- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

THE LEGEND OF JOHN WILKES BOOTH: MYTH, MEMORY, AND A MUMMY

By C. Wyatt Evans

University Press of Kansas , $24.95, 224 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY LYN NOFZIGER

The question isn’t who shot Abraham Lincoln. Before the advent of modern education every schoolboy — and girl — knew the answer. But the answers to a couple of other questions surrounding the assassination of the Civil War president are still dogged by doubts 140 years later.

For instance: Was John Wilkes Booth really killed by Sgt. Boston Corbett in the barn on the Garrett farm in southern Maryland, or did he escape and spend the rest of his life as a homeless, friendless wanderer, winding up, finally, as a side show mummy in a traveling carnival? Or, on the other hand did he escape to England and die there?

And the second question: Why did he murder Lincoln in the first place? Was he part of a plot hatched by Lincoln’s secretary of War, Edwin Stanton? Was he the triggerman for the leaders of the confederacy?Did he do the dastardly deed on his own out of malice?

These are questions C. Wyatt Evans struggles to answer inhis book, “The Legend of John Wilkes Booth.” Eventually he exonerates both Stanton and the Southern leaders but, because this is not the purpose of the book, leaves the reader wondering just what Booth’s real motive was.

Though Mr. Evans thoroughly explores the “myths” surrounding Booth after he shot Lincoln and fled from Ford’s Theater, he makes no bones about being on the side of official history. That is the account that says Booth was killed by Union troops at the Garrett farm and that his remains are buried in a Maryland cemetery.

Indeed, Mr. Evans appears to be one of that breed who thinks that high government officials, though they may make mistakes and do dumb things, are incapable of evil intent. Thus, while admitting that the government badly mishandled the publicity surrounding the tracking down and killing of Booth, he is confident that the official version of Booth’s death is the correct one.

But he is less sanguine about Booth’s motive. Interestingly, he never mentions Booth’s apparent reason, shouted by the assassin as he leaped from the president’s box to the stage of Ford’s theater, “Sic semper tyrannus,” which, as every schoolchild used to know, is Latin for “Thus always to tyrants.”

The book could have been and in many respects is interesting reading but it is marred by the fact that one also has to plow through page after page of psychological mumbo jumbo as Mr. Evans delves into the effects the facts and also the legends and myths surrounding Booth and the assassination possibly had and may continue to have on the national psyche.

Like so many of today’s authors who come out of academia (he is an assistant professor at Drew University), Mr. Evans thinks it is his duty to probe for deep and hidden meanings that in his view must have motivated those persons who over the years have persisted in advancing the theory that the man killed on the Garrett farm was not Booth but somebody who didn’t even much resemble him.

In fairness to the author, Mr. Evans chases down every scrap of evidence, real and imaginary, that indicates Booth might have escaped. Surprisingly, he does not come up with positive proof to verify that he did not. It’s kind of like the gunman on the grassy knoll in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated. Was he there or is he the figment of the imaginations of those who see conspiracies behind the murders of almost all important persons? Was Booth killed or did he escape?Did the government serve its own purposes by lying about his death? You believe what you want to believe.

And if you want to believe that Booth escaped, only to kill himself 39 years later in a ramshackle hotel in Enid, Okla. well there’s enough proof and semi-proof and folk lore and small-town gossip to give credibility to your beliefs. Or if you wish to believe that he died in England there’s always the proof offered by the woman named Zola Forrester who claimed to be his granddaughter and who also claimed to have traced his wanderings first to California and thence to England.

Actually, the best Booth story — there are several and you can take your pick — has to do with a saloon keeper named John St. Helen who eventually metamorphosed into another man named David George who eventually committed suicide by drinking poison. He was embalmed, but for several reasons was never buried. Then, the next thing you know, he had become a genuine American mummy in an era when mummies, primarily stolen from Egyptian tombs, were popular exhibits in this country.

As for George the mummy, because he had allegedly confessed to being Booth and because he had identifying marks similar to some Booth had, he became a celebrity in the same way bearded ladies, dog-faced boys and sword swallowers become celebrities, and in the same milieu: Carnivals traveling from small town to small town in the western hinterlands of America exhibited him as “the man who shot Lincoln.”

There are pictures of the mummy in Mr. Evans’ book. He is naked with one hand, in lieu of a fig leaf, strategically placed. And, with his handle bar mustache, he looks enough like pictures of Booth to give credibility to those who want to believe he is Booth. Over the years several persons owned the mummy and today he is said to have found some sort of repose back in Booth’s native state of Maryland, but who owns him now and where he is stashed Mr. Evans has been unable to find out.

A whole host of books and articles, enough to fill a small library, have been written attempting to give credence to the stories of Booth’s escape. For the most part these focus on his motive more than on his escape, if indeed he did escape, and Mr. Evans examines the major writings carefully.

These include a Tennessee lawyer named Finis Bates who claimed to have known George when he was going by the name of John St. Helen and who was an early owner of the mummy. After George’s suicide, Bates traveled to Enid where he identified the embalmed remains as those of St. Helen. Bates, a confirmed believer in the story of Booth’s ultimate escape, later wrote a book, “Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth,” which was published in 1907 and sold 700,000 copies. The book has, Mr. Evans says wryly, “served as a bible for modern legend believers” and makes him “the bane of legend critics,” including Mr. Evans himself.

To Mr. Evans’ obvious disgust, the legend of Booth’s escape has persisted over the years in books, articles and even movies. He notes that as recently as l991 NBC featured the story on its “Unsolved Mysteries” program. The significance of the Booth story — I hesitate to call it a legend because to do so automatically confirms the government’s version of what happened, which I am loath to do — seems to be not that he did or did not escape but the effect his deed had on Lincoln’s place in history and on the entire nation.

Mr. Evans rightly says that by killing Lincoln, Booth in effect deified him, making him larger than life in American culture and history. Had Lincoln lived to serve out his second term in the aftermath of the war there is no telling how successful he would have been or how history would have treated him.But because he did not he is remembered as the hero president who saved the Union and who freed the slaves. And as an unintended consequence Booth, whose act resulted in the virtual deification of Lincoln, accidently attained and retains a place in American history accorded to only a very few murderers.

Mr. Evans’ effort to analyze fully the long-term effects of Booth’s deed not only on the nation but also on the South and the North in the years following the Civil War is not only laudable but also thorough. Its weakness is that, if anything, he has overanalyzed and may have made more of the situation than it deserved. This, I suspect, is always a danger when, as Mr. Evans did, you set out to write a dissertation and then decide to expand your project into a full-length book.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was an adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

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