The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local news

January 12, 2013

A deathbed claim

ENID, Okla. — One hundred and ten years ago today, an itinerant, penniless house painter committed suicide in the former Grand Avenue Hotel, current site of Garfield Furniture.

This would have been an unremarkable episode in Enid’s history had the man not claimed on his deathbed to be John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.

David E. George’s dying claim to the assassin’s identity sparked controversy, launched an alternative to the officially recognized history of Booth’s demise and fueled a bit of local lore that survives to this day.

History tells us John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer and successful actor, died at Garrett Farm in northern Virginia on April 26, 1865, 12 days after he shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.

Elements of the 16th New York Cavalry tracked Booth and an accomplice to a barn at Garrett Farm, where Sgt. Boston Corbett shot Booth in the back of the head through a crack in the wall, in violation of orders to take Booth alive.

It did not take long after the death of Booth, or “the man in the barn,” for conflicting accounts to arise, and for speculation to circulate that Booth had not died in the barn, and that another man had died in his place while Booth escaped.

Some accounts posit the man killed was in fact a Garrett farm hand by the name of Ruddy, who had been sent by Booth to collect some of his papers and personal belongings.

Conflicting eyewitness accounts either positively identify the body taken from the barn as being John Wilkes Booth, or stated the body looked nothing like Booth.

The body was identified as Booth during an autopsy performed on the monitor Montauk at the Washington Navy Yard, and subsequently was held in federal custody until 1869, when it was returned to the Booth family. A family dentist identified the corpse as Booth’s based on dental records, and the corpse was laid to rest in a family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, a Shakespeare-quoting man who bore a resemblance to Booth was making his way, along with other displaced Southerners, to central Texas. The man, who went by the name John St. Helen, settled in Granbury, Texas, in the early 1870s and befriended local attorney Finis L. Bates, grandfather of actress Kathy Bates.

According to Finis Bates, the man he knew as John St. Helen became ill in 1878, and thinking he was on the verge of death, revealed to Bates his identity as Booth, and asked him to notify Booth’s brother, Edwin Booth.

Bates detailed the account, and the ensuing legend of David George, in his 1907 book “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth.”

St. Helen recovered from his illness, and soon after disappeared from Granbury.

Twenty-five years later, David E. George appeared in Enid, and rented a room at Grand Avenue Hotel.

Enid contractor and historian Henry Bass was 6 when George showed up in Enid. Bass later interviewed many of the people who had met George, and been party to the events surrounding his death and the inquiry into his identity.

Bass later transcribed their accounts in his monthly newsletter “Dear Everybody,” an account of history, politics, economics and social affairs in Enid between 1947 and 1975.

Bob Berry, Bass’ grandson and current president of D. C. Bass & Sons Construction Co., said interest in Lincoln and Booth was strong among his grandfather’s family.

“They were German immigrants, and didn’t speak any English, but they knew a lot about Lincoln,” Berry said.

Berry said his grandfather began collecting Lincoln memorabilia during the Great Depression, and expanded to original Lincoln writings and poetry by the 1940s.

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, Bass was a recognized authority on Lincoln history by the time of his death in 1975, and his collection of Lincoln writings and memorabilia was donated by the family to the Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma.

In a February 1959 edition of “Dear Everybody,” Bass related from his interviews of eyewitnesses the events leading up to George’s death in Enid.

According to the account, George went on Jan. 13, 1903, to a local pharmacy and purchased two doses of strychnine, under the pretext of using the poison to kill a dog and a cat.

The pharmacist reportedly told George “something else should be used, as this powerful drug forced its victims to endure too much agony in their death throes.”

“A few minutes later,” Bass wrote, “agonized screams from Booth’s (George’s) room caused doctors and druggists to rush to his assistance. But all to no avail. Between convulsions he gasped out ‘I am John Wilkes Booth’ and then expired.”

A suicide note reportedly requested Finis Bates be summoned after George’s death. According to legend, and Bates’ own account in his book, Bates recognized George as the man he had known as John St. Helen.

George’s body was taken to the W.B. Penniman funeral parlor on West Randolph, where it was embalmed and placed on display as word spread of the link between George and Booth.

Bass wrote of seeing the body posed as Booth: “One of my early boyhood adventures consisted of sneaking into the Penniman Undertaking Parlor on West Randolph and viewing the body of John Wilkes Booth.”

Bates did much to spread the legend of David George with the publication of his book in 1907.

But, until recently, the link between David George and John Wilkes Booth remained just that — legend, with no practical means of being proved or disproved.

Nate Orlowek, who has dedicated almost four decades to unraveling the identity of the man who was shot, identified and buried as Booth, believes the means now are within reach to bring the mystery to a scientific conclusion.

Orlowek, a recognized expert in Booth history and the George legend, said he first began studying the possibility of an alternative to the accepted history of Booth when he was 15 years old.

“As a kid I always was interested in the idea that things aren’t always what they appear to be,” Orlowek said.

That interest was piqued when Orlowek read a book that referenced the possibility Booth had escaped, and wasn’t the man killed at Garrett Farm.

Orlowek took a group of friends to the Library of Congress to research the matter, but the group was refused entry on account of their age.

Orlowek led his friends across the street to Capitol Hill, and their senators’ offices.

“Our senators got us into the Library of Congress, and we ended up on TV as this group of teens who was trying to get into the Library of Congress,” Orlowek said.

He has kept up the search for answers since, and still doesn’t accept doors being closed on his search.

Orlowek spearheaded an effort in the early 1990s to exhume Booth’s body and conduct DNA testing, to be compared with three neck vertebrae that were removed during the 1865 autopsy, and since have been preserved at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Orlowek said the Booth family, the Maryland state’s attorney and the Smithsonian Institution agreed to the test, but a competing group of historians and Green Mount Cemetery blocked the exhumation in court in 1995.

Orlowek said he would have accepted the DNA results either way, proving or disproving the man shot in the barn was Booth. He said competing historians were “scared” of the possibility their accepted view of history could be overturned.

“If we were wrong, then we were wrong, that’s fine,” Orlowek said. “No historian should be afraid of the truth. It’s intellectually bankrupt for anyone who calls themselves a historian to be against a test that would prove the truth, one way or the other.”

Orlowek and his team began approaching the problem from another angle four years ago, hoping to exhume Edwin Booth, the only one of Booth’s immediate relatives not buried at Green Mount Cemetery, and compare Edwin’s DNA to the vertebrae taken from “the man killed in the barn.”

“Within five minutes, we would have the answer,” Orlowek said, “because if they’re brothers, the DNA would indicate they’re immediate relatives.”

Orlowek said he has permission from the great-great-granddaughter of Edwin Booth to exhume his remains from his grave in Massachusetts, but he has yet to gain permission from the National Museum of Health and Medicine to test the vertebrae.

Orlowek said the test is necessary to fully examine the history behind Lincoln’s assassination, and the ultimate fate of his assassin.

“The transcendent importance is the importance of knowing our own history, and knowing it accurately,” Orlowek said. “Nobody is going to live or die as a result of this, but there is value in knowing our own history and having it be accurate. If we can learn from the mistakes of the past, hopefully we can not repeat them.”

Orlowek said the mystery of John Wilkes Booth is divided into two questions: “Was the man killed in the barn John Wilkes Booth?” and “Was David George the same man as John Wilkes Booth?”

Even if the DNA test eventually is performed, and shows the man killed in the barn wasn’t Booth, there’s currently no way to positively confirm George’s identity as Booth.

George’s mummified body was purchased by Bates, and displayed on various circus and sideshow circuits until the 1940s, when Bates’ widow reportedly sold the mummy to an unknown party. Its whereabouts now are unknown.

Orlowek has a team searching through records to find the mummy, but so far that search has not turned up the body of David E. George.

“We’d love to find the mummy,” Orlowek said, “because then we could test the DNA and see if George was a relative of Edwin Booth.”

In the meantime, Orlowek said he is “85 percent certain John Wilkes Booth wasn’t killed in the barn, and 80 percent certain David E. George is John Wilkes Booth.”

Orlowek said evidence collected by Bates, and by himself and his team over the last 40 years, makes it likely George was Booth.

He said he has traced George’s history in Oklahoma through El Reno and Hydro, after St. Helen left Texas and before George showed up in Enid.

One of the most compelling facts, Orlowek said, is that George, as St. Helen, related to Bates details of a botched plan to kidnap Lincoln that would have been known by Booth, but which weren’t released from government records until 1935, after Bates’ death.

“If that man (George) wasn’t John Wilkes Booth, it’s pretty amazing the information he knew,” Orlowek said.

While Orlowek continues the search for scientific proof behind the identity of Lincoln’s killer, many Enid locals remain convinced Booth died here, 110 years ago today, under the alias David George.

Russ Frazee, owner of Garfield Furniture and caretaker of George’s death site, has no question George was Booth.

“I adamantly believe he was,” Frazee said. “I believe it’s highly possible.”

Frazee said he believes Booth came to Texas, and then Oklahoma, because he didn’t want to share the fate of his convicted conspirators on the gallows.

“I believe Booth did not want to have his neck stretched or be shot by a firing squad, which is why he escaped,” Frazee said.

Frazee offers tours of the room where George died, and T-shirts bearing Booth’s likeness can be found at Garfield Furniture and the Enid Welcome Center.

Proof Booth didn’t die in the barn at Garrett Farm may make David George even more of an attraction to Enid. The real import of that proof, Orlowek said, would be in changing the way we look at history.

“If we prove the man killed in the barn wasn’t John Wilkes Booth, then no historical fact will be safe from further examination,” Orlowek said. “It would fundamentally change the way history and contemporary events are viewed.”

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