Did He Go to Hell or Texas?

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to most historical accounts, John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s
assassin, perished shortly after being shot inside a burning barn
in Virginia nearly 150 years ago. But tales of a man resembling
Booth pop up in Glen Rose, Texas, and later in Granbury, starting
five years after the April 14, 1865, assassination of the president.

Stories of
Booth’s alleged miraculous escape are exhumed every few years
to play again in the media. Booth, a Shakespearean actor, probably
would have loved the attention.

Most historians
don’t have a problem with the government’s identification
of Booth’s body in 1865. A soldier reportedly shot him silhouetted
inside a burning barn at Garrett’s tobacco farm in Virginia
on April 26, and he died several hours laters.

But here’s
where the details of the accounts begin to diverge. Two lieutenants
at the scene said the body was Booth’s, but a sergeant and
a trooper stated that the man who died had freckles and red hair
and was not Booth.

Booth had a
clear complexion and jet-black hair and, as is described in some
historical accounts, broke his left leg when his spur caught in
a decorative flag as he leapt from the president’s box to the
stage at Ford’s Theatre the night he shot Lincoln. In some
versions of the story, the man shot to death at Garrett’s farm
had a broken right leg. A high degree of secrecy surrounded the
hurried autopsy and initial burial in 1865, contributing to the
mystery. Ultimately, over the next four years, what most historians
say was Booth’s body was twice exhumed and twice reburied.

in 1870, a handsome, black-haired stranger took a job as a storekeeper
in Glen Rose. He also performed in amateur theatrical productions
and astounded the residents with his acting skill and knowledge
of Shakespeare. The man introduced himself as John St. Helen and
had a gimpy left leg. When he discovered a year later that a large
wedding was scheduled to take place in Glen Rose attended by many
army officers and U.S. marshals, St. Helen quietly departed.

Not long afterward,
the man resurfaced in Granbury, where he fell in with a lawyer named
Finis L. Bates. In Granbury, St. Helen worked as a bartender in
a saloon, but his friend Bates noticed that the man never touched
a drop of u201Cdemon rum,u201D or liquor, except on April 14 – the anniversary
of Lincoln's assassination – at which time he drank himself into a
stupor. The significance of these yearly binges didn't register
with Bates until he was called to St. Helen's bedside one night
where he found his friend desperately ill. A doctor had informed
St. Helen that he might not last the night. In weakened whispers
the dying man spoke to his friend.

the rest of the article

4, 2009

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