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…
One might assume upon skimming this month’s selection of articles that the author has developed an unnatural preoccupation with death. The author would courteously disagree, and would remind you that no preoccupation with death is unnatural, unless it escalates to unreasonably eccentric behavior, like keeping makeup instructions for the undertaker in one’s pocket, just in case.
But it’s true, I have been seasoning this project with a salty array of morbid subject matter lately, and today will be no exception. But fear not – these are still quirky and jaw-slacking narratives of death-related weirdness, not ghoulish kilographs of doom and misery. I’m saving those for my next project, beginning in January: 1000 Words, 1000 Reasons Life Is Meaningless And We Should All Give Up And Embrace our Inevitable Demise. It’ll be a riot.
Our two protagonists today are the guy who wouldn’t die, and the other guy who didn’t actually live his entire documented life. For the former, we find a conspiracy to condemn a man to an early grave. The latter tale tells of a man kept alive on paper for decades after his innards stopped doing their thing. The common threads? Those two nefarious nasties: death and money. It’s always about death and money.
Michael Malloy was a man who knew how to drink. Sure, he was Irish, and that can certainly explain a smidgen of Michael’s alcoholic fortitude, but by the amber ruler of whiskey, this dude was Super-Irish. The year was 1933; Malloy was living in New York City, homeless, jobless and perpetually so deep inside a bottle one could probably have gotten drunk by simply sniffing his hair. Naturally, he was the perfect guy to murder and make it look like an accident. And that’s precisely what five of his “buddies” tried to do. Read more…
During the aftermath of the English Civil War, while a spanking-new parliamentary monarchy was struggling to gain its balance and move forward, a number of questions popped up like bulbous weeds all over the field of law and order. Land claims, the reach of justice, the decision of whether or not to punish the folks who had chopped off the head of King Charles I a few years back… these were just a few of the issues that were plaguing the machinery of justice. No wonder the judges started wearing powdered wigs – with the system in this much disarray, you might as well look a little goofy and have some fun at work.
Nestled within the salad of regicide and war-crimes was the pesky little crouton of murder. The precedents for the legalities of that most heinous crime had yet to be plunked down in cement. When the bizarre case later dubbed the Campden Wonder landed in the court system, the wonky sequence of events that would follow would alter how murder trials were handled for centuries.
Also, I’m thinking The Crouton of Murder would be a riveting piece of detective fiction. I’m not claiming dibs on this one – I release it unto the world. I just want to read it.
It was August 16, 1660. 70-year-old William Harrison left his sprawling estate in Chipping Campden for a two-mile walk to collect some rent money in Charingworth. It was what he’d always done; rents were collected by hand, and even in his advanced years, William didn’t mind the walk. To be clear, there is some debate about whether he was actually 70 years old – searching historical records for a name as generic as ‘William Harrison’ makes it hard to get accurate results. Anyway, it’s not important – he was an older guy walking two miles with a good chunk of change in his purse. Read more…