Some believe that Lincoln’s assassin was not killed by Union soldiers, but escaped and lived until 1903.
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.”
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.”
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.”
In 1922, when he was 77 years old, Kenzie detailed what he saw at Garrett’s Farm in a sworn affidavit:
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.”
“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.
“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
“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.