and whenever John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, died, it’s pretty
much a sure bet it wasn’t in a burning barn in Virginia. Booth had coal-black
hair and a clear complexion. When he made the leap from the Presidential box to
the stage of Ford’s Theater, he landed on his left foot and broke his left ankle.
The man who assisted Booth in mounting behind the theater testified that he couldn’t
put weight on his left foot. Dr. Samuel Mudd testified that he splinted Booth’s
left ankle. Testimony from eyewitnesses to the shooting of ‘Booth’ in the barn
described a man with sandy hair and freckles. His right ankle was broken.
There are a number of other circumstances to indicate the man shot in Virginia
wasn’t John Wilkes Booth, but these two alone are sufficient to cast more than
reasonable doubt on the identification.
years after the Lincoln assassination a young, very handsome, black-haired man
with a clear complexion turned up in the tiny town of Glen
Rose, Texas. He gave his name as John St. Helen. Although he didn’t drink
himself, he worked as a bartender. He also acted in amateur theatrical productions
in Glen Rose. He had tremendous stage presence, excellent diction and delivery,
and was obviously at home on the stage. He also had an almost encyclopedic mastery
of the plays of William Shakespeare.
John St. Helen remained in Glen
Rose a little less than a year. A local politician’s daughter was to be married.
Included on the guest list were a number of US Army officers and the United States
Marshal for the Eastern District of Texas. St. Helen got word of the guest list—and
He turned up about a year later in Granbury.
His closest local friend, a lawyer named Finis L. Bates, noticed something. While
St. Helen drank not a drop 364 days a year, on one specific day he drank himself
into a stupor. That day was April 14—the anniversary of the Lincoln assassination.
Helen fell gravely ill while in Granbury.
He was told he would probably die of the illness. Local doctors did all they could,
but without apparent effect. St. Helen summoned Bates to his bedside and made
what he obviously believed was a deathbed statement. “My name,” he said, “is not
John St. Helen. I am John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.”
a deathbed statement to be admissible in court, three conditions must be fulfilled.
The person must believe he is dying. The statement must be made voluntarily. The
person making the statement must then die within a reasonable period.
John St. Helen certainly believed he was dying. He made the statement entirely
voluntarily. However, he recovered. He never retracted the statement. Instead,
he disappeared from Granbury,
leaving no forwarding address. Upon searching St. Helen’s rented room after his
departure, Bates found a Colt single-shot pocket pistol of a type first manufactured
in 1866. It was wrapped in the front page of a Washington, DC newspaper dated
April 15, 1865. Bates never heard from St. Helen again.
1906 a drunken derelict who used the name David George died in Enid, Oklahoma.
On his deathbed he claimed to be John Wilkes Booth. Bates went to Enid to examine
the corpse. In the bloated, alcohol-ruined face and body of the man called David
George he believed he recognized his old friend, John St. Helen. He claimed the
body and had it embalmed—mummified is perhaps a better description—and tried to
interest the government in it. There was no interest.
Bates kept the body
in storage for a number of years. Then, somehow, it passed out of his possession.
From the 1920s through the early 1960s it was a sideshow attraction at various
carnivals and circuses—“The Corpse of John Wilkes Booth, the Assassin of Abraham
Lincoln.” An X-ray of the body revealed that, many years before, the man’s left
ankle had been broken—and was never properly set.
Wilkes Booth was known to be fond of cryptograms. The name ‘John St. Helen’ could
easily be a cryptogram. The first name is, of course, Booth’s own—but also one
of the most common given names for men, then and now. ‘St. Helen’ could very well
be merely the anglicized version of Bonaparte’s second isle of exile, Ste. Helena.
Is the name saying ‘John the Exile?’ Booth certainly was an exile—from society,
from his family, from the theater he loved.
How about ‘David George?’
David Herrold and George Atzerodt were two of Booth’s known co-conspirators. Was
John St. Helen/David George, if they were in fact the same person, actually John
At this point in time there is no way to prove—or disprove—that.
The mummy, which was a traveling exhibit with circuses and carnivals for over
40 years, has disappeared. No one has seen it in nearly a half-century, though
photographs of it exist, the skin turned almost coal black from the preservation
process. Booth family heirs have refused permission for the corpse of the man
shot in Virginia to be exhumed for DNA testing. Did John Wilkes Booth live in
and Granbury, Texas, in the
1870s and die in Enid, Oklahoma, in 1906? In that fine old southwestern phrase,
© C. F. Eckhardt
June 30, 2007 column