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Mystery of John Wilkes Booth Continues

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on September 12, 1992

by Roz Young

             It has been almost a year since the NBC program Unsolved Mysteries reviewed the evidence that John Wilkes Booth did not die in the Maryland barn where he was chased by federal troops after Lincoln's assassination. The program reminded me that once I had read in an old Dayton Daily News a story about Booth uncovered by Whitney Bolton, the editor in 1924. According to his story, Booth escaped and went to Bombay, India, where he lived until his death in 1879.

            The story here brought many responses from readers. One in particular was from Dr. Arthur Ben Chitty, emeritus professor of history at the University of the South (Sewanee), historiographer of the university and official historian of Franklin County, Tenn. Dr. Chitty has researched the Booth story for many years and has come to believe that he did indeed escape. He has found evidence that Booth was a resident for a short time in Franklin County and has written a monograph on the story. He is inclined to believe that Booth did finally make his way to Bombay.

            Helen Currie, 317 Sycamore Glen Drive, had an uncle, Ely Brown, who lived in Bethel, Ohio. He often told stories to Helen when she was a child of a remarkable meeting he had once had with a man who, while he never said he was John Wilkes Booth in so many words, yet indicated that he was.

            Many years later Brown wrote his recollections of the meeting.

            Ely Brown was born in 1889 on a farm three miles west of Bethel. In the neighborhood lived the Ralls family, Bill, Jane and Jim. Jane "seemed to be extremely shy," Brown wrote, "and would disappear within the house whenever anyone appeared. I never knew of her entering any home other than her own."

            She once gave young Ely a few stalks of rhubarb and some red plums, and he gave her in return a few hands of home-grown tobacco. She smoked it in a clay pipe and preferred home-grown tobacco to the kind she bought in a store.

            She was a daughter, Ely was told, of James Booth, a cousin of John Wilkes Booth, and an Osage Indian wife.

            In 1903, Jane told 14-year-old Ely that her cousin was coming from Enid, Okla., to visit.

            One Saturday Ely was helping to load corn from shocks to a wagon in a field across from the Ralls home. He saw approaching an elderly man walking with the help of a cane; he had a slight limp.

            Ely greeted the man, calling him Mr. Booth.

            "Why do you call me Booth?" asked he.

            "That is your name, isn't it?"


            "That is the reason I called you Booth."

            "Do you know anything about history?" the elderly man asked.

            "Not much."

            "Do you know that Lincoln was assassinated?"


            "Do you know who killed him?"

            "I'm not too sure. I heard different stories but it seems to me the man was hanged, shot or burned while in a barn."

            "Booth is living today. I do not mean yesterday or an hour ago. He is living now."

            "How do you know?" the boy asked.

            "I know. I know. I can tell you where he has been every day since Lincoln was killed."

            "He followed this by mentioning different places," Brown wrote. "I am unable now to quote exactly or in their strict order, but I seem to remember Canada, Italy, St. Louis, Missouri and Oklahoma. I do remember distinctly that he ended his list with Enid, Okla."

            "What relation are you to John Wilkes Booth?" the boy asked.

            The man gave no answer.

            Finally the boy asked, "Cousin?"

            "We'll call it that," he replied.

            Brown recalls that he then asked the man how long his beard was. It was doubled back under his chin, but some of it showed beneath his vest. When the man unbuttoned his vest, the beard, which had been folded up under his vest, hung down below his knees.

            "Young man, do you know why Booth killed Lincoln?"

            Ely answered that he didn't know.

            "I am going to tell you why and never forget this as long as you live. Ely recalls that at that point the man began gesturing with his right hand, and the boy noticed that the thumb had been cut off at the outer joint and the skin from the inside had been pulled over it and joined to the skin on the outside. "Booth was hired to kill Lincoln by the man who succeeded him in office," the old man continued. "Do you know who that was?"

            "I think it was Andrew Johnson."

            "To this he made no reply," Brown wrote, "but if eyes could talk, they were plainly telling me, 'Yes, I was hired by Johnson to kill Lincoln.' "

            That was the end of the conversation. He decided not to tell anybody about the conversation for fear he would be laughed at. He kept it to himself for many years.

            Some years later he read a series of articles called "Presidents I have known" by Henry Watterson in the Saturday Evening Post. In one article, Watterson said, "Johnson was a man who would leave no stone unturned to attain his one ambition."

            He also saw in one of the earliest issues of Life magazine a picture of the mummified body of a man who claimed to be John Wilkes Booth and who had committed suicide at Enid, Oklahoma. The article also told how the body had been earlier studied at the University of Chicago and X-rays had indicated that the left leg had been broken and one thumb had been cut off at the outer joint and that further a signet ring had been retrieved from the body's stomach; the ring had an initial "B" on it. The conclusion was that the body was indeed that of Booth. Finis Bates then exhibited the well-preserved body for a number of years, charging a nominal fee to view it.

            In a newspaper Brown read that Booth had one day dropped from a streetcar an unsigned letter that said, "The coup has failed. This time there must be no failure. You have been selected for this job and J...... is a raving maniac until it is done.

            By this reading and recollection Brown was convinced that the man he had spoken to was indeed John Wilkes Booth, and he decided finally to tell his story.

            The "David E. George," whose body Finis Bates identified as John Wilkes Booth, committed suicide in Enid on Jan. 13, 1903. If this was the same man Ely Brown talked to, it must have been at corn harvesting time in 1902 rather than 1903.

            Will the mystery of John Wilkes Booth ever be solved? "Enough is known about Booth's various broken bones that a surviving skeleton could easily be proven to fit or not to fit the facts," says Dr. Chitty, "and thus either put an end to the myths or else raise up an entirely new wave of biographical research. Meantime the mystery lives on."