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Did John Wilkes Booth survive?

February 19 2007 at 12:47 PM
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GyG  (Login Dick Gaines)
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Monday, February 19, 2007
Did John Wilkes Booth survive?

Theory is that Lincoln's killer had escaped to Tennessee
By Dick Cook Staff Writer

SEWANEE, Tenn. — A signature in the Franklin County Courthouse and a mummy last seen in 1975 convinced two Tennessee men that John Wilkes Booth, the killer of Abraham Lincoln, escaped capture, traveled South and lived into the 20th century.

Now one of those men is hoping to use DNA evidence to prove it.

The other man, Arthur Ben Chitty, a historiographer at the University of the South who died in 2002, spent 40 years amassing anecdotal evidence that Mr. Booth married a Sewanee woman and lived there for a time, said his daughter Em Turner Chitty.

And there was one piece of physical evidence: the signature of "Jno. W. Booth" and his bride, Louisa J. Payne, recorded Feb. 24, 1872, in the marriage license records office of the Franklin County Courthouse.

"What passes for history is good public relations — that's my dad's main thesis," said Ms. Turner, an English teacher at Pellissippi State College in Knoxville. "The thing that got him most seriously interested (in Booth) was the signature."

BLAME KEN BURNS

In Memphis, Ken Hawkes got hooked on the Booth mystery in the early 1990s, when everybody in his office was following Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War.

Mr. Hawkes was an autopsy technician for the Shelby County medical examiner's office. He said that after the episode dealing with President Lincoln's assassination, a coworker told him a mummy that was purported to be Mr. Booth was toted around the Midwest in carnivals during the 1930s.

"I thought it was nonsense," Mr. Hawkes said last week. "Everybody knows Booth was killed in Virginia two weeks after the assassination."

But then a doctor in the office showed him a story from a magazine about the Booth mummy.

The doctor said that using forensic medicine, "if we could find the remains, we could show one way or the other if it could be John Wilkes Booth," he said.

Two weeks later, Mr. Hawkes said, he began to think maybe he ought to find the mummy and do DNA testing.

"I started looking for it and looked and looked and looked," he said.

The history books state that Mr. Booth shot President Lincoln the day before Easter 1865 at Ford's Theater. Mr. Booth and a group of conspirators escaped Washington, D.C., and were cornered in Richard Garrett's barn in Bowling Green, Va., 12 days later.

The barn was set afire, and Mr. Booth was shot and died within hours. Several Union soldiers who were acquainted with him identified his body. He was buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore. SEWANEE CONNECTION

On the third floor in the back of the Jessie Ball duPont Library at the University of the South, archivist Annie Armour points to shelves filled with documents and books that Mr. Chitty, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the school, amassed related to Booth.

Opening a box of newspaper clippings, legal documents, letters and audio recordings of interviews, Ms. Armour said, "I don't see anything that proves or disproves."

But, she added, "There are a couple of people around here who swore that (Booth) lived here for a while."

Ms. Chitty said that in 1956, her father met with a man named James. H. Rees. Mr. Rees told Mr. Chitty that when he was a boy he knew McCager Payne, the son of Louisa Payne and stepson of her husband, John St. Helen.

According to Mr. Chitty's interviews with relatives, Louisa Payne learned after she married that "St. Helen" wasn't her husband's real name. Family lore says she insisted they remarry under his given name. That's when the signature of "Jno. W. Booth" was made in Franklin County.

Mr. Chitty acquired Mr. Rees' material on Mr. Booth in the 1980s. The trove included a 1926 interview with McCager Payne in the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, Ms. Chitty said.

Mr. Payne told the interviewer he had overheard his stepfather tell his mother about "knots on his left leg" and admit that he was Mr. Booth.

Mr. Payne said his stepfather saw the boy had overheard and said, "If you ever tell what you heard me say, I'll rip your throat from ear to ear," according to the Leaf-Chronicle.

Several months later the three went to Memphis where Mr. St. Helen/Booth left the boy and his mother and headed to Texas. He told them he would be back but never returned, Ms. Chitty said.

Ms. Chitty said her father's archives show Louisa Payne and her son returned to Sewanee.

"The story goes that (Louisa) became pregnant only a few months after the marriage," Ms. Chitty said. "She returned to Payne's Cove and had the baby, (Laura) Ida Booth. Strangely enough, she became an actress."

Ms. Chitty said she reviewed her father's collection of Booth material in 1988.

"There was so much evidence that he gathered, eyewitness evidence, documentary evidence. This story, when you first heard it, was crazy," Ms. Chitty said.

"But there was a lot of evidence," she said.

THE MUMMY

Mr. Hawkes has been trying to find what he says may be Mr. Booth's mummified remains.

In 1903, a dying, alcoholic house painter named David E. George told a minister in Enid, Okla., that he was John Wilkes Booth, Mr. Hawkes said.

Finis Bates, a Tennessee lawyer who decades before knew Mr. St. Helen/Booth, traveled to Oklahoma and determined that the body was that of the man he had known. Mr. Bates acquired the body and had it preserved, Mr. Hawkes said.

At some point, Mr. Bates' widow sold it to a carnival where the mummy became a major attraction in shows like Jay Gould's Million Dollar Spectacle, he said.

Mr. Hawkes said he contacted every carnival, sideshow and circus he could find searching for Mr. Booth's mummy.

News accounts from a Life magazine article in 1931 show that six doctors in Chicago examined and X-rayed the mummy. They found it had a shorter left leg, a distorted right thumb and a scar on its neck, all consistent with physical characteristics of Booth.

Mr. Hawkes said the last documented sighting was in Philadelphia in the early 1960s. But he has a 1991 letter from a man who says he saw the mummy in Pennsylvania in 1975 at a carnival.

"The clincher for me was the man said X-rays were with the mummy that the doctors made in Chicago," he said.

Mr. Hawkes said the Pennsylvania man told him that the carnival promoter was asking everyone who came in to look at the mummy if they wanted to buy it.

"I do believe the mummy still exists," he said. "I think it's in a private collection."

E-mail Dick Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com
© Copyright, permissions and privacy policy Copyright ©2007, Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may not be reprinted without the express written permission of Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc.



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