Be forewarned that the following tale does not appear in any of those bone-dry American-history textbooks you read back in the day. It’s a tad murky on the dates you were required to memorize and usually isn’t given so much as a footnote by tweedy Civil War scholars. When asked, they generally grumble and quickly lump it in with the Roswell UFO incident, Bigfoot and black-helicopter sightings.
The general consensus, remember, is that John Wilkes Booth, the celebrated Washington, D.C.–based thespian, fired the shot that took the life of President Abraham Lincoln on that April evening in 1865. He then jumped from the president’s box — suffering a fractured leg in the process — and fled from Ford’s Theatre. Twelve days later, we’re told, the authorities tracked him to his hiding place in a Virginia tobacco barn, where he was shot and killed. End of story, case solved.
Not so fast. What about the whispered theory that Booth performed his evil deed at the behest of government conspirators who wanted their leader assassinated and, as part of the deal, agreed to help the gunman escape?
To buy into such a notion, one has to go to Texas, where tall-tale conspiracy theories and unsolved mysteries are produced like cotton and cattle. As the story goes, that’s where a very alive John Wilkes Booth landed in the aftermath of his crime. Old-timers in the little lakeside community of Granbury, just southwest of Fort Worth, have been passing the story along for generations.
It actually begins in the South Texas town of Bandera where, according to journalist Logan Hawkes, a man named John St. Helen arrived and opened a private school where he taught students not only the three R’s but also classic literature and acting. According to the legend, he also fell in love with a local lady and they were to be married — until she mentioned that among the guests she had invited to the wedding was a relative who was a U.S. Marshal. St. Helen fled town in the dead of night.
Later he surfaced in Granbury, where he gave up the academic life and became a saloon keeper. St. Helen, according to researcher Gary Hancock, walked with a noticeable limp, often quoted Shakespeare to patrons of his bar and every April 14 — the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination — got falling-down drunk.
He became seriously ill in the late 1870s and, certain he was dying, confided to a friend, lawyer Finis Bates, that he was not John St. Helen but, rather, John Wilkes Booth. He even told the attorney where he had hidden the gun used to kill the president. According to the folklore, Bates located the gun, finding it wrapped in a newspaper that carried an account of the events at Ford’s Theatre.
Surprisingly, St. Helen/Booth regained his health and vigorously denied ever having made the deathbed confession. Then he hightailed it out of town, arriving in the Oklahoma community of Enid, where he took a room in a local boardinghouse. His name, he told the landlady, was David E. George.
HistoryBuff.com’s R.J. Brown writes that George called Enid home for more than 20 years before he again became gravely ill. As a January 1903 issue of the local Enid Wave reported, a dying George admitted to his landlady, identified only as Mrs. Harper, that he was John Wilkes Booth. When word reached Bates, he quickly traveled to Oklahoma and immediately identified the deceased as the man he’d long ago known as John St. Helen.
Bates later wrote a book, published in 1908, that put forth the theory that the man who had once confessed to him was, in fact, Booth. It sold well and developed a divided following of believers and naysayers. Having gained possession of the body, which had been mummified, Bates allowed it to be displayed as a touring carnival sideshow attraction for several years.
Which, most debunkers insist, was where it — and the story that accompanied it — deserved to be.
Michael W. Kauffman, author of American Brutus, considered the definitive work on Booth, is among them. “Pathetic and twisted though it is,” he says, “Booth did, in a sense, achieve his goal of great notoriety. He’s managed to live long beyond the grave.”