Sweating furiously, the old man pried the last nail from the wooden crate, opened the lid, and peered inside. Memphis attorney Finis Bates breathed a long sigh of relief when he saw that the fragile contents were undamaged.
“John, my old friend,” he said. “You’re home at last!”
Lying inside the box was the mummified body of a man Bates believed was John Wilkes Booth. How the corpse of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin came to rest in a Central Gardens garage — half a century after Booth was supposedly shot and buried — remains one of the strangest episodes of this city’s past.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Most history books tell us the familiar story: On the evening of April 14, 1865, Lincoln was murdered at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., during a performance of Our American Cousin . John Wilkes Booth, a noted actor of the day, stole into the president’s box and fired a single shot from a derringer into the back of Lincoln’s head. In a dramatic gesture, Booth shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants!”) to the horrified audience and leapt from the box. As he jumped, he caught his spur in a flag draping the balcony, and hit the stage awkwardly, snapping his ankle. Amid the confusion, Booth still managed to escape out the back door of the theatre, where a horse was held for him in the alley.
Lincoln died just ten hours later. It was soon established that the terrible crime had been part of a conspiracy, and an intense manhunt began. In a matter of days Booth’s fellow criminals were caught, but the assassin himself and a young companion named David Herold had seemingly disappeared into the night.
Not for long. Hobbled by his injured leg, Booth was not able to get far. On April 26th, federal troops cornered the two men in a tobacco barn on the Garrett farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. When Booth and Herold refused to surrender, the barn was set afire. Herold dashed out and was nabbed immediately, but Booth remained inside. Silhouetted against the flames, he was shot in the neck by a soldier firing (against orders) through a crack in the wall.
Booth was dragged from the flames and died within minutes. His body was wrapped in a blanket and carried up the Potomac to the capital aboard a steamer, where it was examined and “identified” (more about this later). Then it was quickly buried in a secret location on the grounds of the federal penitentiary. According to the Army officials in charge, the hasty burial was designed to thwart Southern sympathizers from seizing the body, or parts of it, and glorifying the remains. Four years later, the Booth family was allowed to retrieve the body — but only if they buried it in an unmarked grave in the family plot in Baltimore.
Perhaps there was a more sinister reason. Skeptics wondered why no autopsy was performed, why no family members or close friends were permitted to view the body, and — oddest of all — why the appearance of the corpse was so unlike that of John Wilkes Booth.
Perhaps the Army realized it had killed the wrong man, and that Booth had escaped after all.
All accounts of Booth mention his curly black hair, yet two citizens who saw the body lying on the ground at the Garrett farm described it as red-haired. According to some reports, Herold surprised his captors at the farm by asking them, “Who was that man in the barn with me? He told me his name was Boyd.” And even though hundreds of people in Washington knew Booth well, no close friends or stage associates were summoned to identify the remains. Instead, the army relied on the verdicts of a few military men who had seen Booth on stage, along with the proprietor of a Washington hotel where Booth had lodged.
As recounted in the February 1944 issue of Harper’s , the strangest testimony came from Booth’s personal physician, who had once operated on his neck. When this man examined the body the day after the shooting, he was stunned. He recalled years later: “My surprise was so great that I at once said to General Barnes [the surgeon general], ‘There is no resemblance in that corpse to Booth, nor can I believe it to be that of him.’”
That didn’t faze the general, who persuaded the doctor that a scar on the corpse’s neck was the result of the earlier operation. According to Harper’s, when the body was placed in a sitting position, the doctor reluctantly admitted, “I was finally enabled to imperfectly recognize the features of Booth.” The doctor’s final comment, however, suggests he was not entirely convinced: “But never in a human being had a greater change taken place … .”
Stories like these fueled rumors that John Wilkes Booth had survived. Blanche Booth, his niece, claimed that Booth had secretly met with her mother a year after the assassination and had lived on for another 37 years. A Maryland justice of the peace reported he met Booth in Central America in the 1870s. And an Idaho man who had seen Booth many times on stage always insisted he came face to face with the assassin on a Memphis street in 1929. “Booth” fled, he claimed, and others refused to pursue him.
Most of these reports are imaginative, if not utterly preposterous. (In 1929, for example, Booth would have been 90 years old.) But one story cannot be dismissed so lightly. In 1872, a young lawyer who would one day serve as attorney general for the state of Tennessee encountered a rather remarkable man in Texas. The lawyer’s name was Finis Langdon Bates. The strange man called himself John St. Helen.
Bates was born in 1851 on a plantation in Mississippi. He studied law in Carrollton, and then moved to the frontier town of Granbury, Texas, to begin his legal career. He had been in Texas only a short time when he was approached by St. Helen, who needed help settling a dispute over a liquor license.
St. Helen, it seems, had wandered into town a few years before and professed to be a storekeeper. But he showed no interest in the business he bought, letting his assistant do all the work, and his ignorance of such trade essentials as liquor licenses led him to Bates. It was a meeting that would change the course of Bates’ entire life. Bates found St. Helen, with his luxuriant black hair and moustache, “indescribably handsome” and noted that his poise, dress, and education set him apart from the more uncouth characters who inhabited the region. While others bellowed out bawdy drinking songs in the town tavern, St. Helen would recite Macbeth or Richard III and discourse for hours on Roman history. He was keenly interested in the theatrical news of the day, and whenever a play came to town he was sure to see every performance and befriend the members of the wandering acting troupes.
St. Helen had a dark side, Bates soon noted. He observed that his friend and client “had acquired a restless and hunted, worried expression constantly on his face, while the flashes which came from his keen, penetrating black eyes spoke of desperation and capacity for crime.”
Months passed. One day, thinking he was dying, St. Helen summoned Bates and gave him a photograph of himself with a curious instruction. If he died, Bates was to deliver the picture of St. Helen to Edwin Booth in Baltimore, and tell the famous actor how he had acquired it.
Bates never fulfilled this strange mission, for St. Helen recovered and then made an astonishing revelation: He was Edwin Booth’s brother, the infamous John Wilkes Booth.
In a lengthy and emotional confession that Bates transcribed, St. Helen — or Booth — described in detail the murder of Lincoln and his own getaway, an escape allegedly made possible by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and other high officials in Washington. Booth wanted this information made known, because, he said, “I owe it to myself, most of all to my mother … to make and leave behind me for history a full statement of the horrible affair.”
Bates was dumbfounded, and admitted, “This story I could not accept as fact without investigation.” And so he began his research into the Lincoln assassination that would last the rest of his life. He soon discovered that every detail St. Helen told him checked out. For instance, St. Helen claimed he had fled the Garrett farm hours before the soldiers arrived and had dropped his field glasses in the grass. The official records, which had not been revealed to the public, confirmed that Booth’s field glasses had indeed been found in the yard.
Bates was convinced his client had confessed the truth. Apparently deciding that this was a secret that should not be kept, he wrote to the army and urged them to reopen the case. To his dismay he received only a terse reply: The killer of Abraham Lincoln had been captured and shot by the U.S. Army and the case was closed.
In the meantime, the mysterious storekeeper named John St. Helen left town one day — and never returned.
Several years later, Bates also left Texas and came to Memphis, where he established a law practice and a widespread reputation as a land title attorney. But his real interest was the Booth/St. Helen controversy, and he refused to let it die. He still had the photograph St. Helen had given him, and he maintained a continuous correspondence with anyone who may have encountered John Wilkes Booth or John St. Helen.
Twenty-five years passed, and Bates never gave up his quest. Then, in 1903, a seemingly insignificant tragedy happened in Oklahoma: An itinerant house painter calling himself David E. George committed suicide in the small town of Enid.
George was an odd, friendless old man, without the slightest talent for painting houses. In fact, he botched the one painting job he got during his brief stay in Enid. He much preferred to sit in the lobby of his boarding house and read old copies of theatrical journals. When he was drunk, which was often, he would quote Shakespeare and once lamented to his landlady, “I’m not an ordinary painter. You don’t know who I am. I killed the best man that ever lived.”
One night, George went up to his dreary room and swallowed a fatal dose of poison. Such a death would have rated only a few lines on the obituary page of the Enid paper, but for one element. On his deathbed, George told the minister that he was John Wilkes Booth.
The minister passed that information on to the local undertaker, who remembered: “Of course, I took special pains with the body after that; I did the best job embalming I’ve ever done. If it was Booth’s body, I wanted to preserve it for the Washington officials when they came.” The good undertaker did his job well and actually succeeded in mummifying the body with arsenic, a not-uncommon method in that day.
The Washington officials never came, but Finis Bates did. Newspapers had carried the strange tale of David George as far as Memphis, and Bates hoped this was the missing link he had long needed. When he finally arrived in Enid, he was ushered into the rear of a furniture store where the body was kept. He lifted the cloth from the dead man’s face and cried out, “My old friend! My old friend John St. Helen!” His 25-year search was over.
There was no funeral and no burial. No one in Enid wanted to take responsibility for disposing of the body of John Wilkes Booth, so the town leaders waited doggedly for the “Washington officials” to come. Years passed, and the mummy in the furniture store became quite a local curiosity, something to brag about to visitors.
Finally, since Bates had at one time been appointed the dead man’s attorney (back when he called himself John St. Helen), he was allowed to claim his client’s body. In 1904, he took the mummy home to Memphis, where he carefully stored it in a coffin-like box in his home at 50 South Dunlap, later moving it to the garage of his home at 1234 Harbert in Central Gardens.
Then Bates decided to tell the world of his discovery. In 1907, he published a remarkable book titled The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, or The First True Account of Lincoln’s Assassination, Containing a Complete Confession by Booth Many Years After His Crime. (Copies of Bates’ book are still available in the Memphis Room of the Benjamin Hooks Central Library on Poplar, and in the Mississippi Valley Collection at the University of Memphis Library.) In his preface, the author summed up his life’s work: “In preparation of this book I have neither spared time nor money … and present this volume of collated facts, which I submit for the correction of history.”
In more than 300 pages, Bates presented his evidence, recounting with considerable (perhaps unbelievable) detail the confessions he had heard from Booth/St. Helen more than 30 years previously. He also included testimonials from some of Booth’s former friends and associates who had come to Memphis, seen the mummy or the St. Helen photograph, and declared it to be Booth.
It never occurred to Bates that he might be wrong, and several passages in his book reveal a man desperately trying to make people believe him before his time ran out. “It is to the American people that I appeal,” he wrote, “that they shall hear the unalterable facts, that the death of America’s martyred president was not avenged, as we have been persuaded to believe.”
At times, the enormity of the old man’s mission seemed to overwhelm him. “But the truth will be told,” he wrote, “if needs be with tremors and palsied hands, in the triumph of right and the exposure of the guilty ones whose crimes blacken history’s page and to associate their names through all coming centuries with Brutus, Marc Anthony, and Judas Iscariot.”
Despite such impressive rhetoric, government officials remained skeptical, and Bates — who just happened to be the grandfather of Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates — died in 1923 without seeing his dream of “correcting history” fulfilled. He was buried beneath a simple marker in Elmwood. However, enough of his argument rang true for others to consider it, and interest in the case built slowly. Harper’s devoted 17 pages to Bates’ claim in its November 1924 issue, and then the Literary Digest (December 25, 1926) picked up the story, followed by Life magazine (July 11, 1938) and other publications.
It made good reading, all right, but the “Washington officials” never came to Harbert for the assassin’s body, and the mummy lingered in Bates’ garage.
Experts who examined the mummy found a shriveled old man with long white hair and dried skin like parchment paper. They noted a similarity between this creature and John Wilkes Booth, and scars that Booth carried matched vague marks on the mummy. The left leg was shorter, as if it had once been broken, and the mummy’s right thumb was deformed (Booth had crushed his thumb in a stage curtain gear earlier in his career). The size of the mummy’s foot matched a boot left behind by Booth during his flight. And Chicago doctors who X-rayed the body in 1931 discovered a corroded signet ring in the mummy’s stomach — with the initial “B.”
The Booth mummy remained on Harbert for 20 years before Bates’ widow sold it to a carnival for $1,000. Over the next few years it changed hands several times, always bringing bad luck to its owners, so the story goes. At one point, the mummy was displayed on an Idaho farm under the homemade banner, “See the Man Who Murdered Lincoln.”
In the 1930s the mummy was a major attraction at Jay Gould’s Million Dollar Spectacle, a carnival traveling the Midwest. Twenty-five cents admission enabled people to inspect the grisly relic, which was dressed in khaki shorts and laid out on an Indian blanket. Ten thousand dollars was promised to anyone who could prove the mummy not genuine — that’s what the signs said anyway — but there were no takers. One rather gruesome feature had been added over the years: A large flap had been cut into the mummy’s back, and customers really wanting their quarter’s worth could peel the skin open and peer inside. No one disputed that it was a real human mummy; the mystery remained whether or not it was John Wilkes Booth.
Despite the publicity — or perhaps because of it — serious scholars and historians scoffed at Bates’ claim. It didn’t help that his own accomplishments were somehow (perhaps unintentionally) inflated. Although Life magazine described him as the attorney general for Tennessee, in truth Bates was an assistant district attorney — one of several — for Shelby County in the early 1900s.
Even so, the main controversy surrounded the mummy itself. One Lincoln authority who examined the corpse concluded, “The body of the suicide from Enid, Oklahoma, presents some similarities to that of Booth, but lacks other identifying features.” The author of the 1924 Harper’s article, who personally examined the mummy when it was stored in Bates’ garage, wondered, “Could this long gray hair, still curling and plenteous, have been the adornment of that young man who mastered the stage of his day with his talent and physical beauty?” Some 17 pages later, he decided that it simply could not be: “No mystery remains in my mind about the end of John Wilkes Booth. The evidence against the Enid legend is simply overwhelming.” As if he still weren’t entirely certain, though, he concluded, “But what a strange story it is!”
And the mummy? Known simply as “John” to carnival workers, the mummy was reduced to a two-bit sideshow attraction, never becoming the major historical find that Bates had worked so hard to acquire and preserve.
Bates did, however, attract the attention of at least one person who knew something about remarkable escapes: After the famous magician’s death in 1926, the library of Harry Houdini was found to contain several copies of Bates’ book.
F inis Bates died a disappointed man, unable to fulfill his dream of “correcting history.” His life’s work was reduced to one sentence in The Commercial Appeal obituary, noting that he “had devoted years in obtaining proofs and affidavits of the escape and suicide of John Wilkes Booth” and commenting that “the book he wrote on that subject brought him into prominence as an author.”
The Bates’ home and garage on Harbert, the mummy’s last resting place in Memphis, were torn down in the 1960s and replaced by an apartment house. And the mummy itself? In the late 1950s the Circus World Museum tried to buy “John,” and a few years after that the townspeople of Enid, Oklahoma, expressed some interest in getting “their” mummy back as a tourist attraction. No one seemed to know where it was. Last seen at a carnival in the mid-1970s, since then it has vanished.
Several years ago, when this story first appeared in Memphis magazine, this writer attempted to locate the missing mummy. Working with other Booth conspiracy theorists — among them a group of forensic pathologists in Memphis, a professor at the University of the South, and a historian living in Maryland — we contacted the Circus World Museum and even placed ads in various circus- and carnival-related publications. The Sewanee professor, Dr. Arthur Ben Chitty, succeeded in getting the Booth story featured on the TV series Unsolved Mysteries in 1992. Even so, all those efforts brought in nothing but lots of useless tips.
We contacted a tourist attraction in Seattle, Washington, called Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, which had a mummified man on display, but it wasn’t Booth. In fact, this poor fellow had been found dead in the desert somewhere in 1892. We tried — without success — to have the body in Baltimore exhumed so scientists could confirm its identity (by matching its DNA with surviving family members). After all, if Booth escaped, then who is buried in the family plot in Baltimore? The Booth family never agreed to the exhumation. Someone put us in touch with a collector of circus memorabilia in Maryland, who at first claimed he knew where the mummy was. Then he claimed he had it. Then he claimed he didn’t. Our search went nowhere.
So unfortunately, this is a mystery story without a good ending. We can’t “correct history” without any proof, and the mummy of John St. Helen, or David George, or John Wilkes Booth, remains missing.