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Lincoln’s assassin may have escaped the Yankee soldier’s bullet

Posted in America, Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about Abraham Lincoln first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln,  picture, image, illustration

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

The crackling upsurge of flame as the back of the tobacco shed was set on fire, the sharp crack of the rifle shot, the piercing cry of the man as he was hit, had taken, in all, no more than 15 seconds.

The secret service men stood gazing down at their victim as he lay sprawled and dying on the mud floor. The face was greying, already gaunt with pain, and the onlookers could not be absolutely sure that this was John Wilkes Booth, the most hated man in America.

Paradoxically, Booth, a member of a renowned acting family, was also the most lauded and admired.

It could hardly have been otherwise in a country just emerged from a terrible civil war that had scarred with hate the hearts of the losers, the Confederates of the American South.

From their point of view, it was justice, not murder, when Booth crept into President Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, on 14th April, 1865, and shot him in the back of the head.

Abraham Lincoln was the President who had just harried the South to defeat, and many southerners silently echoed Booth’s theatrical cry of “Sic semper tyrannis!” “Thus all tyrants! The South is avenged!” as he leapt from the box on to the stage, brandishing a huge knife.

The gesture was spoiled, though. Booth caught his foot in the flags draping the President’s box and fell, breaking a bone in his left leg. Somehow, in all the screaming and confusion that followed the killing, he managed to scramble through the stage door and out into the street, where his horse was waiting.

Booth made his way in the only logical direction, towards the South.

On April 22nd, eight days after killing Lincoln, he crossed the Potomac River into Virginia. Virginia had been one of the most prominent of the eleven states comprising the former “Confederacy” of the South, and it was here that Booth met three Confederate soldiers who agreed to help him.

They hid him in a tobacco shed on a lonely farm near the town of Bowling Green. However, it seems that Booth got no further. Trapped inside the shed by his pursuers on April 26th he was shot in the head and died three hours later.

That, at least, is what most people believed until 1910, when a writer called F. L. Bates suggested that a certain David George, who killed himself in Oklahoma in 1902, was in reality Lincoln’s murderer.

Shortly before his suicide, George is supposed to have called on Blanche Booth, John Wilkes’ niece, and to have sent in to her a card on which was written the name of her uncle. She refused to see him.

Later, George acquired a particularly grisly kind of fame. His mummified body was exhibited at fairs all over the U.S.A. as that of Booth, and was gawped at by several millions who seemed quite willing to be convinced that this was true.

Bates’ approach was more methodical. He sought to prove his theory by getting the mummy examined, and succeeded in persuading the Reverend Clarence Wilkinson to help him. The test, according to Wilkinson, was that the body should bear three marks which Booth had carried during his lifetime. These were a cut on the right eye, a scar on the back of the neck and a misshapen right thumb. To Bates’ delight, visual examination of the mummy proved satisfactory on all three counts.

The examination was not thorough enough, though. A more penetrating probe by X-ray revealed an unscarred neck, and Bates’ theory collapsed when the embalmer of the body declared in 1924 that it had blue eyes; Booth’s eyes were black.

Speculation about Booth’s fate did not end there. In 1937, another writer, Otto Eisenschiml, pointed out certain inconsistencies in the story of Booth’s pursuit and capture which cast some doubt on whether the secret service men had shot the right man in the tobacco shed 72 years before.

Among those more closely connected with that event, the doubt had existed from the first.

The owner of the farm on which the tobacco shed was sited afterwards claimed that the man hidden in it was a Confederate soldier called John Howard Boyd.

Some of the men present at the shooting of April 26th maintained that their victim had fair or red hair; Booth was known to have black hair.

There was also talk among them that there had been more than one man trapped in the shed, and that just before the fatal shot was fired, someone had slipped through a small door at the rear. Cryptic hints that this someone could have been Booth came from General O’Beirne, U.S. Provost Marshal, in 1908. He ended his statement mysteriously, with the words: “We were all pledged to secrecy in those days.”

There is little doubt, though, that the American Government wished the world to believe that Booth was dead.

In 1869, they returned to his family a body which was officially claimed as Booth’s. One doctor, however, declared that it bore no resemblance to him, and that the right, not the left leg, had been fractured.

Basil Moxley, a lifelong friend of Booth’s, who worked as stage-door keeper at Ford’s Theatre, was equally definite on the subject. He, too, noticed that the body that was supposed to be Booth’s had fair, not black hair. Moxley acted as pall-bearer when this body was buried, but in 1903, he declared that he knew all along that the funeral was a charade.

“The whole affair was planned by friends of the Booth family,” Moxley maintained, “and was done for a purpose which they deemed imperative.”

A further dose of mystery was added to the whole question of Izola Forrester, who claimed to be Booth’s granddaughter.

According to Miss Forrester, her grandmother, Mrs. Izola Martha Booth, travelled secretly to San Diego in 1868, where she met her husband and went on with him to San Francisco.

In the following year, Mrs. Booth gave birth to a son, Harry, who later became Miss Forrester’s uncle. Photographs of Harry as a young man showed that he bore a remarkable resemblance to John Wilkes Booth, and before he died, Harry declared that Booth was indeed his father.

The relationship, however, goes unacknowledged, just as Miss Forrester goes unrecognised as the granddaughter of President Lincoln’s assassin. She claims that he died in 1879. The official government record remains as it stood in 1865, and the tobacco shed on the farm in Bowling Green, Virginia, remains the site of Booth’s execution.

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