This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
A Union soldier under strict orders to take the most wanted man in American history alive fired the fatal shot on April 26, 1865 that silenced John Wilkes Booth forever.
All but the historically ignorant know this story by heart. On Apr. 14, 1865, five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, a 26 year old member of the “first family of the American stage” murdered Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. The epic manhunt ended 12 days later on a Virginia farm with the death of the first presidential assassin.
That, in a nutshell, is the official story. But what if it’s not true? Is it possible that John Wilkes Booth lived to see the twentieth century and even spent part of his extended exile in Texas?
Like most Americans north and south of the Mason-Dixon line, Finis L. Bates never questioned the official version of Booth’s fate. The young Tennessean was too busy trying to make a go of his law practice at Granbury, a day’s ride southwest of Fort Worth.
Not until the early 1870’s, that is, when a man walked into his office and introduced himself as John St. Helen. The nervous stranger said he tended bar in nearby Glen Rose and recently had been ordered to appear before a federal judge in Tyler for serving alcohol without a license.
St. Helen frankly admitted that was not his real name and went on to tell the attorney that under no circumstances could he risk revealing his true identity in open court. Bates, who had many clients living under aliases, eased the worried bartender’s mind by explaining the matter could be resolved without showing his face in East Texas.
St. Helen moved to Granbury a little while later, and the two became better acquainted. Lawyer Bates noticed, among other curious things, that the well-spoken barkeep always seemed to have “more money than was warranted by his stock in trade” and possessed an intimate knowledge of “every detail of theatrical work.” He could, in fact, recite most of Shakespeare’s plays from memory.
Bates rushed to the bedside of his friend and customer late one night in 1877. Gravely ill and barely able to talk between desperate gasps for breath, St. Helen believed he was at Death’s door.
He asked his attorney to remove a tintype from underneath his pillow. Bates obliged giving what he presumed to be an image of a younger St. Helen just a quick glance. In the event of his demise, which St. Helen thought was imminent, would Bates send the tintype along with a description of the circumstances to a Mr. Edwin Booth in Baltimore? Never one to deny a last request, the lawyer promised to do so.
Seconds before losing consciousness, St. Helen suddenly grabbed Bates by the arm. It was high time he knew his real name – John Wilkes Booth, the Lincoln assassin.
Bates dismissed the deathbed confession as the delirium of a dying man. But St. Helen did not die, and once he was back on his feet he invited his confessor to take a long walk with him.
Bates expected St. Helen to retract his bizarre revelation, if he remembered it at all, but to his surprise he stuck by his statement. For the rest of the afternoon, St. Helen filled in the blanks for his spellbound companion.
Another southern sympathizer, who did not resemble him in the slightest but happened to have Booth’s diary on him, perished in his place that night in Virginia. Free to resume his flight with no one hot on his heels, he headed west and did not stop until he reached the Indian Territory.
Booth wandered through the West before going into hiding in Mexico disguised as a priest. He returned to the U.S. in 1867 for a clandestine reunion in San Francisco with his mother and older brother Junius. That was followed by a year of teaching school in New Orleans and the eventual change of address to Glen Rose, where John St. Helen was born.
At St. Helen’s insistence, Bates swore he would keep his secret. That was the easiest promise the attorney ever made because at the time he did not believe a word of the fantastic tale.
Soon after their stroll, Bates moved back to Tennessee. Over the next two decades, he became a very successful lawyer and a self-made expert on the Lincoln assassination completely convinced the Texas bartender had been telling the truth.
In January 1903, Bates took the train to Enid, Oklahoma where, according to sensational newspaper reports, a suicide victim known locally as “David George” had been positively identified as John Wilkes Booth. Arriving at the funeral parlor, Bates compared the facial features of the corpse with the tintype he had held on to all those years and concluded that George, St. Helen and Booth were one and the same.
That was the central premise of the 300-page book Finis Bates wrote over the next four years. The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth sold thousands of copies and sparked the speculation that persists to this day.
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San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.