Hidden History: The mummy of 'John Wilkes Booth'

Hidden History: The mummy of 'John Wilkes Booth'

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Editor’s note: This column ran October 11, 2012, in the Times-News and at Magicvalley.com.

History is full of myths and conspiracy theories — and one of these myths pulled into town on the rails and never left.

Shakespearean actor and Confederate secret agent John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Most historians — but not all — agree that Booth was tracked down and killed two weeks later in a barn in Virginia. Booth’s body was buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

Others say that government agents killed the wrong man in Garrett’s barn.

Rumors of his escape from the barn began to circulate even before Booth’s body was cold. Some say the body was hastily buried to cover up the government’s mistake.

Nearly 40 years later, a man claiming to be John Wilkes Booth committed suicide in Enid, Okla.

“This isn’t the story you’ll find in textbooks,” said Valerie Bowen, director of the Cassia County Historical Museum in Burley.

The man claiming to be Booth turned out to be a drifter who called himself David E. George. George bore a striking resemblance to Booth and could spout Shakespeare at the drop of a hat.

Some folks in Enid took George’s confession seriously. An undertaker embalmed the body, fully expecting that someone from the government or Booth’s family would claim it.

But the body — which eventually became mummified — remained unclaimed until an old friend came for it.

The friend, Finis L. Bates, had heard George’s story before. Twenty years after Lincoln’s assassination, George (who then went by the name John St. Helen) was ill and thought that he would soon be dead. George confessed to Bates, who was a lawyer.

After George recovered, Bates notified the government of St. Helen’s confession, but no one seemed interested.

After hearing of George’s suicide and mummification, Bates asked a judge in Oklahoma for the body. The judge agreed, thinking that Bates would give his friend a decent burial.

Instead, Bates wrote a book called “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth — Written for the Correction of History” and put the mummy on tour. They say that the mummy made more money on tour than John Wilkes Booth ever did as an actor.

Eventually, the mummy — affectionately known as “John” — was leased to William Evans, the “Carnival King of the Southwest.” Evans paid a $40,000 bond, plus a fee of more than $2,000 a year, to display John what he called the greatest freak-animal show in the country.

After a train wreck destroyed his carnival business, Evans traveled from town to town in a luxury Pullman rail car, charging folks a fee to see the mummified body of “John Wilkes Booth” in a coffin.

Evans later retired and moved John and the Pullman car to a small potato farm in Declo. He eventually left town with the mummy, but Evans left the Pullman car where it sat.

Evans’ Pullman car “has come a long way,” Bowen said. Since it was sold, the rail car has been used as a barber shop, a residence and a pig pen.

The rail car was moved from Declo to the Cassia County Historical Museum in Burley a few decades ago, where it was cleaned up and remains on display.

“It’s not the plush private car it used to be,” Bowen said, “but it’s not a pig pen anymore.”

The mummy was last seen publicly in 1976 before it was sold to a private collector.

Mychel Matthews reports on rural issues for the Times-News. The Hidden History feature runs every Thursday in the Times-News and at Magicvalley.com. If you have a question about something that may have historical significance, email Matthews at mmatthews@magicvalley.com.


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