When John Wilkes Booth was crouching in Richard H. Garrett’s tobacco barn, listening to Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger’s orders to surrender, he decided to go out with a bang. He refused the surrender, then once the barn was lit on fire he took a bullet to the neck, delivered by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dead by the break of dawn, less than two weeks after he had prematurely terminated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.
Or was he?
Way out in the sprawling suburbs of historical perception there exists the notion that the man whose life was snuffed to a nub in that barn was actually a man named James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who looked enough like Booth that his body passed through ten pairs of identifying eyes (not counting the pair that aimed the gun that took his life), as well as an official autopsy. The composers of this theory also posit that the government knew about the mix-up and let it happen. Because where is the fun in a murder without a deep and sinister government conspiracy?
As for the “real” John Wilkes Booth… well, on the off-chance that this is all true, we can say with a relative certainty that Booth was, in fact, this guy:
One day in 1873, some eight years after the furor over the Lincoln assassination had been pressed between the leaves of history, Memphis lawyer Finis L. Bates met and befriended a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. It’s good to get to know the man who sells you booze and smokes, and Bates was particularly taken by John’s ability to spout Shakespeare from memory. The two became good friends outside the seller-consumer relationship.
Five years later, John St. Helen was on what he believed to be his deathbed, profoundly ill. He confided in Finis Bates that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. He asked Finis to advise his brother, Edwin Booth, of his demise. Then he recovered. Read more…
If a politician’s legacy was determined solely by how many bad things are said about them in public, then all of history’s worst politicians are either presently in office or they have served their terms since the advent of the 24-hour news cycle. This isn’t true of course – to truly dig through history’s nuances and rank our politicians’ situational responses would be an impossible task, and a magnificently arbitrary effort in academic wankery.
So naturally it has been done, several times over in fact.
I can see ranking our leaders as an interesting exercise, if performed by historians and political experts who can employ their breadth of knowledge of tariffs and policies and the various global goings-on that were impacted by each one. But expecting the general public to provide any insight on whether James Polk or Martin Van Buren had a more positive impact on America is going to produce a somewhat questionable result.
Nevertheless, we’ll dig through the filthy, obfuscated muck of public opinion as well as the academically-approved muck from the professionals. It’ll be nice to take a break from picking on history’s worst movies, TV shows and music and having a dig at actual people who – for reasons either selfless, corrupt, or a sprinkling of both – decided they wanted the chance to be in charge.
Abe Lincoln, FDR and George Washington tend to top the U.S. Presidential rankings, with an honorable mention to Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and JFK. I’m looking at a collection of seventeen surveys conducted between 1948 and 2011, from sources like the Wall Street Journal and Sienna College. A few curious trends are immediately evident. First, in the half-century between James K. Polk’s term ended in 1849 and Teddy Roosevelt’s began in 1901, the only president considered to be even remotely above mediocre is Lincoln. In fact, three of the bottom four-ranked presidents served just before and just after Abe. Read more…
Normally I shy away from writing articles on topics which have already been turned into major motion pictures directed by Robert Redford and starring Robin Wright. But I’ve never seen the film The Conspirator, nor have I spoken to anyone who has, so I’m just going to play this one for the interesting subject matter it truly is.
Mary Surratt possesses the dubious honor of being the first woman in American history to be sentenced to death by a court of law. If ever someone thought to bill a ‘Crime of the Century’ for the 1800’s, Mary’s would most certainly be it: she was part of the conspiracy that took a president’s life. A beloved (and beloathed) president, who had just ended a war and liberated a lot of people.
But Mary’s connection with the assassination may not have been as solid as some (including those in the justice system) may have thought. It all depends on whom you ask.
Mary was a devout Catholic. She met and married John Surratt and promptly spurted out three children, Isaac, Anna, and John Jr. The family lived on an impressive piece of land that John had inherited in the District of Columbia. It was a lovely set-up, a perfect picture of mid-19th-century life. But beneath the surface, things weren’t good. Read more…