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History: John Wilkes Booth remains a mystery
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History: John Wilkes Booth remains a mystery

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Phil Connelly

Phil Connelly

Despite his success as an actor, John Wilkes Booth will always be remembered as the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Before killing the president, he had actually performed in front of Lincoln in 1863. Booth was a fierce Confederate sympathizer during the Civil War. Prior to that momentous night at Ford’s Theater, he had conspired to kidnap Lincoln. The president would then be exchanged for all Confederate prisoners. When that plan did not work out, Booth and his co-conspirators decided to kill the president, Vice President Johnson, and Secretary of State Seward.

Johnson was stabbed, but not fatally, by fellow conspirator Lewis Powell. Another conspirator, George Atzerodt, was supposed to have killed Johnson, but lost his nerve. Booth was the only one who succeeded in the plot.

On April 14, 1865, Booth entered the theater’s balcony, shot Lincoln at close range, jumped to the stage, and uttered these words "Sic semper tyrannis” — "Thus always to tyrants." Unfortunately, as he leapt over the railing, Booth caught a spur on the flag, causing him to land awkwardly and breaking his right leg. After righting himself, he immediately fled the theater.

After a 12-day manhunt, Booth and another man were cornered in a barn on Richard Garret’s property. One man surrendered, but Booth refused to come out. The troops decided to flush Booth out by setting the barn on fire. During this time, one of the soldiers fired his gun into the air. As luck would have it, the bullet somehow found an opening in between slats on the barn’s roof and miraculously entered Booth’s neck, killing him instantly. Case closed.

Maybe not. For over 150 years, many people have claimed that the man shot in Garret’s barn was not Booth.

One such claim was made by John Stevenson, a friend of Booth. After Booth's death, Stevenson asked Booth's widow, Izola, to run away with him. She told him that would not be possible because after the assassination, her husband had returned to the farm to recuperate from the broken leg.

In another instance, Kate Scott, who had met Booth while working as a nurse during the Civil War related this story — “In July of 1865, I received a letter in handwriting that was certainly Booth’s, asking me to retrieve an important envelope. The letter writer said that I should have it at our farm on September 15th. On that date, Booth appeared, but without his moustache and featuring an appearance such that he looked completely different.”

In 1877, lawyer Finis Bates took his dying friend's confession. In his confession, John St. Helens claimed that he was John Wilkes Booth. After not dying after all, St. Helens decided it would be best to leave town and disappear.

In 1903, a man in Enid, Oklahoma, by the name of David E. George, was dying. Before he died, he confessed to his landlord, Mrs. Harper, that he was John Wilkes Booth. It was later determined that David E. George and John St. Helen were one and the same.

In 1872, the marriage of a John Wilkes Booth and Louisa Payne was recorded. A few months later, John wanted to take Louisa to Memphis to collect money owed him by the Knights of the Golden Circle. However, after arriving in Memphis, Booth was recognized by several people. Fearing for his life, he sent his wife back to their hometown, and he disappeared, never to see Louisa again.

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