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John Wilkes Booth

Some believe that Lincoln’s assassin was not killed by Union soldiers, but escaped and lived until 1903.

John Wilkes Booth

John St. Helen and John Wilkes Booth


Autopsy revealed similarities between men

In April of 1865, after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, two thousand Union troops searched for the killer:  an actor named John Wilkes Booth. On April the 26th at 4:00 AM, soldiers surrounded a tobacco barn on Garrett Farm, near Port Royal in Virginia. They had information that Lincoln’s assassin was inside the barn. A man surrendered, but it was not John Wilkes Booth, but 21-year-old David Herold, known to be one of Booth’s co-conspirators.

Lieutenant Edward Doherty decided to smoke Booth out by setting the barn ablaze. The soldiers were under strict orders to take Booth alive. But as the troops moved in, a sergeant shot a man who was hiding inside. Two soldiers dragged the body from the inferno, but was it really John Wilkes Booth? Historian Nate Orlowek doesn’t think so:

“There is tremendous physical evidence that proved beyond a doubt that John Wilkes Booth, in reality, was not killed by the Federal Government Officers as they claimed. In fact, he lived until January 13th, 1903, when he died in Enid, Oklahoma territory.”

Four of Booth’s co-conspirators were hanged

Those who challenge the official account believe that in the confusion following the Civil War, evidence may have been recorded incorrectly or perhaps even covered up. Even some high-ranking military officers questioned the official story of Booth’s death. In the early 1900s, John Shumaker, the army’s General Counsel to the Department of the Army wrote:  “The evidence put forth by the government to support the conclusion that the body was that of John Wilkes Booth was so insubstantial that it would not stand up in a court of law.”

Nate Orlowek and Dr. Arthur Chitty each spent years independently studying the Lincoln assassination. According to Dr. Chitty, they arrived at the same conclusion:

“The most persuasive evidence to me, at Garrett’s Barn, that the man in the barn was not Booth is the fact that his friend David E. Herold came out of the barn and the first thing he said was, ‘The man in there is not Booth.’”

Historian James Hall disagrees and cites a 40-page statement made by David Herold to government investigators just 36 hours after Herold’s arrest:

“Herold referred to Booth ten times by name when he was discussing what went on in the barn while it was being surrounded by the solders. To me, that’s conclusive. I can’t see where they get the idea that he’d come running out and say it’s not Booth.”

Booth’s papers were found in the Garrett barn

Dr. Chitty claims Herold was pressured into changing his story:

“He was in fear of his life. He had been incarcerated with a canvas bag over his head and just a little hole to be fed through. He was under terrible emotional strain and was trying to save his neck, and so, therefore, when he thought that he would survive by changing his story, he changed his story.”

According to Nate Orlowek, other eyewitnesses also refuted the government’s identification of the man killed at Garrett’s Farm:

“Lieutenant William C. Allan worked for the United States Secret Service in 1865. In August of 1937, his widow, Mrs. Helen Allan, told a journalist that her husband had told her that he saw the man at Garrett’s farm who had been killed and that the man had red hair. And that the government knew that that man was not Booth, but they were determined to foist this man on the nation as Booth.”

Every historical account says Booth’s hair was jet black. Eyewitness testimony about the red-haired man was supported by two other Union soldiers: Joseph Zisgen and Wilson Kenzie. Nate Orlowek says the men were friends with Booth in New Orleans:

“Kenzie was a Quartermaster and was free to go wherever he wanted, basically, within the military lines. And so he went with Zisgen to Garrett’s barn because he had an interest in what was going to happen to Booth.”

Six physicians recorded their findings in an affidavit

In 1922, when he was 77 years old, Kenzie detailed what he saw at Garrett’s Farm in a sworn affidavit:  

“As I rode up, Joe Zisgen called ‘Here, come here Sergeant, this ain’t John Wilkes Booth at all.’  I could see the color of his hair. I knew at once it wasn’t he.  His body was exposed and he had no injured leg.” 

Nate Orlowek says the men were told to keep the truth a secret:

“And he said that the officers told them there will be dire consequences for anyone who tells the truth. The military really meant business and they were not going to risk their lives just to tell the truth.”

Orlowek says the government autopsy was performed by a physician who was acquainted with Booth:

“Doctor John F. May was a Washington surgeon who removed a tumor from the back of Booth’s neck a few months before the assassination in 1865. His statement is now in the National Archives.  Like all the other government records on the case, it was held secret for seventy years.”
Dr. Chitty claims that, like the others, Dr. May was also pressured into lying:

“John Frederick May wanted to tell the truth and he recognized that this was not Booth, but it was made pretty clear to him very early on that ‘this better be Booth.’ And so we have the curious affidavit which starts out saying ‘I’m sure this is Booth.’  And then goes on to say, ‘But it doesn’t look like Booth. But this is certainly Booth.’ Signed, John Frederick May.” 

Nate Orlowek sites a lack of documentation:

“Now, had the government really believed that 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. The government knew that that man was not Booth.”

The body was secretly buried in the basement of the Old Naval Prison in Washington. But if John Wilkes Booth was not killed at Garrett’s barn, then what happened to him?

In 1865, the government moved quickly to close the books on the Lincoln assassination.  The trial of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators resulted in four hangings and three life sentences. The details of the conspiracy were classified as “secret” and hidden away.  Today, some experts believe that Booth actually escaped, and that he lived in the South under assumed names for another 38 years.

In 1907, an attorney from Texas named Finis Bates published a book, called “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth.” In its pages, Bates claimed that he learned the true story of Booth from a man named John St. Helen of Granbury, Texas. In 1877, when John St. Helen was seriously ill and afraid he was about to die, he made a startling confession to Finis Bates. He said his real name was John Wilkes Booth. Nate Orlowek:

“Well, Bates, of course, thought this guy was crazy. He had been told, as everyone else had, that Booth had been killed in 1865, so he thought the man was just hallucinating.  And Booth said to him, ‘No, I really am John Wilkes Booth, and now that I’ve told you my secret, I want to give you the whole story.’ So he poured out for Bates a very long confession, detailing in great detail the kidnap conspiracy, the murder conspiracy, how he got out of Washington, how he escaped altogether.”

St. Helen explained that all the bridges out of Washington were closed after nightfall and heavily guarded. But he had been given a password that allowed him to cross. According to Nate Orlowek, one of the guards on duty that night, a man named Frederick Demond, wrote a letter that supports this account:

“In that letter, Demond says that at about 10 P.M. that night, a Captain rode up to the bridge and said if anyone comes up using a certain password, let ‘em through.  And that password was ‘T.B. Road.’ Demond says that was very peculiar because never before had anyone been allowed to cross the bridge using a password.”

Not everyone who was on the bridge that night agreed. Author and historian James O. Hall:

“Sergeant Silas Cobb, who was in charge of this squad at the bridge, didn’t say anything about passwords. All he said was, ‘I thought these people were proper people to go across the bridge and I let ‘em cross’”.

Booth had broken his leg while fleeing. After secretly seeing a doctor, he continued his escape hidden in the back of a wagon. Though he was a fugitive, Booth made the dangerous decision to take personal papers that could identify him as Lincoln’s assassin.
At one point, says Nate Orlowek, it was believed that soldiers were approaching:

“He thought they were Northern soldiers, so he was hurriedly yanked out of the back of the wagon and hustled into the woods. When that happened, his papers and other personal affects fell out.”

Booth sent a messenger back for the papers. But then another messenger arrived with bad news:  Union soldiers were closing in. Booth could no longer wait for his papers and left immediately. It was the man sent back to retrieve Booth’s papers who was in the Garrett barn when it was surrounded by Union troops. This man carried Booth’s papers, so he was identified as the assassin.

As it turned out, St. Helen didn’t die after his deathbed confession. He left town as soon as he recovered. Finis Bates was convinced the story was true. Historian James Hall isn’t:

“Can you imagine a young lawyer talking to a bar owner down in Texas. A gullible young lawyer. So he just fills him full of a great big long story.  And later on Bates, that was the name of this young lawyer, embroidered the story nicely.  And wrote a book about it.”

Is it possible that John St. Helen was really John Wilkes Booth? A comparison of photographs does show a striking resemblance.

In 1903, while staying at a boarding house in Enid, Oklahoma, Nate Orlowek says
John St. Helen committed suicide by drinking a glass of wine laced with strychnine:

“Bates had the body preserved. He took many pictures of the body. And eventually, he had the body mummified to preserve it for posterity, to prove once and for all that the government had fooled us all and he was not going to allow that cover up to stand.”

In 1931, six Chicago physicians examined the mummified body of John St. Helen and recorded their findings in an affidavit. They specifically noted a scarred right eyebrow, a crushed right thumb, and a broken left leg. John Wilkes Booth is known to have had all three of these unusual characteristics.

Did John Wilkes Booth actually escape Union Troops only to kill himself 38 years later in an Oklahoma boarding house? Those who would know took that secret to their graves.


Though the story of Booth’s escape seems hard to believe, the Smithsonian Institute concluded it was worth a closer look. The Smithsonian even proposed exhuming the body of the man killed at Garrett’s farm, the man officially named as John Wilkes Booth. The Booth family agreed. However, a state court refused permission. The mystery surrounding Lincoln’s assassin still remains.

Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season four with Robert Stack and in season five with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina.



Brent English's picture

I'm from Oklahoma. and have heard through my family that John StHelen was in fact John Booth. and a family member.

Robert the Wallace's picture

There really seems to be Overwhelming evidence that John Wilkes Booth may well have escaped capture successfully; Mr. Orlowek { and I've seen him several times on programs }, truly comes across as not being a whacko, but quite cogent, concise, very learned and very thorough in his research! Somehow, I have in my heart, strongly believed that JWB did in fact live beyond Garrett's tobacco barn. To me, so many points of contention { perhaps not individually--however, taken collectively }, just seem to SCREAM cover--up! ! ! Dr. May initially and vociferously stating " This is not Booth "--family members as well as close friends [ even his co--horts ], not able to view his body on the ship; the super hasty burial with no photos of the body. . .the obvious discrepancy of body features--red hair, full beard, etcétera when Booth had jet black hair and had shaved off his facial hair. Booth's diary with the mysteriously missing 18 pages. . .sooo much more to really give credence to a massive discrepancy as to the " Official " account going on now for 150 years! Booth's family has all along now, given consent to allow DNA tests of Edwin Booth's remains to be compaired with the fragments of the so--called pieces of JWB's; time has long past, since this should have been done. . .this mystery NEEDS to be solved one way or the other!

Steven Cronie's picture

Not quite overwhelming evidence, but I agree it's compelling.The St. Helen claim, however, makes the evidence stop short of overwhelming, because,while St.Helen looks somewhat like someone trying to look like Booth, I don't think those photos depict the same man. Booth on the right has narrower bone structure and a different hairline. His hairline on his left (our right) recedes deeper and higher than the man identified as St. Helen. St. Helen's widow peak is much lower than Booth's and angled differently. Since the St. Helen photo is older than the Booth image, we should see more recession, not less. I'd like to hear St. Helen's version of the events and compare it to news reports just to see whether he revealed anything we now know to be true but that wasn't known at the time.

Mr.Rdiley's picture

I ran biometrics on both men. They are the same within 2% error. I urge anyone with the tools to cross compare the facial features of both men to do so. It's a match and my findings can easily be produced by any seasoned forensic biometrician.

Historian's picture

RE: Photo's It's very obvious that the St. Helen pic has been altered at some point in time.
As you can see, the front hairline doesn't match the color or texture of the back hair. The nose has been smudged as to "look" like the moustache is over the telltale Boothish tip. If you look at the ear it's been blurred somewhat as to change appearance. There's also white blurring/smudging out of the mole just under the ear. I've worked in plastic surgery for a number of years and am used to biometrics of the face. I'm not saying St. Helen is Booth, but someone went to a lot of effort to distort the optical give away areas that anyone would be able to see as "like Booth". The question is why?

Langdon Bates's picture

For the complete story, check out The Man in the Barn: Digging Up Lincoln's Killer. It comes out April 26 - the 150th anniversary of John Wilkes Booth's death at the barn...

WAYNE J. KOZAK's picture

This an interesting theory. However, I do not believe it. If you look at the photos of booth and st. Helen you can see there are differences. Since booth was an actor it is pretty sure he was a dandy. If you look at booth his hair and moustache are well groomed. In st. Helens photo his hair and moustache are not well groomed. Also booths and st. Helens head structure are totally different. The last two points I want to make are: he was a fanatic to the extreme and was very proud of what he did. Why would he go into hiding by changing his nam or as another person surmise commit suicide? interesting theories but I believe booth did die in the garrett barn.

Pamela J Abrams's picture

Interesting theory, however, whatever happened to Booth, the other guy seems to have completely different nose structure. Booth's nose is slightly bulbous at the base and the nose tip points down - not so for the other guy. Additionally, Booth's ears are shaped differently. Ears do change shape with age (become larger and the lobes tend to droop), so perhaps the nose is better used for id purposes. Completely different shape between these two noses, imo. However, this doesn't mean Booth didn't escape, just that this other guy wasn't Booth, again, imo. The intrigue continues :) Fascinating story, cheers to my fellow historical armchair sleuths!

s cooper's picture

what i find is the lack of photo evidence of john wilkes booth's dead body why ? this seems to be the norm that they take photographic evidence for the archives , to me there is more to the lincoln assassination than just john wilkes booth

Shannon's picture

My response is this: let's all remember similar cases with Butch Cassidy and William Petersen. Also, the cases of the three men who escaped from Alcatraz and continued to live in S. America. The case of Anna Andersen and Grand Duchess Anastasia. It was proven that Petersen was not really Cassidy. It was proven Andersen was not really Anastasia. On-going tests will decide if the men who escaped Alcatraz really lived out their lives in Brazil. That said, I feel that Booth was not the man who died in the Garrett tobacco barn. I also feel, taking into account the aging process, the photos of Booth and St Helen "may not" be of the same man. What needs to be done, is for the Booth family to forego seeking permission from the US Gov't, exhume the bodies of Edwin and "John". It's a shame that DNA samples were not taken of St Helen before they had him embalmed and stuffed. This happened in 1865, it is now 2015, an answer is needed. I'm curious though, what were the reactions/thoughts of the Lincoln family to the possibility of JWB evading capture and justice?

Johnny's picture

Doesn't anybody see the trail here? Just think about what happened to Abraham Lincoln, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy?

It seems to be a very simple deduction for anyone with a brain!

The Government obviously created the monsters they later extinguished

Unfair and Sad but true.

Tim's picture

I think there's certainly some doubt it was Booth, but St Helen was not him

Anonymous 87hQ7's picture

What happened to the single photoplate that was taken by either Anderson or an assistant of the autopsy of Booth;it was supposed to be delivered to Stanton under Stanton's orders,but dissappeared into history.

taua's picture

There's a theory that Booth escaped to Western Samoa and I'm his descendant. He married a chief's daughter in Samoa and had a daughter named Litiane.

taua's picture

Does anyone know if Booth traveled to Samoa?

Sam Fraser's picture

Contrary to the details in this case, Booth was accurately identified after being dragged from the barn. On the Garrett porch, he never once denied being Booth to Colonel Lafayette Baker, the Union officer who had lead the pursuit for him. He wanted a message delivered to his mother, asked for his hands to be held out and cried out "Useless, Useless..." before breathing his last. He was further identified by a pin through his vest to his undershirt.

Whatever ya say! 's picture

It seems highly plausible to me that Booth was never intended to be caught and wasn't. At the end of the day a simple DNA would dispel all myth and rumor. Why not? They won't allow the DNA because they don't want confirm the sanity of the 'crazy conspiracy theorist'. If this one is PROVEN TRUE, those so called nut jobs will swear their other theories are true! We all know what's up!

Mark king's picture

One plate (photograph) of "Booth" was taken.The plate was given to an official,under orders fromStanton,and was to be brought to Stanton;it disappeared from history.To this day I imagine historians are questioning this.Find that photo plate,and it may be the holy frail for Booths true identity.Has any of the missing documents from the alleged killers Diary been located;I have a gut feeling somebody has them.

George's picture

I think John Wilkes Booth & John St. Helen were the same man. When you look at all the coincidences, you realize there are too many of them to simply dismiss. I hope this issue really gets settled one day.

Luke's picture

It would be so easy to prove one way or the DNA testing on the " bones and skin tissue" that is said to be Booths and that of St Helen. Settle it once and for all. Come on, everybody's dead. Keep history or change it and find the TRUTH.

john smith's picture

classic government cover up...we know we got the wrong guy but hey, if we admit it we look like idiots, but if we claim we got him then we look like heroes, and of course the REAL bad guy is never going to come out and say we did NOT get him because as long as everybody thinks we got him, he basically gets off scot free." booth definitely did not get killed in that barn and everybody knows it.

sarah chapman's picture

what did the password mean I wonder and who gave him the means to cross the bridge using the passwordA2R3d

Robert the Wallace's picture

This seemingly perplexing: enigma heavily wrapped in a riddle--wrapped in Absolute Confusion, has intrigued me for many years.There are way too many inconsistanciesto discount the overwhelming evidence that JWB did in fact escape capture. Just received an Awesome book: ” The Return Of The Assassin: John Wilkes Booth ”. . .Extremely fascinating! A must read for anyone who still has doubts about his not living beyond 26th.IV. 1865! I've stated this before, and I know--the only way the Official Truth of History will not be satisfied until DNA tests are performed on the so--called Booth fragments with that of his brother Edwin; then will History be fullfilled. As Nathan Orlowek has said--if DNA proves those remains to be a match with Edwins', he'll concede and admit that truth. . .So will I! Until then, I firmly believe the man shot at Garretts barn, was definitely NOT President Abraham's assassin: John Wilkes Booth! !

Bill's picture

Since John Wilkes Booth would have liked to get away it is reasonable to assume he would have sought to alter his appearance including coloring his hair. Indeed Dr. Mudd who was an acquaintance of Booth's didn't recognize him when Booth came to have his broken leg set. The most compelling evidence that it was Booth who was killed is that the person killed did have a broken leg and in the time after his capture never denied he was Booth even though the soldiers there suggested that he was Booth. I find this conspiracy theory less believable than most conspiracy theories out there.

Kistory Buff's picture

It doesn't matter what was the piece of poo that was removed from the barn after the manhunt for Lincoln's killer. This was a Mr. Hanky and of an extremely smelly variety.

Mikael Shadows's picture

I think there is doubts because just like today's government, back then I'm sure was corrupt. Americans back then took every word that the government had said and believed them. I for one think Booth escaped and died some time later. Maybe it was St. Helen or maybe someone else.

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