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 you’re going to do something, do it right.”
So sayeth the big book of unspoken laws – the same book that also condemns hack writers who open articles with unattributed clichés, tagged with stupid quotation marks that indicate that the words have been spoken, though in this case only within the writer’s mind. Hey, sometimes I’m lazy. But at least I’m honest about it.
Sometimes – and this pops up most frequently when an occasion forces me to try dancing without a sufficient dosage of alcohol to abuse my bloodstream – I’m downright incompetent. That’s not a crime; we all take a stumbling stroll through the courtyard of fuckuptitude now and then. The key is not to be incompetent when it really counts. Like when you’re meeting your in-laws. Or performing a recital. Or trying to kill somebody.
That’s a big one. Screw up an assassination attempt and you’ll be plopped into history’s laughing bin , filed under ‘G’ for Gut-Bustingly Idiotic. These five would-be snuffers of life weren’t out for notoriety, and the failure of their mission, though it opened them up for mockery galore, did little to sway whatever kooky inspiration had fuelled them past the checkpoint of legality into the realm of the fiercely wicked. But at that point, who cared?
Get your pointing finger ready and cue up your next laugh. These folks have earned it.
When a white man fatally shot the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, it stuck a searing needle into race relations. But King had been targeted before – in this instance by a black woman in September of 1958 – and the end result was actually more encouraging than divisive. Izola Curry’s beef with the Reverend was not so much issues-based as it was wacko-nutjob-based. She met Dr. King at a Harlem book signing, and proceeded to jab a steel letter opener into his chest. Read more…
Plotting the demise of a sitting United States president requires an impeccable form of madness, a meticulous disregard for common sense and a commitment to scratching the rest of one’s life off of one’s to-do list. Presidential assassins are not known for having impressive lifespans after pulling the trigger. Oswald went out with a bang, Booth hit the road for eleven days before catching his bullet, Garfield’s killer got the noose, and anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who plugged President William McKinley with his fatal hunk of lead, took a ride in the electric chair.
Those guys knew what they were signing up for. They launched themselves into the fires of consequence knowing full well there was no landing pad on the other side. So I suppose in some pretzel wrap of logic and deduction you could say they were successful.
But although four presidents met an early fate at the hands of some deranged crank-job (or an elaborate network of highly organized and fiercely secretive crank-jobs if you are into conspiracies), several others watched their virtual tickets to the afterworld party get mishandled and improperly stamped by their would-be dispatchees. These are the madmen who took that leap and landed amid the fire with no brass ring in their fingertips. These are the almost-assassins.
By most accounts, Theodore Roosevelt was the most bad-ass of all United States presidents. It’s said that Teddy once killed a charging rhino simply by squinting. When a man dared to make fun of Teddy’s mustache, the president waved his finger and eradicated the man’s entire home nation from the planet and even the annals of history. He was simply not the kind of guy who could be taken down by a single fruitcake assassin. Read more…
“I’m not mad, I’m proud of you. You took your first pinch like a man, and you learn two great things in your life. Look at me. Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”
So said Jimmy Conway to a young Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Being a rat among organized criminals is the lowest of the low – a lawbreaker who won’t even respect the notion of honor among thieves. Any devotee of the gangster genre of cinema and television knows there are only two possible endings to a rat’s story: government protection or a swift and sudden final curtain. But opting for rat-ism is an act of desperation, of self-preservation. Sometimes it’s the only road a guy can take.
Abe Reles felt so snugly crammed into an inescapable corner, ratting out his friends seemed like the only possible route to salvation. But the consequences of those beans he’d spill would shake loose the foundations of a lot of lives, because Abe Reles was no common hood. He was Hit Man #1 for the most gruesome of all organized crime syndicates: Murder, Inc.
Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1920’s, Abe Reles quit school after the eighth grade and started living the good life: hanging out in pool halls and candy stores and fraternizing with local wannabe-hoodlums and aspiring gangsters. He was busted in 1921 for swiping two bucks’ worth of gum (which back then was probably a full bucket) from a vending machine. He was a little guy, but he had a crew: Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein and Harry Strauss. Three Jewish hoods looking to make a living on the grisly side of the law. Read more…
You’ve probably never heard of Charles Davis Lucas.
Like most recipients of the Victoria Cross, the highest honor awardable to members of the British and Commonwealth military forces, his name is far from household. But that’s what today is about: slapping a virtual high-five with the ghosts of wars gone by, and lending a little praise and attention to the brave folks who stared potential death and/or dismemberment in the face and said, “Fuck it. I’m going after the bad guys.”
Charles Davis Lucas fought in the Crimean War, which was yet another conflict over religion and the Holy Land and all that. This time it was the Brits, French and Ottomans battling it out with the Russians back in 1853-56. Charles was aboard the Hecla, a ship in the Baltic Sea, where they were taking fire from a Finnish fort called Bumarsund. A shell landed on the ship’s deck with the fuse still hissing, and whomever was in charge ordered all hands to lay flat and prepare for the blast.
Not Charles. Charles ran up, grabbed the shell, and heaved it overboard where it exploded before it even hit the water. No one was killed, no one was injured, and it was all thanks to Charles disobeying orders and doing something that, by most objective standards was completely insane. His was the first act of bravery to earn the Victoria’s Cross.
Twenty-one years old. Another Brit, this time up against the Ottoman Army in the muck of World War I. The enemy was breathing down the neck of his gang of Royal Scots Fusiliers on a December day in 1917, when Stanley Henry Parry Boughey decided he’d had enough. He grabbed an armful of tossable bombs and ran at the bad guys, heaving blasts all over the place and somehow managing to not get knocked off his feet by a bullet. Read more…
Every so often, I come across a story so skull-squishingly incredible, I feel I have to splurt it into an article before someone tells me it isn’t true. I wouldn’t feel right soaking up too much of this space with a rambling introduction – let me just say that this guy could send John Rambo, John McClane and that guy Antonio Banderas played in Desperado scrambling tearfully to safety.
This man is the most imposing figure on the bad side of ass, the most singularly unstoppable war-beast of the 20th century, and the guy who – if the British Army had had three more of him – could have won the war themselves and conquered all of Europe for the crown.
This is Adrian Carton de Wiart.
In 1899, de Wiart ditched college to join the British Army. The Boer War, in which England was fighting the Dutch in an effort to conquer South Africa and perfect the art of racism, was in full swing. De Wiart wanted a taste of action. Read more…