John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth

The legend surrounding President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was that Booth was not killed on the Garrett farmstead in northern Virginia in 1865 as is commonly believed, but that he eluded his pursuers and lived on as a fugitive for decades afterwards. Belief in John Wilkes Booth’s escape implicitly asserts a government cover-up and as such it has been tied to various conspiracy theories surrounding Lincoln’s assassination.

Despite the best efforts of official and self-appointed historical custodians to dismiss the story as trivial nonsense, it keeps resurfacing. The most recent episode occurred in the 1990s when a group led by an amateur historian from Silver Spring, Maryland, attempted to have Booth’s corpse exhumed in order to determine whether it was his or not.

The case drew nationwide media coverage and reached the Maryland Superior Court before the group’s petition was denied. They continue to search for what they believe to be Booth’s real body—the carnival mummy of an Oklahoma drifter known as David George embalmed in 1903.

Over the years the story has appeared in many versions, not all of which agree on the specifics of the escape or Booth’s subsequent life. In its main outline, the case for Booth’s survival hinges on the identity of the person shot by Boston Corbett in the Garrett barn in the early morning of 26 April 1865. Most historians are satisfied that the person struck by Corbett’s fatal shot was Lincoln’s assassin.

Legend adherents, however, point out the inconsistencies in the government’s evidence and appeal to the retrospective accounts of eyewitnesses who claimed the hair of the person shot was reddish, not raven black like Booth’s. They assert the body in the barn was that of a Virginia farmhand named Ruddy or Rowdy, or a former Confederate officer named Boyd.

The different versions of the legend reflect its many sources, which included the workings of the northern popular imagination in the wake of Lincoln’s shooting; Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s insistence on maintaining absolute secrecy in the matter of Booth’s burial; southern accounts following the Civil War; the claims of individuals purporting to be Booth; and the retrospective accounts of veterans near the end of the nineteenth century.

The legend enjoyed its greatest exposure in U.S. popular culture during the 1920s and 1930s, with the display of Booth’s alleged mummy in carnival sideshows across the West and Midwest and the appearance of the story in national periodicals including Life and the Saturday Evening Post. It was also the subject of several popular literary works that drew from earlier sources to either debunk or defend the legend.

One of the story’s most interesting features is the extent to which the traumatized northern public imagined Booth’s escape even before he was captured. Newspapers reported Booth sightings in Chicago, New York, and Reading, Pennsylvania.

In addition to the sightings, accounts of the assassin stressed his ability to defy detection and linked him to mythical figures including Cain and the Wandering Jew, both of whom wandered the earth as punishment for their misdeeds.

Edwin Stanton’s insistence on preventing any measure of recognition to Booth or his corpse was intended to deny southern sympathizers the means to celebrate. His awareness of the symbolic power of the assassin’s corpse backfired, however, as the secrecy surrounding its handling fed rumors that it was not, in fact, Booth’s.

Secret Service chief Lafayette Baker’s deliberate misleading of the press regarding the burial was recorded on the cover of Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for 29 May 1865: the woodcut engraving shows two men in a rowboat lowering a shrouded body into the Potomac River. Later it was revealed the body had been buried under the floor of an army storehouse in Washington, D.C.

During Reconstruction, the legend took on a different guise as accounts of Booth sightings in foreign lands appeared in newspapers. These placed the assassin in Ceylon, China, Mexico, and the South Seas. The theme common to these accounts was the figure of Booth as an honorable, intelligent, and cultured gentleman.

He did not appear remorseful for his deed and the locations in which he was sighted paralleled the locations of the actual Confederate exodus. In its southern variant the legend appears to have served as a symbolic means of vindication or final revenge.

There is also evidence of multiple oral traditions in the South concerning his escape, and the story may have served as part of the larger phenomenon of exile, which historian Gaines Foster believes served defeated white southerners as a psychological salve. By the end of the century, the southern variant was joined to the original northern versions in Finis L. Bates’s Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth (1907).

Drawing from both southern traditions and the retrospective accounts of capture eyewitnesses, Bates crafted a reconciliationist version of the legend: Booth remained the honorable and cultured southern gentleman, but he was remorseful for his deed and suffered from his guilt.

This treatment accorded well with the temper of the times, which witnessed the reunion of the white North and South. It was also Bates who launched the posthumous carnival career of an alcoholic drifter named David George as the Booth mummy.