In the darkness, two dozen war-toughened soldiers had cornered their man.
They were in unfriendly territory, on high alert and determined.
One of them made a positive ID and squeezed off a shot. The man fell, mortally wounded and was carried to a spot illuminated by a faint, flickering light.
Those on the mission decided they had the right man. They wrapped the lifeless body in a military blanket and sewed it closed, then made a dash to the northwest, the direction from where they came.
Soon the body was on the deck of a U.S. warship and an autopsy was under way. Teeth were examined to determine that this was indeed the hated fugitive who had earned a nation’s wrath. A photographer was called to the deck and pictures were made.
Those in charge awaited word from Washington on what to do with the body. It was decided that some unmarked grave should be the final resting spot, so no misguided sympathizers would erect a monument proclaiming martyrdom.
Soon the people of the nation and the press were alerted.
A next-day headline read: “John Wilkes Booth found and shot.”
No monument was ever erected for the consummate villain of 19th-century America — at least not one you could touch.
But, as it often seems, perpetrators of unconscionable evils are hard to kill even after they are dead. Conspiracies and plots are imagined. Myth and legend take hold.
It happened with Adolf Hitler. Was he spotted in Argentina? Or was it Brazil? Uruguay?
And it happened with Booth, who was hunted down and killed in 1865, 15 days after he shot Abraham Lincoln.
It didn’t take long for the whispers to start and the stories to be contrived.
Booth was really in Cuba, conspiring to revive the Confederacy. He was seen in Havana, at least that’s how one story went.
The soldiers got the wrong man, another story claimed. Booth had tricked another fellow into carrying his wallet and personal belongings to the barn on the northern Virginia farm where the kill shot was fired.
There was a report that two of the soldiers hunting for Booth got a good look at the dead man’s face before the body was spirited back to Washington. They said the corpse had sandy hair and freckles. Booth, the actor, was noted for his jet-black hair.
The myths grew.
He was living in Tennessee, had married, fathered a child and was under the protection of Southern sympathizers.
Conspiracy theories took hold.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who called the shots in Washington immediately after Lincoln’s death, had been in on the plot. He made sure Booth’s capture was staged.
Such unfounded tales — brewed in the active imagination of the human mind — took on lives of their own.
One surmised that Stanton wasn’t in on any plot. The soldiers got the wrong man, but before the doctors could confirm it, word had leaked out that Booth had been captured. Stanton decided it would do more harm to the country to admit the mistake.
This conjecture and mistrust of government, though far from widespread, wouldn’t die.
Booth was kept alive, at least until 1903.
That’s when a man living in Enid, Okla., died. He went by the name David E. George. Two acquaintances told the local newspaper that George, while on his death bed, told them that he was really John Wilkes Booth, that he had not been killed that dark night in a Virginia barn, that he had eluded justice.
The report attracted the attention of Finis L. Bates, an attorney at law from Texas. He hurried to Enid, saying that several years before one of his clients in Texas testified on his death bed that he was John Wilkes Booth. When the client recovered he claimed he didn’t remember telling Bates his secret. He then moved away.
Bates wondered if the dead man in Enid was this former client. He was permitted to see the body of David E. George and claimed that indeed it was the same man.
The attorney took possession of the body, since George had no known relatives, and the partially mummified remains were put on show. It helped with the sale of Bates’ new book, “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth.” (George, destitute and lonely, supposedly had poisoned himself.)
Bates took the show on the road. The mummified body of John Wilkes Booth was an attraction at carnivals and fairs into the 1930s.
Even today, the questions persist.
If David E. George was John Wilkes Booth, who is buried in Maryland? Booth’s remains, initially buried in secret on the grounds of a federal penitentiary in Washington, were exhumed in 1869 and turned over to Booth’s relatives. What was left of the killer — the body was never embalmed — was reburied in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.
In 1995, distant relatives of Booth petitioned a court to have the body exhumed once again. They wanted to determine if the man shot in the barn 130 years ago was indeed Booth. The judge said no.
Just this year, perhaps fueled by “what-if” documentaries playing on cable television, there has been yet another call to dig up Booth.
We’ll conclude with this historical footnote:
When Booth’s autopsy was performed on the deck of the USS Montauk, a Union ironclad, noted Washington photographer Alexander Gardner was called. After photographing the body, Gardner turned the plates over to the military and they were taken directly to Secretary of War Stanton. They were never released to the public. And, now, they can’t be found.
Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.