Texas is of course a large state with a great number of residents and among those people there are probably a few Texans who might be called eccentric – or even mysterious. And one of these was a Granbury resident in the 1870s that made an interesting claim. Was John St. Helen actually Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth?
The traditional story is that Booth shot Lincoln in April, 1865, and then fled Washington to end up in a Virginia tobacco barn where he was shot by one of his pursuers. But could he have actually survived to end up in Granbury?
One version of the story comes from the late Bob Bowman in his 2011 “East Texas” column, and starts with St. Helen’s arrival in Granbury in 1877. There he retained local attorney Finis L. Bates for a legal case, and then according to this story later revealed to Bates that he (St. John) was actually Booth. However, Bates at the time was skeptical. Later he moved to Memphis to set up a successful legal practice and St. Helen, changing his name to David George, moved to Oklahoma and died in 1903.
At that time Bates, who had followed the story of Lincoln’s death with personal interest, read about George's death and remembered St Helen's admission. Could the deceased man actually be Booth? So he traveled to Oklahoma to examine the body and after comparing the dead man to a photo of St. John he realized they might be the same man.
That’s certainly enough to make St. Helen/George a mysterious Texan, but is that all the story? Actually it is not, and we get more details from a history.com website article by Christopher Klein. According to that account, St. Helen was seriously ill in Granbury when he revealed his secret to Bates. Klein writes: “Weak and barely conscious, St. Helen whispered, “I am dying. My name is John Wilkes Booth and I am the assassin of President Lincoln.” He went on to say that Vice President Andrew Johnson was behind the murder and had helped Booth escape; it was an impostor who was killed in Virginia. Then, as Mr. Klein put it, “St. Helen said that while an innocent man rested in peace in the Booth family plot in Baltimore, he [St. John] drifted across the Wild West under various aliases.”
However, despite the speculation that St. Helen/George had been Booth, after he committed suicide in Enid, Oklahoma in 1903 that apparently ended controversy about the actual person. However, the speculation and curiosity would continue – with his body.
As Bowman described, Bates read about the death and then went to Enid where he found that the embalmed corpse had already begun to attract attention. It had been put on display in the front window of the funeral parlor/furniture store and was posed reading a newspaper. The corpse was so well preserved it was almost mummy-like.
Several years later as Bates did became custodian of the mummy; he then proceeded to “rent” it out for display at carnivals, as well as local and state fairs. Klein continues his story by relating that if the mummy was actually Booth, the cadaver made more money than the actor ever did in life.
When Bates died in 1923 his widow sold the body to another promoter who continued to display it. In fact, even after this new owner had retired and settled on an Idaho potato farm he advertised the cadaver to tourists – “See the man who murdered Lincoln!”
However, the body was soon on the road as it was purchased by a carnival operator who bought it $5000 in 1930. He continued to display it, traveling around in a beat up truck installed with bunks – the mummy occupied one and the promoter and his wife the others.
In 1931 when the corpse was X-rayed in Chicago under supervision of prominent physicians it was announced that the body had a fractured leg – just as did Booth. However, the leg they identified was his right – while actually in his escape Booth had broken his left.
The body continued its travels and appearances and was reportedly last seen in public in the late 1970s so now it may be privately owned.
So was St. Helen/George actually John Wilkes Booth? Of course the way to be sure is to dig up the Booth grave and test the DNA but so far the courts have not allowed this.