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…
Clambering through the sticky alluvium of a daily paper can be a chore. Death, hate, disaster, and the ricochets of the eternal accusatory politic create the illusion of an incurably cacophonic world. I understand – the precipice of doom is a great slab of real estate if you want to attract gawkers, in particular gawkers with a couple of bucks in hand, who are ready to hear the worst and won’t settle for less. But it wasn’t always this way.
Between the stuffy drama of closed-door Washington and the few international events that would pepper the pages of a typical 19th century American daily, readers sought stories with a narrative bent. In particular when the bloody Civil War splattered so much of a paper’s square footage, a Disneyfied, anthropomorphizing puppy story had the power to pluck readers’ eyes away from the carnage into a happier place. I admire that.
Unearthing such a story in 1860’s San Francisco was not a tricky feat; the city was impervious to the anguish and torment on the nation’s eastern frontier. On the contrary, it was awash in lively characters, literary wits and the quivering afterglow of a glorious gold rush. It was from these streets, dusty with optimism and aglow with lucky geography that we find the legend of Bummer and Lazarus, two lively pooches who charmed everyone in the Bay Area.
Nowadays, a dog wandering the streets of a major city is usually a sign that someone’s beloved pet had slipped through a gate or a door and bungled its way free from complacent domesticity. But in 1840’s Los Angeles, free-roaming dogs outnumbered people two-to-one. San Francisco wasn’t quite as deeply mired in canine vagrants, but the situation was still extreme. Dogs were poisoned, trapped and killed like feral raccoons or subway rats. But those few skilled pups who displayed some functional skills and/or a winning personality might stand a chance of survival. Read more…
A quick test for non-New Yorkers: how many of New York’s islands can you name off the top of your head? Manhattan… Staten… Long… maybe Roosevelt… but don’t forget about Hart’s Island. Hart’s Island is a little-discussed but crucial slab of land in the city’s history. It’s also where’s you’ll find what might be the city’s only mass grave – at least I hope it is. The 80’s were a rough time.
You won’t find the place in the Zagat directory, nor will any of the city’s trademark open-air double-decker buses cruise by and announce it to a swarm of nodding be-cameraed tourists. While every city has its dark history cached beneath its modern edifices, this is a small kernel of New York’s dark present.
Hart’s Island appears to have been destined for an ongoing slot under the carpet of humanity for as long as humanity will be taking residence in the five boroughs. Take a trip way north of Queens and along the easternmost fringe of the Bronx, to where the ground is unstable and the air smells rank. Just be sure to tread lightly – there’ll be a heap of bones beneath your feet.
Some say the island was named because of its heart-like shape, but the ‘e’ was dropped over time. The thing isn’t shaped at all like a heart, so I’m not buying that explanation. It could refer to “hart” being an English word for “stag”, and that the island was once a game preserve. It doesn’t matter – the island’s first assignment was as a prisoner-of-war camp for a few short months near the scrappy end of the Civil War. Read more…
As you may or may not be aware, you are required by law to scare yourself at least once between now and Thursday. Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to have plunked your belongings into a house with a ghoulish past. Maybe like most of us you’ll shirk your requisite tribute to the universally spooky and placate yourself with the hopes that few children will show up at your door, leaving more fun-size Snickers bars for your weekend snacking.
But where’s the fun in that? Even if you thumb your nose at tales of the paranormal, they still make for some great tales. I took a ‘Haunted London’ bus trip a couple years ago, and while the legends of the spirit-based residents of London Tower and the sites of murder and bloodshed and arson failed to convince me there were long-dead Brits hanging around to spook up the night, it was a darkly hilarious way to spend an hour.
And with so many Americans who are eager to buy into the absurd and logically impossible (hey! You elected George W. Bush twice! <rimshot for this politically dated joke, thank you very much>), there are hundreds of quality haunted spots to visit. These are best enjoyed if you’re not a skeptic, not a pragmatic buzz-kill, and have at least a twinge of imagination. Let’s start at Boy Scout Lane.
You’re walking along a quiet country road in rural Wisconsin in the area known as Stevens Point. The bony branches of the balding trees swoon in the crisp, tempered wind. This is Boy Scout Lane, named for the Boy Scout camp that was supposed to be built here but never was. Why not? It depends which story you want to deal from the deck of urban legend surrounding the place. 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…
Much like economics, I tend to steer widely around politics on this site. For the most part, I find the current state of partisan-led showboating to be uninspiring, unproductive and most importantly, unfunny. Besides, I work full-time, I’m in school full-time, and I’ve got a full-time commitment to lifting up the hearts and spirits of millions of people by writing on this site every day. I can’t spend hours of each week following the nuances of politics in order to provide intelligent, astute observational prose on the subject.
Also, I don’t want to devote a lot of space to spewing my own liberal agenda. There are Republicans (and up in this country, Conservatives) whom I respect, despite the fact that their parties of choice appear to be mired in antiquated and backwards policies. Think about it – there were Republican nutjobs calling for the secession of Texas after Obama’s win last year, many of their media campaigns would have us believe the ‘other guys’ want to quash our rights (or take away all our guns), and their campaign against human rights (gay marriage) has been fierce and unrelenting. But once upon a time, the seating arrangement around the table of common sense was flipped. Here’s the story of a Democrat from back when the Republicans seemed to hold the market on sanity. Meet Clement Vallandingham:
If you’re a fan of the earth, so much so that you enjoy being completely ensconced in it, do I have some vacation spots for you. You see, ever since humankind moved out of caves into 4-level split duplex suburbia, we have been fascinated with returning to caves, shining lights on walls and marveling at the twists and turns inside.
I’m sure some psychologist would point out the phallic imagery of poking our noses into Mother Nature’s forbidden crevasses; I’m not quite bold enough to spend a kilograph juggling those cerebral chainsaws like an amateur. I’d like to hang out with that guy though. I bet he’s a riot at parties.
“That tree over there? Also signifies a penis.”
Fortunately, nature has given us a number of show caves, dank troughs of murky curiosity, ready to accept your tourist dollars. Also fortunately, some of them are endowed with an interesting backstory. Read more…