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…
101 years ago (give or take seven months) the world bore witness to one of the nastiest maritime disasters in history. Perhaps you’re familiar with the James Cameron mega-film event or the toxic schmaltz that Celine Dion sang for it. When that iceberg jabbed its elbow into the hull of the RMS Titanic on a cold April night, it stuck a deep pin into the 20th century, marking one of those days that would be talked about for decades.
A precious few souls were able to squeeze out from under that pin and live to see another day. 705 survivors off a ship packed with 2,224 people – that’s a grizzly statistic. Most of the passengers and crew who were fortunate enough to escape a frigid, watery demise would slip into the shadows, carrying those memories through the rest of their lives. But a few names stand out.
Amid the scattering dust of a disaster, heroes and villains ooze their natural colors. The heroes are easier to spot. But many who have been demonized from that night were likely guided by their awe-struck terror and most primal survival instinct. Having never experienced a transportation cataclysm such as this (though I was on an escalator that stopped suddenly once), I hesitate to leap aboard the monorail of judgment, headed for the theme park of self-righteousness.
It’d be really easy to cram an accusatory finger knuckle-deep up the nose of J. Bruce Ismay. He was the chairman of the White Star Line and the guy who commissioned the Titanic’s construction. Coincidentally, he also survived the disaster. But does that warrant his condemnation? The “women and children first” rule was broken all over the massive liner, though many witnesses claim there were only men gathered around some of the lifeboats. I don’t know if this was the case with Ismay, so should he really be crucified for surviving?
Yes, claimed most of the world in 1912. Newspapers called him the Coward of the Titanic. People drew editorial cartoons, showing him deserting the ship. People wanted someone to blame, and J. Bruce Ismay was that someone. Read more…