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:
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:
Historian James Hall disagrees and cites a 40-page statement made by David Herold to government investigators just 36 hours after Herold’s arrest:
Dr. Chitty claims Herold was pressured into changing his story:
According to Nate Orlowek, other eyewitnesses also refuted the government’s identification of the man killed at Garrett’s Farm:
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:
Nate Orlowek says the men were told to keep the truth a secret:
Orlowek says the government autopsy was performed by a physician who was acquainted with Booth:
Dr. Chitty claims that, like the others, Dr. May was also pressured into lying:
Nate Orlowek sites a lack of documentation:
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:
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:
Not everyone who was on the bridge that night agreed. Author and historian James O. Hall:
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.
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:
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
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.