by Al Benson Jr.
Member, Board of Directors, Confederate Society of America
I really hate to quote Smithsonian.com for much of anything as they are so representative of the anti-South Establishment, but in this case, I felt a brief quote was permissible.
In the above mentioned publication, for May 5, 2011 was an article by Ashley Luthern called Documenting the Death of an Assassin. Under that heading was this question: “In 1865, a single photograph was taken during the autopsy of John Wilkes Booth. Where is it now?” Good question! I doubt if anyone around today knows the answer, but if they do they are not saying. Luthern’s article observed: “The administration, led by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, ordered that a single photograph be taken of Booth’s corpse, says Bob Zeller, president of the Center for Civil War Photography. On April 27, 1865, many experts agree, famed Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner and his assistant Timothy O’Sullivan took the picture. It hasn’t been seen since and its whereabouts are unknown.” Surprise, surprise!
The two photographers were kept under surveillance while they took that one picture and made the print, and then both picture and negative (a glass plate) were taken back to the War Department and given to Col Lafayette Baker, chief of the Secret Service or to Edwin Stanton. Either way makes no difference–Stanton probably ended up with it and who knows what he did with it? This was definitely not for public consumption. A government detective said he doubted that a historian would be able to track down the picture. While we don’t know what Stanton did with it, one can make a pretty fair country guess, sort of like those missing pages from Booth’s diary! Destroyed evidence tells no tales–especially after 150 years!
But maybe if that photo had been available all the flap over who the dead man in the Grand Avenue Hotel in Enid, Oklahoma in 1903 could have been avoided.
In The Web of Conspiracy Theodore Roscoe reproduced an affidavit sworn out in Enid, Oklahoma Territory on January 23, 1903 by a Mrs. E. C. Harper, in which she said: “On the evening of January 13th I was startled and surprised by reading in the Enid Daily News of the suicide of David E. George, of El Reno…I went to the morgue with Mr. Harper on the 15th and identified the corpse as the man who had confessed to me at El Reno (in 1900) that he was John Wilkes Booth, etc.”
At this point, Roscoe introduced us to Finis Bates, a lawyer from Memphis, Tennessee. He opined that Bates must have read about Mrs. Harper’s statements concerning Booth. He wanted to see the corpse of this man who had claimed to be Booth, so he headed for Enid.
Turned out, back in the late 1870s, Bates had been down in Granbury, Texas, and while there, he came to know a former saloonkeeper named John St. Helen. St. Helen, believing he was dying from asthma, called on Lawyer Bates to hear his “confession.” Some at that point in their lives call for a clergyman. St. Helen called for a lawyer. According to Bates, he told him: “I am dying. My name is John Wilkes Booth and I am the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Get a picture of myself from under the pillow. I leave it with you for future identification. Notify my brother Edwin of New York City.”
St. Helen/George recovered at that point from his asthma and told Bates some interesting stuff. Roscoe told us “He said (according to Bates) that Andrew Johnson had instigated the President’s murder. That he had conferred with Johnson at the Kirkwood House for over an hour on the afternoon of April 14, 1865. That Andrew Johnson told him it had been arranged for General Grant to leave the capital. And that he (the assassin) would be permitted to escape from Washington.” Roscoe admitted it was interesting that Bates had recalled every word of St. Helen’s confession. And Bates must have believed some of it, because in 1900 he sent an inquiry to the Government, asking “if it would be of any importance to develop the fact to the War Department of the United States that John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln, had not been captured and shot by the Federal troops, as was supposed. He claimed that he had discovered conclusive evidence which proved Booth had escaped.” The Government couldn’t reply fast enough! Their official reply–an immediate (if not sooner) NO! Bates was informed that “…the matter is of no importance to the War Department.”
As much as Bates was interested in setting the record straight, he was also interested in any reward money for Booth that might have still been out there.
Even though the War Department was not interested (after all, the “history” had been written and they were not about to change it) Bates continued to persist. In 1907 Bates published a book called The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. Roscoe called the book “a mild sensation.” It sold 70,000 copies, so that wasn’t too unhealthy. He got more from book royalties, depending on how he published it, than ever he would from the War Department. Roscoe noted that Bates’ book contained “…a host of inaccuracies and glaring discrepancies.”
But he also observed: “Yet elements of Bates’ original story were worthy of official investigation. There is something hasty and peremptory in the way the authorities in Washington rejected the lawyer’s initial inquiry. Even before Bates entered a reward claim the War Department refused to concede the possibility of Booth’s escape. In summarily rejecting the alleged Booth body (the corpse of David E. George) the War Department made no effort to examine that specimen. An official inquest before the body became mummified might have settled the matter at the outset…Examiners in 1903 could have determined that the body was not Booth’s. A number of witnesses well acquainted with John Wilkes Booth were alive in 1903. Actors who had played with Booth were still living. John Matthews was still alive (he died in New York City in 1905). Sam Arnold was still alive (he died in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1906). John H. Surratt was living in Baltimore (he did not die until 1916). Friends of the Booth family could have gone to an inquest. Apparently these persons were not called upon to view the body on display in Memphis. The Government left the investigation up to magazine writers and journalists…” If the Government wanted no further questions asked about Booth’s body this was probably their way of doing it. If you don’t want “sleeping dogs” to wake up, you let them lie! Ignore it all long enough and it will all just go away.
Except, after 150 years, it hasn’t–and the questions are still there–unanswered!
Interestingly enough, the man who found George’s suicide in the Grand Avenue Hotel in Enid, happened to sign his affidavit “Lee Boyd” “Boyd–the name assumed by John Wilkes Booth in his flight through Maryland and Virginia.” And another strange coincidence, the man who supposedly shot Booth, an odd-ball kind of character named Boston Corbett, escaped from an asylum in Topeka, Kansas and headed for the “great open spaces.” According to Roscoe, he ended up making his home in Enid, Oklahoma.
Maybe next we should look at why historian Otto Eisenschiml thinks Edwin Stanton was involved.