Real Name: John Wilkes Booth
Case: Mistaken Identity
Date: January 13, 1903
Location: Enid, Oklahoma
Details: On April 14, 1865, twenty-six-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, the Sixteenth President of the United States, at Ford's Theater. He escaped Washington, DC and fled to the Garrett Farm near Port Royal, Virginia where, on April 26, he was tracked down by Union Officers under Colonel Everett Conger. One co-conspirator, David E. Herold, surrendered to the officers.
Booth, however, would not come out, so the officers set the barn on fire in order to smoke him out. Sgt. Boston Corbett shot and mortally wounded him. 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.
According to some conspiracy theorists, several people including David E. Herold denied it was he who died in the barn. When he came out to the soldiers, he claimed that the man in the barn was actually named Boyd. In fact, there was a fugitive at that time named James Boyd. However, in a statement made after his arrest, Herold did not claim that the man in the barn was Boyd.
Several witnesses claimed that the body from the Garrett Farm was not Booth. Lt. William C. Allen, who was at the farm, later told his wife that the body had red hair (Booth's hair was black). Friends of Booth went to the farm; they did not believe the body was Booth's. Officers at the scene told them to keep the mis-identification a secret.
Dr. John F. May, a Washington surgeon, performed an autopsy on the body at Garrett Farm. A few months before the assassination, he had removed a tumor from the back of Booth's neck. When he viewed the body, he felt that it had no resemblance to Booth. He stated that the body had sandy hair and freckles; Booth had neither of these characteristics. However, years later, he refuted these findings, claiming that the discrepancies may have been due to Booth's time on the run. Also, he confirmed that the body did have a scar on the back of the neck, as a result of his surgery.
Eventually, Booth's body was buried in the basement of the Old Naval Prison in Washington. For unknown reasons, Secretary of War William Stanton had all photos of Booth's body destroyed. In 1866, senator Charles Sumner argued that there was not enough evidence to confirm the identity of the body; he believed that the reward should not be paid. The trial of Booth's co-conspirators resulted in four hangings and three life sentences. Meanwhile, some believed that Booth had escaped justice and lived in hiding.
In 1907, Texas lawyer Finis Bates published the book "The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth". In the book, he claimed he learned the truth about Booth's fate from a client named John St. Helen. St. Helen was also known as David E. George. In 1877, St. Helen fell seriously ill. Thinking he was about to die, he confessed to Finis that he was actually Booth. He thought that St. Helen was hallucinating; however, St. Helen claimed that he was telling the truth. He explained that he escaped on the night of assassination by using a secret password. A document seemed to confirm this password.
He claimed that he later joined up with co-conspirator David Herold and they visited a doctor that set his wounded leg. Later, he hid under a wagon and then ran into the woods, leaving documents behind. When he went to Garrett Farm, he sent a man to retrieve his documents. While at the barn, two men told him that Union soldiers were coming for him, so he fled. According to St. Helen, the man who went to get his documents was the man that was killed in the barn.
Several weeks after the confession, St. Helen recovered from his illness. He committed suicide in January 1903 in Enid, Oklahoma. Bates had the man's body mummified. In 1931, doctors examined the remains and found similarities between the body's injuries and Booth's known injuries. A comparison of his and Booth's photographs do show a resemblance. However, many are skeptical of St. Helen's claims. To this day, doubts remain over the fate of Abraham Lincoln's assassin.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the September 25, 1991 episode.
It was also explored in the TV series "Brad Meltzer's Decoded."
Results: Unresolved. The Smithsonian requested that Booth's body be exhumed for an autopsy with the cooperation from his family. A state court, however, refused to give them full permission and the case goes unsolved to this day.
One rumor to come out in later years is that George/St. Helen was actually Boston Corbett, the soldier who had claimed God told him to kill Booth. This theory claims that his behavior became quite erratic through his life; he once even opening fire in the Kansas State Legislature, later eventually committed to a sanitarium which he escaped, supposedly for Texas where he worked as a traveling salesman before he met Finis Bates as John St. Helen.
In 2007, however, Edward Steers wrote in his book, "Lincoln Legends," that the so-called "proof" of Booth's survival had no provenance. The entire legend was based on the files of Andrew Potter, a man who was supposedly in the National Detective Police under Lincoln. However, the National Archives has no record of Potter's existence or his membership in the NDP. The Potter Files are also filled with numerous discrepancies and historical inaccuracies which call doubts on the myth of Booth's escape.
Regardless of these facts, several members of the Booth family still believe Booth escaped, and believe DNA comparisons of his remains would lay these myths to rest. In 2012, a judge ruled against Booth's remains being disinterred for such experiments based on there was not enough evidence to warrant the tests.
- John Wilkes Booth on Unsolved.com
- John Wilkes Booth on Wikipedia
- Finis Bates on Wikipedia
- Abraham Lincoln assassination Website