History as a subject taught in schools relies on the word of somebody. Whether that somebody was an active participant in a moment of world history, or somebody that has examined evidence of a particular moment and drawn their own conclusions from the evidence at hand. There are times that conclusions have proven to be in error. The majority of these are simple mistakes of an honest nature, but what if that were not the case. What if a deliberate lie was dressed up as truth and given to the waiting world as accurate?
This is the basic concept of conspiracy theories. Evidence contrary to what is being presented as accurate is about as old as the hills. Month after year after decade after century, certain people will examine certain events and swear themselves blind that ‘that did not happen that way’. Without doubt the two landmark conspiracy theories surround 9/11 and JFK, but there are literally hundreds of other examples: Paul McCartney, Waco, Jack the Ripper, The Titanic, Malaysian Airways MH370 and Marilyn Monroe have all been scrutinized by conspiracy theorists in the firm belief there was more going on than what met the eye.
One such example could be the death of Presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth. Mainstream history records that Booth was tracked down to a rural tobacco barn situated on Garrets Farm 12 days after he shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head. Having surrounded the barn, Union soldiers sent out to bring the actor to justice, waited as a lone man meekly made his way out from inside. This man was later identified as 21 year old David Herold, one of the conspirators behind the Lincoln assassination. Convinced that Booth was still inside, Lt. Edward Doherty ordered the barn set on fire in an effort to smoke out the fugitive. The occupant of the barn stubbornly refused to submit to this tactic and was subsequently shot by an impatient Boston Corbett.
The pivotal question behind this entire conspiracy was: Who was inside the barn in the early hours of April 26th 1865?
Nate Orlowek is a historian who disagrees with what history states. Orlowek is convinced that Booth wasn’t anywhere near Garrett Farm at the time of the soldiers arrival. He isn’t the only one either. In the years following those events, even some of the United States military have called into question the official events. Just after the turn of the century, John Schmuker was General Council to the Department of the Army and he went on record insisting that evidence supporting the conclusion that Booth was executed at Garrett Farm would not stand up to cross examination in a court of law.
When Herold exited the barn, the first thing he was reputedly to have said was that Booth was not inside the barn. This has been hotly debated for many years now. After the second individual was shot, Doctor John May was summoned to make an identification. Being acquainted with Booth, he calmly let the presiding officer know that whoever the victim was, it was not John Wilkes Booth. May’s statement is now inside the National Archives and in summation, it read:
I’m sure this is Booth. But it doesn’t look like him. But this is certainly John Wilkes Booth.John Frederick May
Several witnesses went on record saying that the man inside Garrett’s Farm that evening had red hair. Just about every historical account says Booth had black hair. At some point during his flight from Ford’s Theatre, possibly while being treated for his broken leg, Booth may have altered his appearance by dyeing his hair red. Some reports also state he shaved his mustache off too. Another contentious point in the identification process concerned this leg injury. Both Joseph Zisgen and Wilson Kenzie were members of the Federal detail tasked with the apprehension of Booth, but were actually friends of the man and knew him well. When they came face to face with the man from the barn, neither saw fit to mention this injury: almost as if the man they saw didn’t have one.
There were other curious incidents reputed to have occurred on that night. Booth’s papers were found at the scene during a subsequent search of the barn. Despite the fire that had been set, they appeared undamaged. Another curiosity was an extraordinary claim made by a guard who was on duty at one the many bridges out of Washington called Frederick Demond. According to a letter that he later wrote, all bridges out of the city were closed overnight and guarded. On the night of the hunt, Demond’s superior officer, a Captain, gave him explicit instructions to allow passage to anyone using the password: T.B. Road. Someone would later approach the bridge and use the code, something Demond considered peculiar as it was the first and only time it ever happened.
Assuming that all of this is true and actually happened then the question remains: What become of John Wilkes Booth?
Perhaps a man called John St. Helen would have an answer to that. St. Helen lived in Granbury, Texas, in the mid 1870s. In 1877 he fell ill and was convinced that his life was over. When his attorney and friend Finis Bates was called, St. Helen felt compelled to reveal a long held secret. His name wasn’t really John St. Helen, it was John Wilkes Booth. Bates put this statement down to hallucination and only when St. Helen detailed in his confession his escape from Washington and how he was part of a conspiracy to first abduct, then kill Abraham Lincoln, did Bates start to believe it. St. Helen recovered from affliction and promptly left town.
Nothing more was heard from St. Helen for another quarter of a century when in 1903, a man calling himself David George drank a glass of wine that was laced with Strychnine. When Bates, the grandfather of actress Kathy, discovered this he instantly recognized David George as John St. Helen and made arrangements to secure the corpse. Traveling all the way to Enid, Oklahoma, Bates took extensive photographs of the body and was startled at the strong resemblance between the man he knew as John St. Helen and John Wilkes Booth. Bates had the body mummified and fully intended to prove that the official story was either a lie or deliberate cover-up. When the body was examined 30 years after, a trio of injuries that Booth was known to have had were recorded in the findings.
Did John Wilkes Booth manage to escape Union soldiers as their net tightened during the early hours of 26th April 1865 only to commit suicide almost 40 years later?