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

John Wilkes Booth posing with a hat.

John Wilkes Booth

Headshots of John St. Helen and John Wilkes Booth

John St. Helen and John Wilkes Booth

CASE DETAILS

Several men examing a corpse

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 men hanging by their necks.

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.”

An officer holding papers.

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.”

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.” 

An affidavit signed by 6 physicians.

Six physicians recorded their findings in an 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.”

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.

Update:

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 FarinaVarious seasons available now on Hulu.

17 Comments

  1. Benny Wells

    The biggest question for me is lack of photos and no public viewing of the body . When you consider that there were numerous war photographers in the area and the fact that the people were fascinated by post-mortem photos as souvenirs , there should be at least a few postcards or something.

    Reply

  2. David Wright

    As a Leadville historian I believe I am turning up enough evidence to show John Wilkes Booth did NOT die in Virginia, but lived his life out in Leadville, Colorado The government is notorious and expert at planting BS when they screw up, and the last thing they wanted in the official records was the multiple screw ups that allowed Booth to escape, and hence they offer “proof” that they “got their man”… I am continuing my research and am open to any documented evidence regarding this mystery.

    Reply

  3. RLW

    Everybody is looking for a conspiracy in everything. Booth died at Garrett’s Farm. If you want proof, look at the facts and the history recorded at the time. Booth and Herold had no warning and only minutes to decide what to do when the troops arrived to arrest them. They had no idea that they had been found out. No record of any type has ever been found to show an imposter was in that tobacco barn. Further, Sec. of War Stanton, was ‘obsessed’ with making sure the right man was killed, that it was indeed Booth. He was satisfied as were multiple authorities following the shooting of Booth. Give this conspiracy stuff a rest.

    Reply

  4. Dave

    Franklin county TN library has a marriage license with the name John W Boothe being wed to a Louisa Payne.
    The license is dated soon after the assassination of Lincoln.

    Reply

  5. Joanne Kline Hulme Gunvenhauser

    Even today, it is clear to see that this is a coverup , many people involved in high places tried to cover their tracks. As a Booth cousin, we have tried to get the dna done but so called ” historians” fight against it all the time. One one needs to open threir minds and stop the whole stupid James O Hall stuff. Check out Historys’ Greatest Mystery on the History Channel on Dec. 5th 2020 for updates.

    Reply

  6. Bill Blaski

    I believe John ST Helen was that of John Wilkes Booth. TB TB Road

    Spitting image. Now in the case of Billy the Kid
    I don’t believe Brushy Bill was Billy

    Reply

    • Jean Kutzer

      I grew up in Bandera, Texas. In high school our history teacher took us to the Frontier Times Museum to look at some documents left behind by a teacher at a local private school in the late 19th century. This man came to Bandera from the east and taught for many years. After becoming engaged he left suddenly when confronted by the young womans family who investigated his background and found him to be John Wilkes Booth. He left and was said later on he was headed for Oklahoma. The museum had some of his school work papers and we compared the handwriting. It certainly looked identicle. The museum today no longer has those papers unfortunately.

      Reply

  7. Pete

    Because of the age of the case, “evidence” i.e eyewitness statements, testimony, army records, hearsay and conjecture can easily be misconstrued. However, if the Smithsonian Institute has concluded the findings are worth a closer look and the Booth Family have indeed agreed to exhume the body of the man killed at Garrett’s Farm, then surely the biggest question here is why has a state court has refused permission of exhumation? When a question of identity can easily be resolved with today’s forensic abilities, it seems strange that a state court would block the almost certain answer as to who this man was. Does this not fuel the flames of yet another conspiracy?

    Reply

  8. Lynda Taylor

    This may sound obvious and they may have already thought of this but, since they aren’t allowed to take dna from the person buried as John Wilkes Booth to compare to his brother Edwin Booth, then why not ask to take dna from John St Helen? This would rule out John St Helen as being really John Wilkes Booth. If St Helens mitochondria dna does not match Edwin Booth then they are not brothers and that theory would be debunked.

    Reply

  9. Kay Ferraro

    I believe you will find this article interesting.

    http://library.indstate.edu/rbsc/neff/kate_scott_statement.html

    Reply

  10. Lance

    why wasn’t Booth body dug up and a dna test done on him I remember that his family gave permission but a court struck it down. Why not put this ridiculous story to rest once and for all

    Reply

  11. Robert Wallace

    I have, for many years, been completely convinced of the fact, that John Wilkes Booth indeed DID escape capture; I Absolutely
    Wholeheartedly stand with Nate Orlowek on the premise that someone other than Booth was in Garrett’s tobacco barn with Herold–and when he emerged Harold exclaimed: ” It’s not Booth “. . . that he subsequently was threatened that it had better be Booth.
    There’s so many items of fact that placed together, one can’t help but clearly see there’s concrete doubt of Booth’s death in 1865.
    The overriding contention that completely baffles me to no end–there are bone fragments in that one museum purported to be from the vertebrae from Booth. . .DO THE DNA on them and PROVE to us delusional, out of our mind and ” out to lunch ” conspiracy nuts that we’re all Wrong; WHY do those, like James O. Hall, every time { third time now I believe }, block the DNA testing on those remains. Do the test, prove they belong to Booth–and as Mr. Orlowek has declared, I will admit and believe what the History books have declared for 154 years now: Booth was killed at Garrett’s tobacco barn. Until then, I categorically believe he DID indeed ESCAPE! ! !

    Reply

  12. Robert Guthrie

    When you compare the photographs of John Wilkes Booth and St. Helen you see that the nose is different, the ears and the way they sit on the head is unique to one another and since when did Booth have startled eyes like a deer caught in the bright headlights of a truck at night? Unless Booth went out and had plastic surgery the photos clearly shows they are two different men. John St. was a delusional character and Booth (want to be), just like crazy people going around thinking they are Napoleon or some historical figure.

    Reply

  13. Anonymous

    Closely study the photographs of John St. Helen and John Wilkes Booth and see that they are two different men. Observe the nose; St. Helen’s was a bit smaller, the ears and how they set, the eyes; St. Helen had larger startled eyes. Even the chin is slightly different. Why are there those who tend to overlook such things?

    Reply

    • Robert M. Wallace

      I still stand by my earlier post on 20th June 2019–John Wilkes Booth was NOT shot to death at Garrett’s tobacco barn the 26th April 1865!
      Two Super Awesome tomes to read on this truth are: ” Return Of Assassin: John Wilkes Booth ” by W. C. Jameson, and ” They Wanted Lincoln Dead ” by Troy Cowan; these two books are so cogent and uncover the false assumption that Booth died 12 days after shooting President Abraham Lincoln! They go in tandem with David Balsiger and Charles E. Sellliers’ ” The Lincoln Conspiracy “! These three are a ‘ must read ‘–and will truly open your mind! ! !

      Reply

  14. Mr Anonymous

    Get a scanned copy of Bates’s entire book on Amazon Cloud.

    Reply

  15. LP

    This information is very useful is there anymore

    Reply