- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2006

A common response to the deaths of the famous and infamous is to assume that they escaped somehow and still survive somewhere in obscurity. Such rumors have run the gamut from Hitler to Elvis.

Although Abraham Lincoln’s death was far too public to allow any subsequent sightings of the man, his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was not as fortunate. For several decades afterward, until the mortality tables began kicking in, many people claimed to have seen Booth — in the United States and pretty nearly everywhere else.

History records that after shooting President Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, Booth escaped east into the Maryland countryside. Over the next 11 days, he slowly made his way down into Virginia, ending up at the Garrett family farm in Culpeper. He and his companion, David Herold, were surrounded in an old tobacco-curing barn by a detachment of Federal soldiers, who thought they were helping the situation by setting the barn on fire.

Herold surrendered and came out. Booth stayed put. A few moments later, he fell, shot in the neck. The most commonly accepted explanation is that he was shot from outside by Sgt. Boston Corbett, who fired against orders. Some historians have argued, however, that Booth shot himself. Either way, he was carried outof the barn and died shortly afterward.

Booth was buried hastily beneath the floor of the Washington Penitentiary. In 1869, the body was exhumed and buried at the Booth family plot in Baltimore.

The rumor-mongering soon began. Among the first to get started were astrologers and spiritualists. Some of them claimed Booth was still alive, while others said his body had been cremated, and still others said the body had been dropped at any one of several points in the Potomac River. Probably the best response came from the Jan. 15, 1877, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, one of the liveliest newspapers of the era: “It was plain that the denizens of the other world knew no more about the matter than those of this, or that they had not been successfully interrogated.”

There also were earthbound sightings that came in from across the country, plus Mexico, China, Australia, Egypt and Bolivia. Most of these were forgotten at once.

One early sighting got a bit more attention — in the June 7, 1869, Cleveland Leader, and the June 9, 1869, New York Times. A telegram had been sent from Canton, Ohio, to a U.S. Marshal General Hastings, warning that Booth had been seen in that city: “General Hastings, however, did not send a deputy to arrest him, though the dispatch was sent in good faith.”

Another short-lived early sighting got as far as the Jan. 2, 1873, Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “There is a man in Syracuse who pretends to know that J. Wilkes Booth is still living and to be aware of his precise whereabouts in a foreign clime.”

Other Booths had more staying power. Many of the people in Eastern Maryland, where Booth had spent his first few days on the run, claimed that he was still alive there, working as a schoolteacher. In January 1877, another Booth, named John Wilkins, of Green County, Pa., got a bit of attention in the local press.

Mr. Wilkins/Booth had fled into Pennsylvania on April 20, 1865, it seemed, and was still living in the small rural town of Washington. He kept to himself except for occasional visits by family and friends. One visitor reported his pacing the floor and screaming “Sic semper tyrannis” over and over — at one point adding, “Oh, my head! oh, my head! It’s burning; it’s burning.”

The best-known Booth, however, was the man from Enid, Okla., whose body ended up as a public attraction. How did this Booth escape? At the Garrett farm, he met a Mr. Ruddy, who was to lead him to some uncaptured Confederate soldiers, who would help him escape. After having traveled a few miles from the farm, Booth suddenly remembered some papers he had left behind and paid Ruddy to go back and get them.

Thus, it was Mr. Ruddy who was shot as Booth, either because the soldiers really thought that’s who he was or because they weren’t too fussy about how to get the government’s $100,000 reward.

This Booth then fled into Mexico, later returning to the United States. He first took the alias John St. Helen, in honor of Napoleon’s final exile on the island of St. Helena. Then he became David E. George. He committed suicide at Enid in 1903. Thereafter, the body was mummified by being cured with mercury. It became the subject of sideshow exhibits.

Apparently the body had become dark brown and rock hard, though souvenir hunters were able to remove a right toe and most of the mustache. Eventually the body retired from show business, and it has not been seen since.

As late as March 29, 1925, an interview in The Washington Post showed that Booth sightings were still occurring. The custodian at Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Ill., said five “alleged skulls” of Booth were still on display in the United States. He added that over the years, about 20 Booths had died.

Ironically, Booth’s presumed nemesis, Boston Corbett, had the same problem. After shooting Booth, Corbett also went on the entertainment circuit, though in Corbett’s case he was still alive, talking about his part in the assassination story. In 1887, he became assistant doorkeeper at the Kansas House of Representatives. Later that year, he threatened the members and staff with his gun and was sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane. In 1888, he escaped and vanished from history.

Or then again, perhaps not. The Sept. 22, 1905, New York Times ran a brief article about a man who had been arrested in Abilene, Texas, claiming he was Sgt. Boston Corbett. The charge against him was impersonating a soldier to apply for a military pension. The man was bound over to the grand jury, and he too disappeared from history.

In retrospect, the Booth claims come across as both funny and pathetic. It was all nonsense, and good for a laugh perhaps, but there was a downside as well. Some of the claimants may have been out of their minds, but whether sane or not, their efforts come across as an attempt to bring a bit of mystery into drab, gray lives.

On a lighter note, perhaps the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had the best, last word on the subject. Its April 27, 1890, issue commented: “The story that John Wilkes Booth is still alive comes round after the usual interval as fresh and vigorous as ever, notwithstanding the emphatic testimony of several eminent Spiritualists who have received ‘communications’ from him. There is no such thing as satisfying some people.”

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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