Friday, November 16, 2012
Setting the Record Straight: Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Boston Corbett and the Enid Connection
Yes, you read that right; Stanton exonerated Corbett.
Setting the Record Straight: Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Boston Corbett and the Enid Connection
As one third of the manuscript on the book about the fiasco at the IMB nears completion, an enjoyable diversion has necessitated a post, breaking a three month blogging sabbatical. This post aims to correct the record of a startling connection between the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Enid, Oklahoma.
The historical account of the actual assassination of our sixteenth President of the United States is without factual dispute. What has been open for debate is the number of men (and women) involved in the conspiracy to either kill or kidnap President Lincoln. The Lincoln Conspiracy, a 1977 book by David W. Balsiger and Charles E. Sellier, Jr., seeks to prove that in 1865 Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, and other Radical Republican allies, sought to kidnap Lincoln. They intended to hide Lincoln for a time while bogus articles of impeachment were drafted to remove him as President. The primary motivations for this plot were strong opposition to Lincoln's liberal Reconstruction plans and the loss of profits due to Lincoln's restrictions on the cotton trade during the U.S. Civil War. When the kidnapping was called off, famous actor John Wilkes Booth, one of the co-conspirators in the plot, took matters in his own hands and assassinated the President. After Booth's diary was found by the Union soldiers who shot him, the pages that would have implicated Stanton and others were removed by Stanton's War Department detective who was on the scene, accounting for the eighteen missing pages in Booth's diary. Many Lincoln conspiracy theories abound, as evidenced by the fictional/fantasy 2007 Hollywood movie based on one such conspiracy, entitled National Treasure 2. But most conspiracy theories have little or no credible basis and soon die for lack of scientific, historical, or ultimately public interest.
But one of the most bizarre Lincoln conspiracy theories seems to have very long legs. The New York Times and other international major newspapers continue to follow the story of the Enid Booth Legend.
Booth's Descendents Believe Booth Died in Enid, Oklahoma
The account of how John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., and then escaped by making his way to southern Virginia, where he hid with his accomplice David Herold in the Garrett family barn until Union troops discovered them both, is summarized here. It is without dispute that Union soldiers surrounded the Garrett barn and Herold gave himself up. He was later hanged by the United States government for conspiracy to commit murder of the President. It is in dispute, however, by Booth's descendents, whether or not John Wilkes Booth died at the Garrett barn on April 26, 1865, twelve days after he shot the President. Booth's family alleges that another man, holding Booth's belongings, was shot and killed by a Union soldier who had stuck his rifle through the wooden slats of the barn and fired. The Union soldier who fired his weapon, an evangelical Christian by the name of Boston Corbett, violated the direct orders of his superior officer by firing, but later explained his actions, according to modern biographer James Swanson, with these words; "Providence directed me." Boston Corbett was himself arrested for conspiracy to commit murder of President Lincoln, chiefly for killing the assassin who could have explained why he did what he did and identifying any others involved. But Boston Corbett himself was later exonerated by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who declared, "The traitor is dead. The patriot lives."
Booth's family believes Edwin Stanton and the War Department detective on the scene went to great efforts to cover up the identity of the man who was killed in Garrett's barn. They say that a simple farm hand, helping both Booth and Herold that night, was the man killed, and Booth was escaped. Their argument is summarized in the legal documents that comprise the 1994 lawsuit Kline vs. Green Mount Cemetery, where the Booth family urges exhumation of the body buried in Green Mount Cemetery to prove that another man, not Booth, was killed by Boston Corbett. In an attempt to prove the necessity to exhume the body, the plaintiffs in the case used the Enid Booth Legend as the basis for their belief that John Wilkes Booth actually committed suicide 38 years later in Enid, Oklahoma, at the age of 65.
The Most Famous Mummy Since King Tut
I've lived in Enid for sixteen years and am very familiar with the Booth legend. The History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and several Civil War authors have made their way to Enid in order to either film or research the story. I have taken several people to downtown Enid on field trips to explain the bizarre Booth legend and have recounted it countless times. A simple search of internet sites will bring you reams of printable material on the subject, but this blog is designed to give you a concise history of the Booth Legend in order to correct a recent error in the Oklahoma Historical Chronicle concerning Boston Corbett, the man historians say killed John Wilkes Booth.
Contemporary newspaper accounts for January, 1903, record for us that a man named David E. George killed himself by strychnine poisoning in room number 4 of the old Grand Hotel, which was located on the second floor of what is now Garfield Furniture in downtown Enid. Strychnine poisoning causes a very agonizing death, and when people heard the screaming from room 4, they couldn't get through the locked door, so they vaulted a young child through the transom above, and the door was unlocked from the inside. The adults sought to assist the dying David E. George only to be shocked at his audible confession that he was, in fact, John Wilkes Booth. George died shortly thereafter, and the furniture store owner across the street, who served as the funeral home director as well (as was common in those days), took possession of the body until next of kin could be located.
The body was carefully prepared by Penniman Furniture Store and Funeral Home, using materials now outlawed, and as a result, the body was mummified within hours. Stories circulated in newspapers across the United States that the real John Wilkes Booth had died in Enid, Oklahoma and was on display in the window of the Penniman Funeral home, awaiting next of kin to claim the body. Within ten days of his death, several prominent Enid businessmen had performed analysis of the handwriting on the George suicide note, comparing it with a note feartured in the Harper Brother's Pictorial History of the Civil War, that the United States Government says came from the handwriting of John Wilkes Booth. The similarities were uncanny. In addition, physicians examined the body and noticed similarities to wounds known to be consistent with wounds suffered by John Wilkes Booth, including a broken tibia, a facial/neck scar, and a crushed thumb.
An attorney in Memphis named Finis Bates read a newspaper account of George's death and made his way to Enid to see if David George was the same man he knew as John St. Helen in Granbury, Texas in the 1870's. It seems that Finis Bates, who by the way is the grandfather of actress Kathy Bates, was friends with John St. Helen, and on one occasion, when John St. Helen was seriously ill (he thought near death), he confided to Finis Bates that he was John Wilkes Booth. Upon recovery, St. Helen denied ever saying he was Booth. Yet, a while later, a United States Federal Marshall showed up in Grandbury, Texas, asking questions about John St. Helen. It seems when people went to look for Mr. St. Helen, he had mysteriously disappeared. Finis Bates never forgot his friend, and wondered if David George could be the same man.
Finis Bates rushed to Enid to check it out. Upon arriving in Enid, Bates headed to the Pennimann Furniture Store and Funeral Home to see the body of David E. George. Yes! This was the man he had known as John St. Helen. Finis Bates, an attorney and skilled at getting things accomplished, obtained the mummy and took it back to Memphis. He spent five years conducting research to prepare a book about this matter, all the while hiding the mummy in his garage during this time. In 1908, Bates released his book entitled The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth.
Soon the mummy was on display around the United States in special exhibits, including World Fairs, circus shows, and college campus lectures. At one time in the 1940's Henry Ford expressed interest in purchasing the mummy, but he soon publically revealed his own personal disbelief in the Enid Booth Legend. The mummy was eventually sold by Finis Bates to a travelling circus, but the trail of ownership eventually became lost, as well as the mummy itself, with the last public appearance being in the mid 1970's. Were the mummy to reappear because someone discovered stored in a warehouse, it would cause quite a stir on several fronts. In addition, the owner would stand to make millions because of the recent Booth lawsuit and publicity in light of modern advances in scientific analysis, including DNA.
The Sentence That Caused Me to Fall Out of My Chair
I am personally skeptical of the Enid Booth Legend. David E. George/alias John St. Helen/alias John Wilkes Booth is a fascinating person, but I remain unconvinced he was John Wilkes Booth. The man who really interests me is Boston Corbett, the soldier who shot the man alleged to be John Wilkes Booth in the Garrett barn. Not many people know much about Boston Corbett, including historians. However, he is a man that should be studied.
Particularly since the prestigious Oklahoma Historical Society wrote in its May 22, 2008 Historical Chronicle Magazine that "Boston Corbett is buried in Enid." This sentence is the last sentence of the article written by highly respected historian Dr. Guy Logsdon. I called Dr. Logsdon at his home in Tulsa and asked him for his source material for his statement. He assured me that he had it but it could possibly take a few weeks for him to find it. I respect Dr. Logsdon and look forward to him providing the source material for his statement, but until he does, I felt it appropriate to place the only source material I have on Boston Corbett's death on this blog. Dr. Logsdon's research may well prove mine to be insufficient, and if he is, indeed, correct on his assertion that Boston Corbett is buried in Enid, then other historians looking into the Lincoln assassination may not feel as inclined to call this fact "coincidence."
Truthfully, when I read the May 22, 2008 Oklahoma Historical Chronicle article that asserted Boston Corbett was buried in Enid, I about fell out of my chair. I am friends with the owner of Bass Construction, Bob Barry, whose grandfather, Henry B. "Heiney" Bass, was considered the premier historian on Abraham Lincoln in his day. Heiney was close friends with Carl Sandburg, Harry Truman and other lovers of history, and would make an annual trip to the Truman Library to discuss historical research regarding the Civil War. Heiney, who died in 1975, is in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and his entire library is in the Western Heritage Museum at Oklahoma University. This library contains the largest collection of Lincoln poetry in the world, including a few either written by Lincoln's own hand, or signed by Lincoln, that would be worth today millions of dollars.
Heiney's grandson, Bob, has donated to me a copy of his grandfather's personal journals where Heiney writes about Lincoln, Corbett, Booth, David George and the Enid collection. History records for us the bizarre antics of Boston Corbett (self-castration, growing his hair like Jesus, breaking up a mock Kansas Legislative Sesssion, etc.), but Heiney Bass tells us in his journal something that very few people know. He writes on February 15, 1959 that
Boston Corbett appeared in Enid, Oklahoma. Kansas authorities were relieved to be rid of the troublesome hero and made no effort to secure his return. For some time Boston Corbett peddled patent medicine for W.W. Garrit and Company of Topeka. Then his shadowy figure faded away. No authentic report of his ultimate fate has ever been recorded. Whether he died in Enid and found a burial place in a potter's field or drifted on seems to be veiled in eternal silence.
If Dr. Guy Logsdon has uncovered that Boston Corbett is actually buried in Enid, Oklahoma, then this little hamlet in northwestern Oklahoma may have much more to do with Lincoln's assassination than heretofore told.
Time will tell.
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