Skip to comments.Did John Wilkes Booth survive?
Posted on 02/19/2007 8:23:24 AM PST by Borges
SEWANEE, Tenn. A signature in the Franklin County Courthouse and a mummy last seen in 1975 convinced two Tennessee men that John Wilkes Booth, the killer of Abraham Lincoln, escaped capture, traveled South and lived into the 20th century.
Now one of those men is hoping to use DNA evidence to prove it.
The other man, Arthur Ben Chitty, a historiographer at the University of the South who died in 2002, spent 40 years amassing anecdotal evidence that Mr. Booth married a Sewanee woman and lived there for a time, said his daughter Em Turner Chitty.
And there was one piece of physical evidence: the signature of Jno. W. Booth and his bride, Louisa J. Payne, recorded Feb. 24, 1872, in the marriage license records office of the Franklin County Courthouse.
What passes for history is good public relations thats my dads main thesis, said Ms. Turner, an English teacher at Pellissippi State College in Knoxville. The thing that got him most seriously interested (in Booth) was the signature.
BLAME KEN BURNS
In Memphis, Ken Hawkes got hooked on the Booth mystery in the early 1990s, when everybody in his office was following Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War.
Mr. Hawkes was an autopsy technician for the Shelby County medical examiners office. He said that after the episode dealing with President Lincolns assassination, a coworker told him a mummy that was purported to be Mr. Booth was toted around the Midwest in carnivals during the 1930s.
I thought it was nonsense, Mr. Hawkes said last week. Everybody knows Booth was killed in Virginia two weeks after the assassination.
But then a doctor in the office showed him a story from a magazine about the Booth mummy.
The doctor said that using forensic medicine, if we could find the remains, we could show one way or the other if it could be John Wilkes Booth, he said.
Two weeks later, Mr. Hawkes said, he began to think maybe he ought to find the mummy and do DNA testing.
I started looking for it and looked and looked and looked, he said.
The history books state that Mr. Booth shot President Lincoln the day before Easter 1865 at Fords Theater. Mr. Booth and a group of conspirators escaped Washington, D.C., and were cornered in Richard Garretts barn in Bowling Green, Va., 12 days later.
The barn was set afire, and Mr. Booth was shot and died within hours. Several Union soldiers who were acquainted with him identified his body. He was buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore. SEWANEE CONNECTION
On the third floor in the back of the Jessie Ball duPont Library at the University of the South, archivist Annie Armour points to shelves filled with documents and books that Mr. Chitty, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the school, amassed related to Booth.
Opening a box of newspaper clippings, legal documents, letters and audio recordings of interviews, Ms. Armour said, I dont see anything that proves or disproves.
But, she added, There are a couple of people around here who swore that (Booth) lived here for a while.
Ms. Chitty said that in 1956, her father met with a man named James. H. Rees. Mr. Rees told Mr. Chitty that when he was a boy he knew McCager Payne, the son of Louisa Payne and stepson of her husband, John St. Helen.
According to Mr. Chittys interviews with relatives, Louisa Payne learned after she married that St. Helen wasnt her husbands real name. Family lore says she insisted they remarry under his given name. Thats when the signature of Jno. W. Booth was made in Franklin County.
Mr. Chitty acquired Mr. Rees material on Mr. Booth in the 1980s. The trove included a 1926 interview with McCager Payne in the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, Ms. Chitty said.
Mr. Payne told the interviewer he had overheard his stepfather tell his mother about knots on his left leg and admit that he was Mr. Booth.
Mr. Payne said his stepfather saw the boy had overheard and said, If you ever tell what you heard me say, Ill rip your throat from ear to ear, according to the Leaf-Chronicle.
Several months later the three went to Memphis where Mr. St. Helen/Booth left the boy and his mother and headed to Texas. He told them he would be back but never returned, Ms. Chitty said.
Ms. Chitty said her fathers archives show Louisa Payne and her son returned to Sewanee.
The story goes that (Louisa) became pregnant only a few months after the marriage, Ms. Chitty said. She returned to Paynes Cove and had the baby, (Laura) Ida Booth. Strangely enough, she became an actress.
Ms. Chitty said she reviewed her fathers collection of Booth material in 1988.
There was so much evidence that he gathered, eyewitness evidence, documentary evidence. This story, when you first heard it, was crazy, Ms. Chitty said.
But there was a lot of evidence, she said.
Mr. Hawkes has been trying to find what he says may be Mr. Booths mummified remains.
In 1903, a dying, alcoholic house painter named David E. George told a minister in Enid, Okla., that he was John Wilkes Booth, Mr. Hawkes said.
Finis Bates, a Tennessee lawyer who decades before knew Mr. St. Helen/Booth, traveled to Oklahoma and determined that the body was that of the man he had known. Mr. Bates acquired the body and had it preserved, Mr. Hawkes said.
At some point, Mr. Bates widow sold it to a carnival where the mummy became a major attraction in shows like Jay Goulds Million Dollar Spectacle, he said.
Mr. Hawkes said he contacted every carnival, sideshow and circus he could find searching for Mr. Booths mummy.
News accounts from a Life magazine article in 1931 show that six doctors in Chicago examined and X-rayed the mummy. They found it had a shorter left leg, a distorted right thumb and a scar on its neck, all consistent with physical characteristics of Booth.
Mr. Hawkes said the last documented sighting was in Philadelphia in the early 1960s. But he has a 1991 letter from a man who says he saw the mummy in Pennsylvania in 1975 at a carnival.
The clincher for me was the man said X-rays were with the mummy that the doctors made in Chicago, he said.
Mr. Hawkes said the Pennsylvania man told him that the carnival promoter was asking everyone who came in to look at the mummy if they wanted to buy it.
I do believe the mummy still exists, he said. I think its in a private collection.
Interesting story, I've heard this before. Would like to know if they are ever able to do DNA testing (if they find the body that is).
Sounds like it's time for Elvis and John Wilkes Booth to begin a traveling road show.
This could be better TV than Whoraldo opening the vault.
I remember seeing something abut this of Turner Classic Movies once.
I saw his spleen on display in the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology museum. While one can survive without one's spleen, the surgery to remove it in 1865 was highly dangerous.
Interesting. Is there a War Between the States (Civil War) pinglist that can be pinged? There is one poster who posts things that happened on days (such as February 19) during the WBTS. And "Civil War" articles often get a lot of comments (largely because of the controversy over the motives and who were the "good guys").
Every legitimate Civil War historian who's looked into this old claim has labelled it nonsense.
Amazing what the wacky conspiracy theorists want to believe.
most teenagers do
Married Louisa Payne? Was she any kin to fellow conspirator Lewis Payne? He was the one who attacked Sec. Seward, IIRC.
Did you know that the Odyssey and the Iliad were not written by Homer, but rather a different Greek with the same name.
The Knights Templar have it in their impregnable fortress on the coast of France, along with pieces of the One True Cross, the Ark of the Covenant, and the ovaries of Mary Magdalene.