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Did Booth escape after assassinating President Lincoln?

Published February 12. 2011 09:00AM

By jim zbick

It seems that whenever this nation suffers a catastrophic event, conspiracy rumors and theories are sure to follow. In just the last century, we've had the Pearl Harbor attacks, the Kennedy assassination and the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01.

Even though it was 145 years ago, a cloud of conspiracy also hangs over one of our country's most traumatic events - the assassination of President Lincoln. From the moment John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger in the presidential suite that day in Ford's Theatre, rumor and conspiracy theories started flowing.

One of the strongest and one that lingers to this day is that the assassin Booth escaped capture and actually lived another 38 years after that dark day in 1865. One story alleges that Booth became an Episcopal clergyman, settled in a Georgia town and was visited by his brother Edwin. He reportedly had a limp and was never able to disguise his bad temper or his love for liquor.

Others believe that Booth lived out his final days in Enid, Okla. There, tormented by his past, they claim he committed suicide.

One person who fanned the conspiracy flames while planting seeds of doubt was Laura Ida Booth, an actress who performed in patriotic musical sketches in the late 1800s and early 20th century. She claimed Booth escaped his pursuers after shooting Lincoln.

Although many saw him as the Brad Pitt of his day, Booth was not married at the time of the assassination. Laura said Booth did later marry and was her father.

While appearing at the Family Theatre in Mahanoy City in 1910, Laura shared her story which was carried in the Oct. 28, 1910, edition of the Tamaqua Courier.

Laura said it was James Ruddy, a Booth associate, who was shot and then dragged from a burning barn by Union soldiers in rural Northern Virginia 12 days after Lincoln's assassination. She said Ruddy's body and face were badly charred but since he carried papers and checks belonging to Booth, the soldiers believed they had bagged their man.

Laura said Booth's dental records proved her story. She said her father had missing teeth but that Ruddy, the man dragged out of he barn, did not.

Following his escape, Laura said Booth went to the mountains of Tennessee where he was considered to be a hero among the pro-Southern residents. This was the kind of adulation Booth had always expected and sought after killing the president.

Booth married and seven years later Laura was born, the only child of the union. Laura said her mother died in a fire in 1885.

Laura said Booth also lived in Mississippi and Arkansas and that she was raised by her grandmother in Fayetteville, Tenn. She continued to keep track of her father who, she said, lived under the alias David E. George before committing suicide by taking poison in Enid, Okla.

Laura said she inherited $28,000 from Booth's estate.

"She (Laura) declares that for years following the assassination of Lincoln, his conscience troubled him and he imagined at all times that the police were on his trail," the Courier article stated. "Before his death he prepared a long confession, giving the details of the crime and of his escape and later life. This was found with his body."

Laura claimed to possess original letters and photographs received by her father from his brother, Edwin Booth, which gave further proof of his identity. These letters were signed "Edwin" which also showed the degree of intimacy between the two men.

Laura hated reading accounts of the men who claimed to have pursued and helped kill John Wilkes Booth.

"She is certain that he was her father and that he lived until seven years (1903) ago when he died by his own hands," the Courier report stated.

A judge named Finis L. Bates also believed that the suicide victim in Enid, Okla., was indeed Booth. Bates even appealed to the U.S. House of Representatives to determine the identity of the embalmed corpse of the suicide.

His communication to congress stated:

"I knew Booth as John D. Heley while living in 1872, and was associated with him as my client until the fall of 1877 when we separated in western Texas, he going to Leadville, Colo., and I returning to Memphis. Booth left with me a small tintype for his future identification. This picture was taken some 12 years after the assassination of Lincoln and has been identified by Julius Brutus Booth, eldest nephew of John Wilkes Booth, as being the picture of his uncle. It has been identified by the famous actor, the late John Jefferson, and many others."

Modern science may have the final say in solving the Booth mystery. Last December, descendants of Edwin Booth obtained permission to exhume the Shakespearean actor's body in order to get DNA samples. In order to complete the match, the family hopes to obtain DNA samples from artifacts belonging to John Wilkes such as vertebrae stored at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland.

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