You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Junius Brutus Booth, father of John Wilkes Booth, once threatened to kill President Andrew Jackson. He sent Jackson the following letter:

Brown’s Hotel, Philadelphia
July 4th, 1835

You Danm’d old Scoundrel if you don’t sign the pardon of your fellow men now under sentence of death De Ruiz & De Soto, I will cut your throat whilst you are sleeping. I wrote to you repeated Cautions so look out or damn you I’ll have you burnt at the Stake in the City of Washington.

Your Master
Junius Brutus Booth

You know me! Look out!

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Sgt. Boston Corbett, the soldier who shot and killed Booth, was probably one of the most colorful characters involved in the Lincoln Assassination. He was born Thomas H. Corbett in London, England, but moved to the United States at an early age and grew up in Troy, New York. He learned the trade of hatter, got married and planned to start a family. But when death claimed his wife and new-born child, Corbett fell into a profound depression. He eventually drifted up to New England and underwent a spiritual awakening. Renaming himself Boston, for the city of his rebirth, he grew his hair and beard in the fashion of Jesus Christ and dedicated himself to a pious existence in the service of God. Of his sincerity, he left no room for doubt. He once encountered a couple of prostitutes, and resolved to put himself above their temptations. Returning to his room, he cut off his testicles with a pair of scissors, and spent two weeks recovering at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Though Corbett was only five feet four inches tall, he made up in confidence what he lacked in stature. He once upbraided an officer who took the Lord’s name in vain, and was given a harsh confinement–which he actually enjoyed, because it gave him some time alone with his Bible. (Mike Kauffman, American Brutus, Random House, 2004)

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Who is buried in Booth’s grave? Wherever there’s doubt, there’s a legend. On April 27, 1865, newspapers all over the country announced the death of John Wilkes booth. The same day, a man in a Washington bar told his friends he knew Booth had gotten out alive. In 1867, the New York Times quoted someone as saying Booth was then living in Ceylon. Soon after, the World reported the assassin was currently rumored to be the captain of a pirate ship then terrorizing the China seas.

For 36 years after the assassination, “John Wilkes Booth” allegedly traveled extensively, married several women, and sired a few children. He lived in India, Mexico, Harper’s Ferry, and throughout the American Southwest. In Texas alone, more than two dozen men claimed to be the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, and two of them ended up making the rounds–posthumously–in carnival side shows.

In 1995, two Booth relatives asked the Baltimore Circuit Court to exhume the remains in Green Mount Cemetery so they might answer that question. Their argument ran much along the lines of a book called The Escape and Capture of John Wilkes Booth, published in 1907 by a Memphis attorney named Finis L. Bates.

According to Bates, the wrong man was killed at Garrett’s farm, and the real Booth had fled to the West. He was living in a rural Texas town when, in the early 1870s he became deathly ill and confessed his true identity. Recovering from his illness, he vanished again, only to reappear thirty years later with the same confession on another deathbed–this one in Enid, Oklahoma. Bates laid claim to the earthly remains of David E. George, the man who claimed to be Booth. He rented it out to carnival side shows, and the “Booth mummy” remained popular fifty years after Bates’s death.

Following a wave of media attention in the early 1990’s, two Booth relatives petitioned a Baltimore court for the right to exhume the remains resting in the Booth lot at Green Mount Cemetery. After hearing five days of testimony, the judge decided that the entire story of Booth’s post-war travels can be traced to Finis Bates’ book, which was noted for its clumsy research and transparently false claims. With that in mind, the judge decided that all reasonable measures had been taken to identify the remains in 1865, and no modern test would likely resolve the double, reasonable or otherwise. The Booth family lot at Green Mount remains undisturbed.

But, the final chapter is still being written. A new plan in being put forth: exhume the body of Edwin Booth and compare its DNA with that of the specimens taken from the body on the Montauk (the site of Booth’s autopsy).

The villains of history never really die. They live on in legend and folklore, as if death alone could never bring them rest. By killing the immortal Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth assured himself an immortality of his own. (Taken from In the Footsteps of an Assassin and Assassin on the Run! From Blue and Gray Magazine, June 1990.)

Thanks to Andy Patten for Suggesting this post.

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Absalom Ruggles Bainbridge and his cousin, Mortimer Bainbridge Ruggles (seriously) along with Willie Jett rode with Booth and Herold to the Garrett’s Tobacco Barn.

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OK, I’m still working on this one (Rome wasn’t built in a day). If anyone has suggestions, please send them to me. Of course, I will credit you.

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© Michael W. Kauffman 2016