Did John Wilkes Booth Escape Justice?

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Members of John Wilkes Booth's family recently came forward, claiming a sensational story has been passed down in their family -- a story that has been kept secret from outsiders for years.

The secret? John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, did not die at a farm near Port Royal, Va., as the history books say. Instead, he escaped justice and lived for decades before committing suicide in 1903.

Family members want to prove their story by comparing DNA from bone samples taken by U.S. Army doctors in April 1865 from the body of the man purported to be Booth and compare them to bone samples of Booth's brother Edwin. The supposed Booth bone samples currently reside at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. Edwin Booth is buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass.

The mystery was recently the subject of an episode on The History Channel's "Decoded" series.

Booth's Flight and Death?

According to the history books, Booth was tracked down 12 days after Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. He was shot and killed in a tobacco barn on April 26, 1865.

Against the explicit orders of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the assassin was shot by Sgt. Boston Corbett with his Colt revolver through the barn's boards. Wounded and paralyzed, Booth was dragged from the barn to the farmhouse porch. He died three hours later. The barn and the farmhouse no longer stand.

Although Sgt. Corbett claimed he shot Booth because he thought the assassin was preparing to use his weapons, he later simply said because "Providence directed me."

The government's version of the events has been questioned by historians in documentaries, books, and movies for decades.

"If the man who killed our greatest president got away and a giant hoax was perpetrated on the American people, then we should know about it," historian Nate Orlowek told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Descendants Want Answers

Today, descendants of Edwin Booth, who died in 1893, have agreed to exhume his body in an effort to put the family drama to rest.

"I just feel we have a right to know who's buried there,'' said Lois Trebisacci, 60, who told The Boston Globe she is Edwin Booth's great-great-great granddaughter.

"I'm absolutely in favor of exhuming Edwin," said Joanne Hulme, 60, the historian in the Booth family. "Let's have the truth and put this thing to rest."

Family members want to recover a bone sample from Edwin for DNA analysis. They say a reliable bone sample from the supposed body of Booth recovered in the barn could also be obtained. If the DNA is a match, that would end the controversy by proving that John Booth was killed in the barn.

But if it doesn't match, the American history record as it is currently known would change. John Wilkes Booth would make the news again, almost 150 years after Lincoln's murder, with the discovery that someone else was killed in the barn, and the body passed off as Booth's.

One Theory Follows Family History

Some armchair historians and conspiracy theorists contend the real Booth was never in the barn that day and escaped to live in the Southwest.

According to their theory, while Booth was living in Texas in 1877, he confessed to Lincoln's assassination to a friend, attorney Finis Bates upon becoming gravely ill. At that time, Bates claimed Booth had assumed the pseudonym "John St. Helen."

But St. Helen eventually recovered. Bates later asked him about his strange confession, but St. Helen seemed to not recall saying anything and denied he was Booth. The man later left Texas for whereabouts unknown.

On Jan. 13, 1903, in Enid, Okla., a man by the name of David E. George committed suicide. In his last dying statement, the man confessed to his landlord that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth.

Upon hearing the news of the confession, Bates traveled to Enid to view the body, which he recognized as the man he had known as "St. Helen."

Bates had the body mummified. The body appeared in carnival sideshows across the country for years as Lincoln's assassin, with the last reported sighting in 1976.

Bates published The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth in 1907, which contains an account of St. Helen's confession.

At least one member of the Booth family thinks all of the new publicity and attention would certainly make Lincoln's assassin smile.

"John Wilkes Booth is probably loving this," Trebisacci said. "Just being an actor, I'm sure he loves the controversy."

Sources: Philadelphia Inquirer, The Boston Globe, AOL

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