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In the April issue of Memphis magazine (not online yet, but be patient — our loyal print subscribers come first), we tell the story about one of the strangest events in our city’s past. “The Mummy Mystery” is about a Memphis lawyer named Finis Bates — the grandfather of Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates, in fact — who believed to his dying day that he had the mummified body of John Wilkes Booth — yes, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin — preserved in his midtown garage.
We told you it was a strange story.
What we didn’t tell you, for lack of space, was how that story got the magazine’s senior editor involved in a murder investigation by a Maryland police department.
That senior editor would be me, you understand.
You really need to read the whole story first, but what’s important is this: If the mummy in Finis Bates’ garage was indeed John Wilkes Booth, well, that changed history rather dramatically — since it meant Booth had gotten away with his crime. But Bates died in 1925 a disappointed man, unable to fulfill his dream of “correcting history.” Nobody believed his story. His wife sold the relic to a carnival, where it went on display for years before vanishing.
So, determined to pick up where Bates’ efforts had failed, several years ago, when a version of this story first appeared in Memphis magazine, I 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 lots of ultimately useless tips.
At one time, we learned that a tourist attraction in Seattle, Washington, called Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe had a mummified man on display, whom the proprietors called Sylvester. So I called them. The general description seemed to match the Booth mummy, until the Shoppe’s manager began to brag that “his” mummy was in great shape “except for the bullet hole.” That ended it. The Seattle mummy — whoever the poor fellow once was — had met death at the end of a bullet. In fact, he had been found dead out in the desert somewhere in 1892. The Booth mummy had not been shot, and besides “our” mummy was still living until 1903. This was the wrong mummy.
If we could only locate the mummy, modern-day scientists might be able to accomplish more than the researchers of Bates’ day. In fact, three pathologists with the Regional Forensic Center in Memphis — Dr. Hugh Berryman, Dr. Steve Symes, and Ken Hawkes — were prepared to use their sophisticated equipment to analyze physical characteristics of Booth to determine if the mummy matched. “Superimposing known photos of Booth over images of the mummy is a pretty good way of eliminating the possibility they are one and the same,” Berryman told Memphis magazine in 1992.
The historian in Maryland took a different approach. After all, if Booth escaped, then who is buried in the family plot in Baltimore? He spent years trying to get that body exhumed, to no avail.
Years passed, and then someone put me in touch with a collector of circus memorabilia who lived in Silver Spring, Maryland. This gentleman had placed an ad in an obscure collector’s magazine offering for sale such oddities as “a side show demon, complete with real fangs and claws.” If anyone knew about the Booth mummy when it was a carnival attraction, this would be the guy, I reasoned. Contacted by phone, he was very evasive when we first talked, at first denying that he knew anything about any mummy. But I kept pestering him, until he finally blurted out, “Sure, I know exactly what happened to it. I have it in my collection.” Then he hung up.
He refused to return further calls and ignored my letters (this was in the days before email). Not sure how to proceed, I consulted with my colleague in Maryland, who — are you ready for this? — also lived in Silver Spring, Maryland. He couldn’t believe the object he had been seeking for years might be — I say, might be — just a few miles away. Forget about letters or phone calls. In a rather impulsive gesture, he drove to the collector’s house, banged on the front door, and demanded to be let inside. The collector refused to let him in. So my colleague did something rather bold: He called the Silver Spring police department, and told them that the circus collector was harboring a dead body!
That certainly got their attention, but when they investigated they found no dead body — mummified or otherwise. This is when I (unaware that any of this was going on several states away) called me. Let’s just say that took quite a long time (and lots of apologizing) when they asked me to explain just why we thought some poor old man — apparently a harmless and rather eccentric collector of circus memorabilia — was a murderer, who had concealed a body in his house somewhere. I guess they finally believed me because I wasn’t arrested. Well, not yet, anyway.
In the end, I made a few final attempts to contact the collector (to apologize for pestering him, if nothing else), but he never responded. No doubt alarmed when the police showed up at his door, it is entirely possible that he disposed of the mummy to avoid further trouble. That is, if he ever owned it in the first place.
So, the search goes on, and the conspiracy theorists continue to believe that Booth got away.