In exploring the darker corners of the Lincoln assassination, inevitably one come up against the question of whether John Wilkes Booth was actually brought to justice in a tobacco barn in Northern Virginia.
According to the accepted version of events, a patrol of the Fifth New York Cavalry tracked Booth and his co-conspirator Herold to an outbuilding on the Garrett farm in northern Virginia. The two conspirators trapped, the Yankee cavalrymen told them to come out; David Herold surrendered but allegedly Booth refused and tried to fight it out. Being a tobacco barn, there were wide openings between the slats and a Federal cavalryman shot the suspect visible inside. The barn was also set on fire and a fatally wounded man, assumed to be Booth was dragged out of the burning barn, dying on the front porch of the farmhouse.
All this is according to the standard account; except, when Herold surrendered, he was asked who else was in the barn, instead of saying “Booth” he told the Federals, “a man named Boyd.” Did the Yankees, in their eagerness to kill the assassin of Lincoln, kill the wrong man? And if so, what happened to Booth?
Needless to say, the thread of evidence is long and tangled and there are those more diligent than I who have followed it in greater depth. The earliest printed reference that I could uncover is an article dating to January of 1877; originally published in the Pittsburg Leader and shortly thereafter published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Entitled, “Wilkes Booth” it is tellingly subtitled “The Annual Story of His Reappearance in the Flesh”–implying that this is not the first account of Booth’s escape and survival.
The lead sentence confirms this suspicion: “Ever since the assassination of President Lincoln there has existed a doubt in the minds of the citizens of the United States as to whether his assassin was ever captured ad killed….that the officials who reported his capture acted in a rather mysterious and altogether private manner in disposing of the alleged assassin.” The article goes on to allege that “in the last ten years it has been asserted that John Wilkes Booth has been seen at various times in different parts of the globe.”
Now, in all fairness, the correspondent who penned the article wrote under the nom de plume of “Orange Blossom,” who in the postwar era was renowned for his tall tales and fanciful accounts. The skill of Orange Blossom, however, was in his ability to take a grain of truth and expand it into a plausible, but exaggerated story. In this case, the reporter claimed to have actually met “John Wilkes” and that after lying low abroad for several years returned to the United States and settled in Pennsylvania. If Orange Blossom was indeed busy with the manure-shovel in 1877, that does not mean that his story is a complete fabrication, or that there were not previous reports about Booth evading capture as the headline implied.
As the article pointed out, even in 1865 there were numerous discrepancies to the official account. The autopsy, hastily carried out on a gunboat in the middle of a river, revealed a man with “auburn hair”–yet we know Booth was dark-haired. A man who was familiar with Booth was asked to identify Booth’s body and at first refused to; one gathers that under official pressure (perhaps even threat of himself being arrested) he reluctantly identified the body as Booth’s. There was also some suspicious official behavior regarding the body’s disposition.
Flash forward to the twentieth century, to Monteagle, Tennessee wherein is located The University of the South—Sewanee University. For those unfamiliar with it, it somewhat resembles Hogwart’s School of Harry Potter fame; the upperclassmen where robes similar to Oxford and Cambridge (and Hogwart’s) and are referred to as “gownsmen.” For many years a well-respected professor there, Arthur Ben Chitty, devoted much time and considerable resources tracking down the facts behind Booth’s alleged demise–and escape. Professor Chitty uncovered a trail of evidence, including a signed marriage certificate. He apparently adopted the pseudonym “John St. Helen” but when he married a Tennessee girl in 1872 under the false name, she insisted that they go back and have the marriage certificate filled out properly and the ceremony re-done and he signed the second certificate “Jno. W. Booth.” Descendants of the girl he married testify that family tradition, long-held as a family secret, confirm that he was indeed the infamous assassin.
Another Booth researcher has developed a second theory, that Booth adopted the name “John B. Wilkes” and indeed there is a paper trail for this possible Booth survivor.
Then too, we have the peculiar comments of the captured conspirator Herrold about the man named “Boyd.” Other investigators, pursuing this lead uncovered a Confederate officer named Captain James W. Boyd, of the Sixth Tennessee Infantry who did indeed have auburn hair like the corpse alleged to be Booth’s. Captain Boyd was in prison as a prisoner of war, but shortly before the assassination was transferred to Washington on Secretary of War Stanton’s direct orders; here he disappears from history. Was this the Boyd the Federal cavalry killed? Was he a double-agent for the Union, or simply a patsy set up to be killed in order to cover the escape of the real assassin and so cover up high-placed administration co-conspirators whom Booth could name? Was Boyd turned into “the man who never was” by Stanton?
The deeper one delves into the Lincoln assassination, the more questions one uncovers and the fewer certain answers. Clearly the truth is out there–but we may never know for sure.
For more curious facts about the Lincoln conspirators see my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.