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Credible Story About Booth Uncovered

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on February 8, 1992


By Roz Young

           Whitney Bolton was in 1924 the editor of the Dayton Daily News Magazine, a supplement that contained local and national feature stories, fashions, puzzles for children, and fiction.
            For many years he had heard, as had many citizens, that John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, escaped and the man who was shot in the burning barn by Sergeant Boston Corbett near Bowling Green, Md., was not John Wilkes Booth.
            Bolton heard that John Young, a reporter in Spartansburg, S.C., had found a man whose story proved that Booth had indeed escaped, and so he went to Spartansburg to interview him. He published his story in the magazine.
            On April 13, 1865, when John Young was 7 years old and living in Washington, his father took him to Ford's Theatre to see Our American Cousin. The boy never forgot that memorable evening,
            Near the end of the second act Booth shot Lincoln and leaped to the stage, brandished a long knife, and shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis!" Then he ran to the wings, limping because he had broken his leg in the jump to the stage, and vanished.
            Within a few moments troops arrived, sealed off the theater and began questioning everyone in the audience.
            Thirty years later Young was working as a furniture designer in Grand Rapids, Mich. One night he stopped for supper in a small restaurant and oyster house near Sweet's Hotel. After his meal Young bought a cigar and stood for a while chatting with the cashier, James Kelley. "I found him interesting," Young said later, "so interesting that time after time I returned to that small cafe and in the course of time we became fast friends." They both shared interests in music, the theater and Shakespeare.
            In the 1860s Kelley had been a member of the Richmond Theatre Company, playing comedy roles. His dressing room roommate was John Wilkes Booth and the two of them shared the services of a young black valet named Henry.
            Booth was, so Kelley said, very attractive and had many friends among the belles of Richmond. When war was declared, he became wildly enthusiastic about the South, but as time passed, he grew moody and downcast and began missing performances. Finally the management fired him. Kelley heard that Booth had gone to Washington and Henry had gone with him.
            He left behind him in the dressing room a number of play manuscripts that he had annotated in his handwriting. Kelley kept the manuscripts.
            After Richmond was besieged and fell and after Lincoln was assassinated, Kelley went to live with friends in Grand Rapids and secured a job in the furniture business. Several years later when on a trip to New York, he ran into Henry on the street. He asked him what he was doing. "I been with Marse Edwin ever since Marse John got away," he said. Edwin Booth, also an actor, was John's brother.
            "Got away!" exclaimed Kelley. "You mean John escaped?"
            Henry explained that after shooting Lincoln, Booth mounted his horse in the alley behind Ford's Theatre and made his way to the Potomac River. There he got a boat and went downstream to Chesapeake Bay where he was picked up by a British sailing ship and taken to Liverpool, from where he secured passage to Bombay, India. He was living in Bombay under the name of John Wilkes.
            When he returned to Grand Rapids, Kelley wrote to John Wilkes. After several months he received an answer from John Wilkes. Wilkes was, indeed, his old dressing room companion and had indeed escaped. He was living on money his family sent him. Kelley and Wilkes had been corresponding for several years when Kelley met Young.
            Kelley showed Young the letters from Wilkes, and Young satisfied himself that the handwriting in the letters and in the notations on the play manuscripts of John Wilkes Booth were identical.
            "That is all," said Young. "A theater dresser and a comedian have convinced me that John Wilkes Booth did not pay any penalty except that of exile for his murder of Abraham Lincoln. You understand why there is a doubt in my mind that the man Sergeant Boston Corbett shot and killed was John Wilkes Booth."
            And so we have right out of the pages of Dayton history yet another story in the saga of the unsolved mystery of what happened to John Wilkes Booth.