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…
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…
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…