Monday, February 19, 2007
Did John Wilkes Booth survive?
Theory is that Lincoln’s killer had escaped to Tennessee
By Dick Cook Staff Writer
SEWANEE, Tenn. — A signature in the Franklin County Courthouse and a mummy last seen in 1975 convinced two Tennessee men that John Wilkes Booth, the killer of Abraham Lincoln, escaped capture, traveled South and lived into the 20th century.
Now one of those men is hoping to use DNA evidence to prove it.
The other man, Arthur Ben Chitty, a historiographer at the University of the South who died in 2002, spent 40 years amassing anecdotal evidence that Mr. Booth married a Sewanee woman and lived there for a time, said his daughter Em Turner Chitty.
And there was one piece of physical evidence: the signature of “Jno. W. Booth” and his bride, Louisa J. Payne, recorded Feb. 24, 1872, in the marriage license records office of the Franklin County Courthouse.
“What passes for history is good public relations — that’s my dad’s main thesis,” said Ms. Turner, an English teacher at Pellissippi State College in Knoxville. “The thing that got him most seriously interested (in Booth) was the signature.”
BLAME KEN BURNS
In Memphis, Ken Hawkes got hooked on the Booth mystery in the early 1990s, when everybody in his office was following Ken Burns‘ documentary on the Civil War.
Mr. Hawkes was an autopsy technician for the Shelby County medical examiner’s office. He said that after the episode dealing with President Lincoln’s assassination, a coworker told him a mummy that was purported to be Mr. Booth was toted around the Midwest in carnivals during the 1930s.
“I thought it was nonsense,” Mr. Hawkes said last week. “Everybody knows Booth was killed in Virginia two weeks after the assassination.”
But then a doctor in the office showed him a story from a magazine about the Booth mummy.
The doctor said that using forensic medicine, “if we could find the remains, we could show one way or the other if it could be John Wilkes Booth,” he said.
Two weeks later, Mr. Hawkes said, he began to think maybe he ought to find the mummy and do DNA testing.
“I started looking for it and looked and looked and looked,” he said.
The history books state that Mr. Booth shot President Lincoln the day before Easter 1865 at Ford’s Theater. Mr. Booth and a group of conspirators escaped Washington, D.C., and were cornered in Richard Garrett’s barn in Bowling Green, Va., 12 days later.
The barn was set afire, and Mr. Booth was shot and died within hours. Several Union soldiers who were acquainted with him identified his body. He was buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore. SEWANEE CONNECTION
On the third floor in the back of the Jessie Ball duPont Library at the University of the South, archivist Annie Armour points to shelves filled with documents and books that Mr. Chitty, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the school, amassed related to Booth.
Opening a box of newspaper clippings, legal documents, letters and audio recordings of interviews, Ms. Armour said, “I don’t see anything that proves or disproves.”
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