historians, and contains little, if any, evidence that would stand up in a court of law.

“The documentable facts on the Lincoln assassination are so fascinating,” said Verge. “The whole story could be a great American epic based just on documentable facts, but no one wants to believe just the documentable facts.”

But “you don’t even need to believe that David E. George was Booth to believe that Booth got away,” said Nate Orlowek, and you don’t need to believe that Booth got away to be interested in testing the theories. “How could any historian be against doing any kind of test that’s going to advance knowledge?” he asked. “I think that the vast majority of people are on our side.”

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