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The basic facts are well known to historians. On the night of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln attended a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. In order to complete a conspiracy that had been brewing for months, actor John Wilkes Booth entered the unguarded Box 7, and fired point-blank at the back of the head of the 16th president. Whereupon, the assassin leaped to the stage, uttered the words: “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” and shattered his left leg, the right having caught the flag that decorated the front of the box. After vanishing into the wings of the theatre, Booth fled on horseback, taking the only route out of Washington that was not sealed off. He later stopped at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the leg. Dr. Mudd was to pay dearly for this act of charity, as he was sentenced to life in prison as a co-conspirator. Well into the 20th century, his descendents struggled to clear his name.
Subsequently, Booth was trapped in a tobacco barn, which was set on fire by Federal troops. A shot rang out and the body of Booth was dragged out of the barn. Supposedly, he survived long enough to utter a few flowery platitudes before expiring. A mystic eccentric, Sgt. Boston Corbett, 43, had fired the fatal shot. This would not find a parallel until 1963, when Jack Ruby shot presumed presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in a Dallas police parking garage.
In the years following the Lincoln assassination, peculiar doubts began to surface. Eighteen pages of the Booth diary were missing—torn out by persons unknown. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton has been suspected as having had a role in the crime, but nothing has ever been proven (see Fate, May 2007).
It has been claimed that the 18 missing pages of the diary were found in Stanton’s attic, but nothing substantial has emerged. Shortly before his death in 1926, Lincoln’s sole surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was caught by a friend burning some of his father’s papers. When the friend protested that the papers were valuable historical documents, Robert Lincoln said they contained documentary proof that a member of the Civil War cabinet was a traitor. There is a story that Booth left a calling card at the residence of the new President Andrew Johnson, implicating him in the assassination.
Another wispy piece of evidence surfaced in 1903 in Oklahoma, when a man named David E. George or John St. Helen died after stating that he was Booth. He had apparently gone to England, then to India, where he faked his death and then returned to the United States. The mummy of George or St. Helen, or Booth, if you will, was trucked around for years at carnival exhibitions. Photographs of the mummy do show a remarkable resemblance to Booth, even though documentary evidence is lacking.
Is it conceivable that Booth did escape? It is always best to go back to the source, and I found three accounts in Canadian newspapers which suggest we do not know the whole truth and perhaps a Booth escape is credible....
Read the rest of this article in the October 2007 issue of FATE
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