Sweating furiously, the old man pried open the wooden crate and peered inside. Memphis attorney Finis Bates breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that the fragile contents were undamaged.
"John, my old friend," he said. "You're home at last!"
Lying inside was the mummified body of an elderly man Bates believed was John Wilkes Booth. How the corpse of Abraham Lincoln's assassin came to rest in a Central Gardens garage remains one of the strangest episodes of our city's past.
The Death of Lincoln
Most history books tell us this story: On the night of April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was murdered at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., during a performance of Our American Cousin. John Wilkes Booth, a noted actor of the day, stole into the president's box and fired a single shot from a derringer into the back of Lincoln's head. As he jumped down to the stage, he caught his spur in a flag draping the balcony, snapping his ankle. Amid the confusion, Booth managed to escape out the back door of the theater, where a horse was held for him in the alley.
Lincoln died hours later. It was soon established that the terrible crime had been part of a conspiracy, and an intense manhunt began. In a matter of days Booth's fellow criminals were caught, but the assassin himself and a companion named David Herold had disappeared.
Not for long. Hobbled by his injured leg, Booth was unable to get far. On April 26th, federal troops cornered the two men in a barn near Fredericksburg, Virginia. When Booth and Herold refused to surrender, the barn was set afire. Herold dashed out and was nabbed immediately, but Booth remained inside. Silhouetted against the flames, he was shot in the neck by a soldier firing (against orders) through a crack in the wall.
The Mystery Begins
Booth was dragged from the barn and died within minutes. His body was carried to Washington, D.C., where it was quickly buried in a secret location at the federal penitentiary. Skeptics have always wondered why no autopsy was performed, why no family members or close friends were permitted to view the body, and — oddest of all — why the appearance of the corpse was so unlike that of John Wilkes Booth.
Perhaps the Army realized that Booth had escaped after all.
Accounts of Booth mention his curly black hair, yet two citizens who saw the body at the farm described it as red-haired. According to some reports, Herold surprised his captors by asking them, "Who was that man in the barn with me? He told me his name was Boyd." And even though hundreds of people in Washington knew Booth well, no close friends were called to identify the remains. Instead, the Army relied on a few military men who had seen Booth on stage, along with the proprietor of a Washington hotel where Booth had lodged.
As recounted in a 1944 issue of Harper's, the strangest testimony came from Booth's personal physician, who had once operated on Booth's neck. When this man examined the body, he was stunned: "My surprise was so great that I at once said to [the surgeon general], 'There is no resemblance in that corpse to Booth, nor can I believe it to be that of him.'"
That didn't faze the surgeon general, who persuaded the doctor that a scar on the corpse's neck was the result of the earlier operation. When the body was set upright, the doctor reluctantly admitted, "I was finally enabled to imperfectly recognize the features of Booth." He was not entirely convinced, however: "But never in a human being had a greater change taken place."
Stories like these fueled rumors that John Wilkes Booth remained alive. His niece claimed that Booth had secretly met with her mother a year after the assassination and had lived on for another 37 years. A Maryland justice of the peace reported he ran into Booth in the 1870s.
Many of these reports are surely preposterous. But one story cannot be dismissed so lightly. In 1872, a young lawyer who would later serve as assistant district attorney for Shelby County encountered a remarkable fellow in Texas. The lawyer's name was Finis Langdon Bates. The strange man called himself John St. Helen.
A Curious Client
Bates was born in 1851 in Mississippi. He studied law in Carrollton and then moved to Granbury, Texas, to begin his legal career. He had been there a short time when he was approached by St. Helen about a liquor license.
St. Helen, it seems, had wandered into town a few years before and professed to be a storekeeper, but his ignorance of such trade essentials as liquor licenses led him to Bates. Bates found St. Helen "indescribably handsome" and noted that his poise, dress, and education set him apart from the uncouth characters who inhabited the region. While others bellowed out bawdy songs in the tavern, St. Helen recited from Macbeth and discoursed for hours on Roman history. Whenever a play came to town he was sure to see every performance and befriend the actors.
There was a dark side to St. Helen, Bates noted. His client "acquired a restless and hunted, worried expression constantly on his face."
Months passed. One day, thinking he was dying, St. Helen summoned Bates and made an astonishing confession: He was Edwin Booth's brother, John Wilkes Booth. He had, in fact, escaped from the Virginia farm just hours before the Army arrived there.
In a lengthy revelation which Bates transcribed, St. Helen — or Booth — described in detail the murder of Lincoln and his getaway, an escape made possible by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Booth wanted this information made known, because, "I owe it to myself, most of all to my mother ... to make and leave behind me for history a full statement of the horrible affair."
Bates admitted, "This story I could not accept as fact without investigation." And so he began his research into the Lincoln assassination that would last the rest of his life. He discovered that the story checked out, even insignificant details, such as St. Helen claiming he had lost his field glasses at the farm. The official records, which had not been made public, confirmed that Booth's field glasses had been found in the yard.
Bates wrote to Army officials, urging them to reopen the case, but received a terse reply: The killer of Abraham Lincoln had been shot by the U.S. Army, and the case was closed.
In the meantime, the mysterious storekeeper named John St. Helen recovered from his illness, left town one day — and never returned.
Several years later, Bates also left Texas and came to Memphis, where he established a law practice and a widespread reputation as a land title attorney. But his real interest was the Booth/St. Helen controversy, and he refused to let it die. He maintained a lengthy correspondence with anyone who may have encountered John Wilkes Booth or John St. Helen.
Twenty-five years passed, but Bates never gave up his quest. Then, in 1903, a house painter calling himself David E. George committed suicide in the small town of Enid, Oklahoma.
George was a friendless old man, without the slightest talent for painting houses. He preferred to sit in his boarding house and read theatrical journals. Often drunk, he would quote Shakespeare and once lamented to his landlady, "I'm not an ordinary painter. You don't know who I am. I killed the best man that ever lived."
One night, George went up to his dreary room and swallowed a massive dose of poison. Such a death would have rated a few lines on the obituary page of the Enid paper, but for one element. On his deathbed, George confessed to the minister that he was John Wilkes Booth.
The minister told the local undertaker, who remembered: "I took special pains with the body after that. If it was Booth's body, I wanted to preserve it for the Washington officials when they came." The undertaker did his job well and actually mummified the body with arsenic.
The Washington officials never came, but Finis Bates did. Newspapers had carried the strange tale of David George as far as Memphis, and Bates hoped this was the missing link he had long needed. When he finally arrived in Enid, he gazed upon the dead man's face and cried out, "My old friend! My old friend John St. Helen!" His 25-year search was over.
No one in Enid wanted responsibility for disposing of the body of John Wilkes Booth, so the town leaders waited doggedly for the "Washington officials" to come. Eight years passed, and the mummy, displayed in a furniture store, became something to show visitors.
Finally, since Bates had at one time been appointed the dead man's attorney (back when he called himself John St. Helen), he was allowed to claim his client's body. He took the mummy home with him to Memphis, where he carefully stored it in a crate in his garage at 1234 Harbert.
Then Bates decided to tell the world of his discovery. In 1907, he published The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, or The First True Account of Lincoln's Assassination, Containing a Complete Confession by Booth Many Years After His Crime. (Copies of Bates' book are still available at the Benjamin Hooks Central Library and at the U of M's Ned R. McWherter Library.) In his preface, the author summed up his life's work: "In preparation of this book I have neither spared time nor money ... and present this volume of collated facts, which I submit for the correction of history."
In more than 300 pages, Bates presented his evidence, recounting with considerable (perhaps unbelievable) detail the confessions he had heard from Booth/St. Helen more than 30 years previously. He also included testimonials from some of Booth's former friends and associates who had come to Memphis and examined the mummy.
The book reveals a man desperately trying to make people believe him: "It is to the American people that I appeal," he wrote, "that they shall hear the unalterable facts, that the death of America's martyred president was not avenged, as we have been persuaded to believe."
Government officials remained skeptical, and Bates died in 1923 without seeing his dream of "correcting history" fulfilled. However, enough of his argument rang true for others to consider it, and interest in the case built slowly. Harper's devoted 17 pages to Bates' claim in its November 1924 issue, and then the Literary Digest (December 25, 1926) picked up the story, followed by Life magazine (July 11, 1938) and other publications.
The Mummy in the Garage
It made good reading, all right, but the "Washington officials" never came to Harbert for the assassin's body, and the mummy remained in Bates' garage.
Experts who examined the body found a shriveled old man with long white hair and dried skin like parchment. There was indeed a similarity between this creature and John Wilkes Booth, and scars that Booth carried matched vague marks on the mummy. The left leg was shorter, as if it had once been broken, and the mummy's right thumb was deformed. (Booth had crushed his thumb in a stage curtain gear.) The size of the mummy's foot matched a boot left behind by Booth during his flight. And Chicago doctors who X-rayed the body in 1931 discovered a corroded signet ring in the mummy's stomach — with the initial "B."
The Booth mummy remained on Harbert for 20 years before Bates' widow sold it to a carnival for $1,000. In the 1930s the mummy was a major attraction at Jay Gould's Million Dollar Spectacle, a carnival traveling the Midwest. Twenty-five cents admission enabled people to inspect the grisly relic, which was dressed in khaki shorts and laid out on an Indian blanket. Ten thousand dollars was promised to anyone who could prove the mummy not genuine — that's what the signs said anyway — but there were no takers. One rather gruesome feature had been added over the years: A large flap had been cut into the mummy's back, and customers really wanting their quarter's worth could peer inside. No one disputed that it was a real human mummy; the mystery remained whether it was John Wilkes Booth.
Despite the publicity — or perhaps because of it — serious scholars and historians scoffed. One Lincoln authority who examined the corpse concluded, "The body of the suicide from Enid, Oklahoma, presents some similarities to that of Booth, but lacks other identifying features."
The author of the 1924 Harper's article, who personally examined the mummy in Memphis, wondered, "Could this long gray hair, still curling and plenteous, have been the adornment of that young man who mastered the stage of his day with his talent and physical beauty?" Some 17 pages later, he decided that it simply could not be: "No mystery remains in my mind about the end of John Wilkes Booth. The evidence against the Enid legend is simply overwhelming." As if he still weren't entirely certain, though, he concluded, "But what a strange story it is!"
Bates did, however, attract the attention of at least one authority who knew something about remarkable escapes. After the death of Harry Houdini in 1926, his personal library was found to contain dozens of copies of Bates' book.
The Missing Mummy
Finis Bates died a disappointed man, and his life's work was reduced to one sentence in The Commercial Appeal obituary, only noting that he "had devoted years in obtaining proofs and affidavits of the escape and suicide of John Wilkes Booth." The Bates home and garage on Harbert, the mummy's last resting place in Memphis, have been torn down and replaced by an apartment house. And the mummy itself?
In the late 1950s, the Circus World Museum tried to buy "John," and a few years after that the townspeople of Enid, Oklahoma, expressed interest in getting "their" mummy back as a tourist attraction. More recently, the Regional Forensic Center in Memphis and even the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., expressed interest in examining the mummy. With their sophisticated equipment, scientists could analyze physical characteristics of Booth to determine if they matched the mummy.
There was just one problem: No one knows where it is. Last seen at a carnival in the Midwest in the mid-1970s, the body of David George, or John St. Helen, or John Wilkes Booth — or perhaps all three if you believe the strange tale told by Finis Bates — has vanished.
A version of this story originally appeared in Memphis magazine.