History has made us believe that he died in a shootout in some Virginia barn, but did that notorious assassin of President Abraham Lincoln named John Wilkes Booth managed to evade capture for decades?
By: Ringo Bones
The officially accepted historical events that happened after President Abraham Lincoln’s tragic assassination points out that John Wilkes Booth had died in a shootout twelve days after committing his heinous act in a Bowling Green, Virginia barn on April 26, 1865. Supposedly while trying to escape to the South, he was shot or was shot himself in that barn which had been set afire when he refused to emerge and surrender. But was there a remote possibility that Booth might have escaped and managed to live on the run decades after assassinating President Lincoln?
John Wilkes Booth came from a prominent theatrical family, which first came to prominence in England. His father, Junius Brutus Booth gained fame as a leading tragedian who later acted all over the United States - where his fiery and vehement portrayal of the heroes of Shakespeare made him popular. Junius Brutus Booth remained a favorite stateside Shakespearean actor in spite of his tendency to drink and his increasingly erratic behavior, which frequently prevented him from filling theatrical agreements. He died on fever on November 30, 1852 on the steamboat J.S. Chenoweth after returning from his California tour.
Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. was the eldest of the Booth brothers who then succeeded his father as a leading tragedian. He devoted his later years to theater management, notably in California and New York. Edwin Thomas Booth was probably the most successful Shakespearean actor of the Booth brothers after starring in a series of sumptuous Shakespearean productions. Most notably by appearing in 100 consecutive performances of Hamlet. In 1865, stunned on learning that his brother – John Wilkes Booth – had assassinated President Lincoln, Edwin Thomas Booth tried to retire from the stage but was recalled by his admiring public. In 1869, he built the handsome Booth Theatre in New York but was unable to carry the expense of it.
John Wilkes Booth was already a promising theatrical star when his sympathies with the Confederacy and his inherited “touch of insanity” caused him to assassinate Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. After shooting Lincoln in the back of the head, John Wilkes Booth yelled the state of Virginia’s motto – Sic Semper Tyrannis (“Thus always to tyrants”) then leaped from the balcony in order to escape. The “accepted” historical account states than John Wilkes Booth was killed twelve days later – in April 26, 1865 at a shootout at a barn in Bowling Green, Virginia while trying to escape to the South. John Wilkes Booth’s brothers and the family physician later “supposedly” identified his badly burned body. Given the “iffy” circumstances surrounding the officiating of his death did John Wilkes Booth managed to escape and to remain at large decades after committing his heinous act?
Rumors and anecdotes later emerged that a Granbury, Texas Shakespeare buff named John St. Helen was actually the fugitive John Wilkes Booth hiding out in the Granbury Opera House remaining incognito while enjoying his favorite passions. Another anecdotal evidence of an incognito John Wilkes Booth living at large emerged in Enid, Oklahoma where a man named David E. George confessed to a priest that he was actually John Wilkes Booth – the famous Lincoln assassin - before committing suicide by drinking a bottle of strychnine back in 1903. Compelling anecdotes they may be, but is it even possible that John Wilkes Booth had remained at large for several decades after assassinating the president of the United States?
Given that the United States Secret Service – whose primary functions was to protect the President of the United States, members of his or her family, the president-elect, and the vice president and to stop counterfeiting of US currency – was only established after the Lincoln assassination back in July 5, 1865. There is a possibility that the US Secret Service – though never placed John Wilkes Booth under arrest – made the assassin as a case study on how a future “presidential assassin” plans to get away and lives incognito. It might also be possible that John Wilkes Booth’s other brothers – given their connections in the Shakespearean theatre business across the United States – knew too well about excellent hiding spots where their assassin brother can hide while still living out his Shakespearean passion. Making it a veritable Victorian Era version of The Fugitive.