Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth

Larry Holzwarth - July 12, 2021

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The President’s box at Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. National Archives

18. The strange saga of James William Boyd

James William Boyd served as a captain in the Tennessee Infantry until Union troops captured him in 1863. In 1864 his wife died, and Boyd requested clemency and a humanitarian release. He based his request on the need to care for his seven children. On February 14, 1865, Edwin Stanton personally approved his release. From that point, Boyd vanished. According to one son, the former captain used his freedom to escape the United States for Mexico. None of his children reported ever seeing their father again. In 1977 the book The Lincoln Conspiracy postulated Boyd was killed in Virginia. Boyd was said to bear a striking resemblance to Booth, who had acted, according to the theorists, without the foreknowledge of Stanton. Stanton had been a leader of the kidnapping plot, and the assassination caused the Secretary of War to move quickly to destroy incriminating evidence.

Boyd’s accidental death, if it was accidental, allowed Stanton to control both the identification and autopsy process. Booth was known to have a tattoo of the initials “JWB” on his hand; Boyd’s body bore a similar tattoo. Meanwhile, the real Booth fled in the direction of Harpers Ferry, half-heartedly pursued by Lafayette Baker. Another version of the theory had Booth removed from the kidnapping plot, replaced by Boyd. Enraged at his removal, Booth killed Lincoln, and Stanton orchestrated Boyd’s killing to cover up the earlier plot. Another version has Stanton taking advantage of Boyd’s accidental killing in Virginia, claiming the former Confederate officer was really Booth. In this version, Booth escaped, eventually to India. Still another version claims Booth survived, eluding the authorities, and lived out his life as David Elihu George. George made an alleged deathbed confession that he was, in truth, John Wilkes Booth.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
A mummified body claimed to be that of John Wilkes Booth decorated a funeral parlor for years before appearing nationally. Daily Mail

19. A mummified body toured America as that of John Wilkes Booth in the early 20th century

In 1877, a man believed to be dying and known as John St. Helen informed a lawyer, Finis L. Bates, he was in fact, John Wilkes Booth. St. Helen told Bates the assassination had been masterminded by Andrew Johnson, and that he escaped the pursuit and drifted across the West under several different aliases. St. Helen recovered and vanished. In 1903, Bates saw an article describing the death by suicide of a man in Enid, Oklahoma. The article featured a post-mortem photograph of the man, known as David Elihu George. Allegedly, following an earlier, failed suicide attempt, George claimed he was John Wilkes Booth. According to Bates, the man in the photograph was the same as the man he had known as John St. Helen. For the next several years the mummified body of St. Helen/George decorated the front parlor of an Enid mortuary.

In 1907 Bates published The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth: Written for the Correction of History. Following publication, Bates acquired the mummified corpse and displayed it at state fairs, carnivals, and holiday celebrations across the country. The mummy continued to be a sideshow attraction into the 1950s, under various owners, the last of which was Jay Gould. Its current whereabouts is uncertain. What is known is that in the 1930s, Chicago doctors examined the body and declared that its broken leg, and the scar on the neck, and a healed broken thumb were all consistent with known injuries to John Wilkes Booth. They declared the corpse genuine. They neglected to note the broken leg endured by the man in life was his right. When Dr. Samuel Mudd set Booth’s leg in the early morning of April 15, 1865, it was his left.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The extent of the conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln continues to fascinate historians and theorists in the 21st century. Library of Congress

20. The remaining questions over the Lincoln assassination involve the extent of the conspiracy

Virtually everyone agrees Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was the result of a conspiracy which evolved from one of kidnaping the President to outright murder. There is no evidence that the conspirators ever plotted to kidnap Seward and Johnson. Their planned murders arose in the mind of John Wilkes Booth after he realized kidnaping was no longer feasible. Not that it ever was. By the time the kidnappers were ready to attempt to realize their scheme, most of Northern Virginia was in firm Union control. Escaping to Richmond, then besieged by the Union army, would have been virtually impossible. It is only the extent of the conspiracy which remains subject to debate. Did it involve an international cabal of Jewish bankers? Did it reach into the Vatican? Was the Confederate government involved? Did Lincoln’s own cabinet ministers conspire to kill him? These questions and others are continually raised and debated.

Edwin Stanton died in 1869. William Seward survived the attacks of April 14, and lived until 1872, becoming famous for arranging the purchase of the Alaska Territory. Andrew Johnson lived until 1875, having become the first American President to be impeached. John Surratt, the only person tried and acquitted of being involved in the Lincoln Assassination, lived until 1916. After his acquittal he went on lecture tours, accusing government witnesses in his mother’s trial of committing perjury. He also claimed had he known of the seriousness of her predicament he would have come to her defense. The extensive international newspaper coverage of his mother’s trial meant he could hardly not have known she faced the death penalty. His lectures were among the first to hint there was more to Lincoln’s murder than Booth’s conspiracy. That belief has been a major industry ever since.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth”. Larry Holzwarth. History Collection. December 12, 2019

“Like the Scenes of Some Hideous Dream”: Lewis Powell’s Assassination Attempt on Secretary of State Seward”. Frank Jastrzembski, Emerging Civil War. April 14, 2020

“The Family Plot to Kill Lincoln”. David O. Stewart, Smithsonian Magazine. August 28, 2013

“The Trial: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators”. Edward Steers, ed. 2003

“American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies”. Michael W. Kauffman. 2005

“Biographic sketch of Mary Surratt”. University of Missouri-Kansas City, School of Law. Online

“Manhunt: The 12-Day Search for Lincoln’s Killer”. James L. Swanson. 2006

“John Wilkes Booth’s Escape”. Article and Maps, ESRI. Online

“The man who found John Wilkes Booth: Fremont’s E. J. Conger”. Article, Fremont News Messenger. September 23, 2014

“End of a Manhunt”. Richard B. Garrett, American Heritage Magazine. June, 1966

“The Story of the Last Surviving Witness to the Lincoln Assassination”. Mike Wood. History Collection. May 27, 2017

“The Insane Story of the Guy Who Killed the Guy Who Killed Lincoln”. Bill Jensen, Washingtonian. April 12, 2015

“The Closest Source We Have to Really Knowing John Wilkes Booth Is His Sister Asia”. Paige Williams, Smithsonian Magazine. March, 2015

“The Trial of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: An Account”. Prof. Douglas O. Linder, Famous Trials.com. Online

“The Enduring Enigma of the First Woman Executed by the U.S. Federal Government”. Erin Blakemore, TIME Magazine. June 30, 2015

“Assassins! A Confederate spy was accused of helping kill Abraham Lincoln. Then he vanished”. Article, The Washington Post. April 13, 2017

“Assassination and Obsession” Michael R. Beschloss, The Washington Post. January 5, 1992

“The text of John Surratt’s 1870 Lecture at Rockville, Maryland”. John Surratt. Online