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The cryptic death of John Wilkes Booth

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Mummy of Booth or George or St. Helen.
Fertile Ground Compost Service
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LOCUST GROVE, Okla. - History tells us and legend tells us two different stories of Abraham Lincoln's assassin's death.

DNA testing, if ever approved, may dispel the mystery encircling John Wilkes Booth's death. Those who believe Booth was not killed in a barn in 1865 want to disinter Booth's brother's body and gain answers. Descendants of Booth and others want to test Edwin Booth's vertebrae against the three taken from the man shot 150 years ago. The man that history tells us is John Wilkes Booth.

Abraham Lincoln was murdered in Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, by the stage actor and Confederate sympathizer Booth.

"He stepped forward, shot Lincoln in the back of the head, slashed his dagger across the arm of a bystander who tried to subdue him, and leaped over the railing onto the stage. He paused for a melodramatic flourish, facing the stunned crowd and yelling, Sic semper tyrannis — Latin for 'Thus always to tyrants.' He fled the theater and, amazingly, escaped the capital on horseback," as is described by The Verge author Jesse Hicks.

He was soon found in a barn in Port Royal, VA, and shot in the neck.

"As he lay dying, he repeatedly whispered, 'Tell my mother I die for my country.' And finally, with his limp and nearly lifeless hands raised to his face: 'Useless. Useless,' Hicks writes.

The body was autopsied, according to The Edmond Sun, and said to be that of John Wilkes Booth because dental identification matched Booth. The body was held in federal custody until 1869 and then released to family.

Booth was supposedly buried in a Baltimore, MD, family plot. But something strange happened many years later in 1903. In the Grand Avenue Hotel in Enid, OK, David E. George made a deathbed confession. After ingesting strychnine, George told the attending doctor (some say the landlady) that he was Lincoln's killer.

Although George often quoted Shakespeare and spent a lot of time in a local bar, most people knew little else about him.

"Upon examination of George's body, doctors noticed scars that matched those Booth would have had. He had also suffered a broken leg sometime in the past, just above the ankle, as Booth had when he leaped to the stage of Ford's Theatre. Plus, he shared Booth's height and features, and was of the proper age," as is detailed in Wesley Treats' Weird Oklahoma.

After no one claimed the body, he was mummified. He became window dressing for an Enid funeral home. Lawyer Finis Bates heard the story and claimed him as the friend he knew in Texas, John St. Helen. Bates said the man, while bedridden and grievously ill, acknowledged to him that he had assassinated Lincoln.

Bates and the corpse began traveling the country. Bates displayed him at carnivals and at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. The mummy was later sold and thought to be a continual source of bad luck.

"Nearly every showman who exhibited the mummy was ruined financially. In 1902 eight people were killed in the wreck of a circus train the mummy was traveling on. Bill Evans, a well-heeled carnival king who bought the 'exhibit' in later years, was financially ruined by continual strokes of bad luck after buying it. Bates, the original owner, wrote a book in 1908 entitled The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, which naturally attempted to prove the mummy was Booth. He suffered much ridicule because of his tome and died in 1923, penniless," as is reported at barnesreview.org.

Conjecture about the corpse's "final resting place" is unclear. Speculation about the St. Helen sir name also spawns theories.

Some believe the St. Helen name is a cipher since Booth was a man of the arts and keen on word play.

"The name ‘John St. Helen’ could easily be a cryptogram. The first name is, of course, Booth’s own—but also one of the most common given names for men, then and now. ‘St. Helen’ could very well be merely the anglicized version of Bonaparte’s second isle of exile, Ste. Helena is the name saying ‘John the Exile?’ Booth certainly was an exile—from society, from his family, from the theater he loved, states C. F. Eckhardt for texasescapes.com.

Though parts of his skeleton (three vertebrae) are in exile at The National Museum of Health, the museum has ruled against having them tested with his brother's bones.

"The need to preserve these bones for future generations compels us to decline the destructive test," according to the museum as is quoted at modernhealthcare.com.

Much is written about this conundrum. But to many it's not a dilemma. George's mummified body, not Booth's, gained much notoriety, but little is know about his life.

And the room that inaugurated his fame still exists in what is now the Garfield Furniture store in Enid.

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Roxann Perkins Yates

Roxann Perkins is a teacher, writer, poet, and an amateur smartphone photographer. She lives in...

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