Lincoln Assassination Plots, Part 3: The One That Got Away and the Man Who Never Was

John Wilkes Booth’s death as presented to the American public. Does this version of Booth tell the truth?

In exploring the darker corners of the history of the Lincoln assassination, inevitably one come up against the issue of whether John Wilkes Booth was brought to justice in a tobacco barn in Northern Virginia as the official version says.

According to the accepted account 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.  Trapped, the Yankee cavalrymen told the two conspirators 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, Boston Corbett, 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 accepted narrative  of events.  There is a problem with this standard account.  When Herold surrendered, he was asked who else was in the barn with him, instead of saying “Booth” he told the Federals, “a man named Boyd.”

Did the Yankees, in their eagerness to put an end to the assassin of Lincoln, kill the wrong man?  And if so, then what happened to Booth?

Needless to say, the thread of evidence regarding Booth and his possible escape is long and tangled, and there are those more diligent than I who have followed it in greater depth. In researching Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, I investigated much of this primary research for my chapters on the Lincoln Assassins.  The earliest printed reference that I could uncover was an article dating to January of 1877; originally published in the Pittsburg Leader and shortly thereafter re-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 by the name of Mulhattan who penned this article, wrote under the nom de plume of “Orange Blossom,” and 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 in question claimed to have actually met “John Wilkes,” who related that, after lying low abroad for several years, returned to the United States and settled in Pennsylvania.  Even if we acknowledge that “Orange Blossom” was indeed busy with the manure-shovel in 1877, that does not necessarily mean that his story is a complete fabrication, or that there were not previous, more credible, 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 had 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 do so! One gathers that, under official pressure, (perhaps even threat of himself being arrested) the witness reluctantly identified the body as Booth’s.

There was also some suspicious official behavior regarding the body’s disposition.

Knights of Golden Circle part of Booth Conspiacy
Bickley was head of the secret Secessionist group, Knights of the Golden Circle.  The flyer implies that the Knights were the real organizers of Lincoln’s assassination.

Flash forward to the twentieth century, to Monteagle, Tennessee, wherein is located The University of the SouthSewanee University.   For those unfamiliar with this august institution, it somewhat resembles Hogwart’s School of Harry Potter fame; the upperclassmen wear 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 legitimate evidence, including a signed marriage certificate.  Booth, according to Ben Chitty, 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 another theory, however. This thesis holds that Booth adopted the name “John B. Wilkes” and indeed there is a paper trail for this possible Booth survivor.

Then too, we have that peculiar comments of the captured conspirator Herold 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 indeed 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 might name?  Was, in fact, Boyd turned into “the man who never was” by Stanton?

There are other theories about what became of Booth, including the one where his body, allegedly mummified, traveled throughout the Midwest as a sideshow exhibit. The Mummy Known as “John” is a curious story in and of itself, but probably is the least credible of the tales of Booth’s notorious afterlife.

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.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War, with a section devoted to the Booth Conspiracy and Lincoln’s Assasinaton.
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

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