The Mummy of John Wilkes Booth

by Gordon Grice

06/29/2016

“My ashes, as the phoenix, may bring forth A bird that will revenge upon you all.”

— William Shakespeare

 

1 In a Lonely Place

A cold rain is falling in Enid, Oklahoma. Inside Garfield Furniture, customers bustle, their shoes squeaking on the burnished wood floor. I seem to be the only one waiting to see a historical oddity the locals call “the Death Room.” (They smirk when they say it.) When there’s a lull in the trade, the proprietor greets me and guides me up a narrow staircase.

A century ago the furniture store was a hotel, and on the second floor its honeycomb of tiny rooms is mostly intact, and mostly crammed with excess inventory. He takes me into the Death Room, the walls of which are covered with tatters of turn-of-the-century wallpaper. In this narrow cell—maybe six feet wide, with walls reaching far short of the ceiling—the furniture is a century old. It’s set up as if for living—an iron bedstead with a thin mattress, a wash stand and basin, a table and hard-backed chair.

An array of photocopied documents covers the bed: insurance maps showing the location of the town’s businesses 96 years ago, a handwritten will, newspaper clippings, and a photograph of a mummified corpse sitting in a chair, eyes wide, with a newspaper spread in its lap.

The proprietor tells the story.

2 The Death of David George

In 1903, Oklahoma was not yet a state. The town of Enid, a city on the plains of north-central Oklahoma that now has a population of 49,000, was then a decade old, having formed literally overnight in a land run. It was an agglomeration of red cedar and pine buildings leaning on each other’s shoulders, the land just beginning to be marked out from the surrounding prairie by lawns and hedges. The Old West may have been dying out, but in the Oklahoma Territory there were still long-riding outlaws with names like Rattlesnake Jim and Dynamite Dick. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Marquis James, who was a boy in Enid at the time, remembered being brought to the jail to shake hands with a dying killer named Dick Yeager.

James described the settlers of this “ancestorless country” as “people who for one reason or another had lost out, been run out or weren’t doing well enough to suit themselves in the places they came from.” Debtors, wanted men, elopers, men escaping paternity suits, itinerant printers forced out of the cities by the coming of the linotype, laborers rushing from town to town with the building booms. It was bad manners to ask about a man’s past here. Most of the transitory populace lived in hotel rooms like the one I’m standing in, rooms more like horse stalls than human habitations.

Among the apparently rootless men of Enid in January 1903 was a 60-ish man who had been in town for only a few weeks. He had registered at the Grand Avenue Hotel under the name David E. George. In his three weeks in Enid, he had already run up tabs at several bars and hocked his watch for whiskey. His most successful gambit for getting drinks without cash was to recite poetry and passages of Shakespeare. (“It may have sounded like Shakespeare to the men in the saloons who heard it,” one resident said decades later. “But we didn’t know much of Shakespeare in Oklahoma Territory in those days.”)

Richard, Duke of Gloucester
(later King Richard III):My eye’s too quick, my heart o’erweens too much,

Unless my hand and strength could equal them.

. . . 

Then, since this earth affords no joy to me,

But to command, to cheque, to o’erbear such

As are of better person than myself,

I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown.

George was given to “bouts of melancholy” when he drank and did morphine or opium. In those days you could buy morphine over the counter along with your monthly supply of Electric Bitters or Dr. Thacher’s Liver & Blood Syrup. He had recently told the proprietor of the Grand Avenue Hotel not to trouble with his body if he were found dead someday, but to toss it out the back door.

Early one morning George bought enough arsenic to kill a troublesome dog several times over. Everyone in the neighborhood, including the druggist’s clerk, had heard the dog in question baying all night. George claimed he would ease everyone’s sleep.

Back in his room, he swallowed the arsenic himself. A large dose of arsenic is a painful way to die. George’s cries roused the house. His door was locked, but two men boosted a third over the transom into his room. The men found George convulsing on the bed. By the time a doctor arrived, George had lapsed into a coma. Soon he was dead.

His body was taken to W. B. Penniman’s mortuary and furniture store. Two days later, Penniman’s assistant was at work on the body when a couple named Harper came in. Before moving to Enid, the Harpers had lived some 60 miles away in the town of El Reno, where they had known George. Mrs. Harper said George had tried to kill himself with an overdose of morphine once before. Believing himself on his deathbed, he had told Mrs. Harper he was John Wilkes Booth, the man who killed Lincoln.

Soon others came forward with similar stories. A legend was born.

It’s not the only legend of death and rebirth I’ll learn in Enid.

Richard III’s mother:

Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my Hell.
A grievous burden was thy Birth to me,
Tetchy and wayward was thy Infancy.
Thy School-days frightful, desp’rate, wild, and furious,
Thy prime of Manhood daring, bold, and venturous:
Thy Age confirmed, proud, subtle, sly, and bloody,
More mild, but yet more harmful; Kind in hatred.

Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end:
Shame serves thy life, and doth thy death attend.

3 The Assassination

John Wilkes Booth may have been the most popular actor in America in 1865. He came from a family of actors, but at age 26 he had already surpassed his famous father and brother in popularity. One newspaper called him “the most handsome man on the American stage.” He received a hundred love letters a week. His annual income was about $20,000, 50 times that of an average working man. He was sexy and charismatic, and his reviewers usually alluded to his “flashing black eyes.” His signature role was the demonic Richard III.

Richard III:

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,

And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,

And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,

And frame my face to all occasions.

I can add colours to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,

And set the murderous Machiavel to school.

Offstage, Booth was a romantic who gave himself to torrid affairs, extravagant drink, and lost causes. As a boy in military school, he had taken part in an armed insurrection against his cruel masters—and was successful in having the school’s draconian policies softened. Although he spent the Civil War years in the North, he loudly supported the Southern cause. When Abraham Lincoln, an avid theater-goer, saw Booth in a play and asked to meet with him, Booth refused; he hated what Lincoln stood for. Preaching the Southern cause in the North was risky, but Booth’s popularity and family connections protected him. Some of his colleagues had the impression his support for the South was more pose than reality. “He was so infected and unbalanced by his profession that the world seemed to him to be a stage on which men and women were acting, living, their parts,” wrote his contemporary Joel Chandler Harris.

Sometime during the war, Booth became involved in a conspiracy. At first, the idea was to kidnap President Lincoln and several other top government officials and use them to force an exchange, freeing Southern prisoners of war. This plan seemed to be the only way to reverse the South’s declining fortunes. But the plan fell apart. In the end, Booth decided the only way to salvage things was to kill Lincoln instead.

As Lincoln watched a play the evening of April 14, 1865, Booth walked into Ford’s Theater, where he had worked as an actor many times before, and where his presence aroused no suspicion. Lincoln’s bodyguard stepped away from his post to watch the play. Booth slipped into the private box where Lincoln sat. He shot Lincoln behind the ear, the bullet sluicing diagonally through the President’s brain before lodging. Booth tossed his derringer aside and drew a knife, which he used to wound the soldier sitting beside Lincoln. Then he leapt from the box to the stage 14 feet below. As he leapt, the spur of his boot caught in the American flag that draped the front of the box. He crashed to the stage, breaking his leg. The sound of his gunshot had been swallowed in the audience’s chatter. When Booth made his clumsy appearance on stage, every person in the theater recognized him. There was applause, mixed with murmurs of confusion. Booth shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!”—“such always to tyrants”—and fled. The poet Walt Whitman said Booth made this exit in a style suggesting he had rehearsed it.

Until the moment of his death, Lincoln was the most unpopular president in American history, reviled in the South as a dictator and lampooned in the North for his intention to preserve the defeated South. Almost overnight, the martyred Lincoln, the first American president to be assassinated, became a symbol of integrity, a sort of political saint. At the same time, Booth, the country’s most popular actor, suddenly became its most notorious criminal. Whole families of Booths changed their surnames; fans ripped his photo from their scrapbooks.

The government launched an investigation. Eight people were eventually convicted in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln and other Northern leaders; four were executed, including Mary Surratt, the first woman legally executed in the United States. Even conservative historians soon came to believe the conspiracy was broader, and perhaps included government officials who were never indicted; Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is often mentioned. Booth had escaped, and the government immediately arranged a reward for his capture. Twelve days after the assassination, soldiers tracked Booth to a tobacco shed on the Garrett farm in Virginia. Booth refused to surrender. When he raised his gun to fire on soldiers, a sergeant named Boston Corbett dropped him with a single shot which took him in the back of the neck—two inches from the location of Lincoln’s fatal wound. He was buried under the stone floor of a military prison. Four years later, his family managed to have his body exhumed and transferred to the family plot in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery.

Richard III:

For many lives stand between me and home:

And I—like one lost in a thorny wood,

That rends the thorns and is rent with the thorns,

Seeking a way and straying from the way;

Not knowing how to find the open air,

But toiling desperately to find it out—

Torment myself to catch the English crown.

That’s the official ending of the story. Alternate stories of Booth’s fate cropped up almost immediately, partly because of suspicious loose ends in the Lincoln assassination—pages missing from Booth’s diary, Booth’s calling card left for Vice President Andrew Johnson on the day of the assassination, General Grant mysteriously canceling his plan to see the play with Lincoln that night. Dr. Frederick May, who had once cut a tumor from Booth’s neck, remarked upon seeing the official corpse that it looked nothing like Booth. But he changed his mind when he saw the familiar surgical scar. The central premise of the alternate stories is that Booth escaped while another man was killed in his place, and highly-placed conspirators covered up the switch.

4 Our Best Murderer

The rain has turned to a slushy snow by the time I get to the Museum of the Cherokee Strip. A man behind the counter has silver-and-gold hair and wears wire-frame glasses and a red Izod cardigan. He is, I soon discover, a published Egyptologist, which seems an odd specialty for somebody who works in a museum in Enid, Oklahoma. He begins a standard spiel—a gallery to your right, our reconstructed turn-of-the-century town through that door—but stops when he sees my notebook come out from under my rain coat.

“Are you researching something in particular?” he says. I think I detect a hint of trepidation in his voice.

“I’m interested in the mummy of John Wilkes—” I begin. He silences me with a bored nod and a grim smile. I’ve come to know the look well since my arrival in Enid.

He turns to a colleague at the other end of the counter. “Steve, he’s another of the David E. Georges.”

Steve Dortch, the museum’s curator, is dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt. “I’ll be glad to argue David E. George with you,” he says with a West Texas accent. “Which side you want me to take?”

I insist I want his true opinion, so he decides to argue both sides of the case. He begins with the factors in favor of George’s authenticity, counting them off on the fingers of his right hand: “He looked like Booth. He was about the right age. He’d had a broken leg; Booth broke his leg when he jumped to the stage and got his spur tangled in the flag. David E. George had a flattened-out finger, so did Booth. George was a bad Shakespearean actor, so was Booth.

“On the other hand!” Dortch says. After a dramatic pause, he begins to count the reasons for George’s fraudulence, literally on his other hand. “One, anybody could have a broken leg, or limp and say he had a broken leg. Two, what would a bunch of uneducated rednecks know about Shakespeare? He could have been faking that.”

“But what do you think?” I interrupt.

“I think he said it to get people to buy him drinks.”

The first man, whose name is Glen McIntyre, chips in. “We don’t want to throw water on your project, but…” According to McIntyre’s theory, George, who was a drug addict and perhaps schizophrenic, might have believed his own claim. McIntyre adds a theory an acquaintance of his came up with, which is that George had made his living passing himself off as Booth at opera houses and theaters on the frontier before Booth became a notorious assassin.

McIntyre tells about the local David E. George Society, where the only requirement for membership is to have an opinion about George’s authenticity and be willing to argue the point.

“That society is more or less a joke,” Dortch says.

“You guys seem kind of impatient with the George story,” I observe.

“The trouble with people in Enid,” Dortch says, “is they want a tourist attraction, but they don’t want to charge admission. Enid has so many historically interesting personalities; it’s a shame that our claim to fame is some dead old drunken fraud.” He lists Clyde Cessna of airplane fame, the inventor of the Geronimo car, and an astronaut whose name he can’t immediately recall. Then he tells about Dolly Douthitt.

Mrs. Douthitt was a pioneer who claimed a homestead in the county in 1893, the year Enid came into existence. Her first historically noteworthy act was in 1904, the year after David George’s suicide. Having surprised her husband in the barn during a romantic interlude with a maid, Mrs. Douthitt shot him on the spot. Before dying of the wound, Mr. Douthitt made out a will leaving his wife a share of his estate on the condition she never remarry. His will also asked that she not be prosecuted for his murder—a dying wish that was granted.

Richard III’s father:

O tiger’s heart, wrapped in a woman’s hide.

Mrs. Douthitt was only 31, and though she abided by her dead husband’s injunction against remarriage, she took a lover. This man apparently did something to displease his paramour, for one morning as he lay sleeping, she castrated him with a straight razor. The man ran from the house and traveled on foot to the hospital. Along the way he crossed a creek bottom and paused to say good morning to the paperboy. Despite losing a long trail’s worth of blood, he survived. Mrs. Douthitt again escaped prosecution.

But her difficulties weren’t over. One of her daughters went insane. Another, who had the memorable name of Mona Loma Thelma Pearl Douthitt Hourahan, became despondent over her husband’s supposed infidelities. She had to try six drugstores before she found one that would sell her cyanide—perhaps the druggists remembered the case of David E. George. When she did score some cyanide, she used it to dispatch her husband and herself. “Life and men are such disappointments,” her suicide note explained.

Two years after her daughter’s suicide, Dolly Douthitt, having run into financial trouble, found herself in court to answer several lawsuits. She acted as her own attorney, and her defense ran as follows: “You fiends, you sons of bitches, I will get you all!” So saying, she produced a pistol and began shooting. Her first bullet lodged in the empty jury box. Her second was apparently aimed at the groin of opposing counsel. It went slightly high, puncturing the man’s intestines 13 times. He fell to the floor with a law book in his hands. This he handed to a fellow attorney, asking him to return it to the mutual acquaintance who had lent it.

Another attorney ran out of the courtroom and into the street, where he is alleged to have tripped and rolled to the far curb. Two more attorneys took shelter under a table. Mrs. Douthitt’s third shot was meant for the judge, but it only marred the sleeve of his tweed coat. Her fourth effort, a clean miss, was directed at yet another attorney, who tossed a file full of papers into Mrs. Douthitt’s face. The judge, having apparently tired of the matter, descended from his bench, seized Mrs. Douthitt from behind, and choked her until her tongue protruded and her grip on the gun loosened. She was sent to a mental institution.

“So if you want criminals,” Dortch concludes, “David E. George is not even the best murderer Enid has to offer.”

5 Alternate Histories

Accounts of Booth’s activities after his hypothetical escape from Garrett’s tobacco shed are staggering in their variety. Newspapers reported Booth sightings for decades after 1865, sometimes in the tongue-in-cheek spirit familiar to followers of current Elvis encounters. Booth continued his acting career in Brazil under the name Unos, or he escaped to Europe on a steamer. His latter-day job descriptions included schoolteacher, house painter, and buffalo wagon driver. He lived in New Orleans or Atlanta, died in California or Indiana, England or India. “There’s a whole slew of them in Mississippi,” says author and filmmaker Michael W. Kauffman, who wrote a book on Booth. Kauffman has recorded more than 40 claimants to the title of “the real Booth.”

In one of Booth’s several Tennessee incarnations, a man named John W. Burks sought shelter at the Brigham farm near Erin after the war. He soon won the love of the young lady of the house, a Miss Georgia Brigham, but told her he could not marry because circumstances forced him to live under an assumed name. His wardrobe of velvet suits and silk hats impressed neighbors, as did his apparently ample supply of gold. Burks confessed to being Booth on at least two occasions, and his neighbors believed him to be the legitimate article. He died of typhoid in 1871. Journalist T. H. Alexander, who reported the Burks case in 1932, attributed the credulity of the “romance-starved countryside” to the hard life of Southerners during Reconstruction. Alexander also noted dryly that Burks misspelled “Wilkes” when he autographed a photo for Georgia Brigham.

Granbury, Texas, also has its own Booth (and, incidentally, its own Jesse James). John St. Helen came to the Granbury area in the early 1870s. St. Helen was a flamboyant bartender and rogue known for his dapper dress, his courtly manners, and his barroom conversation, which was studded with orations from Shakespeare. When a minor legal matter involving a liquor license required a court appearance, St. Helen, averse to contact with the law, hired an attorney named Finis L. Bates to help him pay his way out of the scrape. In 1872, St. Helen, sick and fearing for his life, allegedly confessed to Bates that he was Booth. St. Helen recovered his health and eventually left the area. In 1898, Bates, having apparently spent years researching the Lincoln assassination, was ready to present his theory of Booth’s continued survival to the government. He tried to claim the bounty on Booth by turning in his former client. The soldiers who shot the man in Garrett’s tobacco shed had already collected the reward, and Bates was informed the government had “no interest” in the matter. Bates’s next gambit was to propose a book exposing St. Helen. No publisher was interested.

Whether St. Helen actually made a confession is a debatable point. Some of his contemporaries said the confession was exactly the sort of thing he might have said to young Bates as a joke. Years earlier, St. Helen had confessed to being a son of Marshall Michel Ney. Ney, a battlefield commander under Napoleon, was the subject of escape legends like those surrounding Booth. Officially executed as a traitor after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Ney was said to have used his Masonic connections to escape to America, where he lived as a schoolteacher.

When the story of David E. George hit the newspapers in 1903, lawyer Finis Bates appeared in Enid, claiming George was really St. Helen and both were Booth. Despite his earlier efforts to cash in, Bates wept at the sight of George’s corpse and called it “my old friend St. Helen.” His renewed claims on the bounty were fruitless. His second attempt at a book found a publisher. The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, published in 1907, presents an intricate biography of Booth after Garrett’s farm, much of it based on statements St. Helen supposedly made to Bates in Texas.

From the time of David E. George’s death, Bates had company—and competition—in his quest to turn George into cash. A woman wrote to Enid claiming to be Booth’s daughter by a post-war marriage and inquiring after her legacy. A traveling salesman named in one of George’s wills showed up to claim the estate. The trouble was that George seemed to make a will whenever he went on a bender and then forget about it when he sobered up. He also had a habit of willing away property he’d never owned.

At his death, George had precisely two cents in his pocket. Inquiries revealed a further estate worth $12. The various heirs vanished.

At the public library in Enid, I approach the man at the desk.

“I’m looking for information on the mummy of John—”

He stops me with the weary nod and directs me to the Marquis James Room upstairs. There I find two folders fat with press clippings and photocopied chapters.

One newspaper article reproduces a photo of Booth—one of the most often photographed human beings in that early photographic era. I glance up to a row of photos on the wall—Clyde Cessna, the Geronimo automobile, and other such Enid notables. There’s David E. George’s corpse in a chair with a newspaper spread in its lap. It’s the same photo I’ve seen at Garfield Furniture and the Museum of the Cherokee Strip, but a particularly large and clean print. George’s face happens to be turned the same way Booth’s is in the photocopy before me. I get a chill, because they look so much alike it’s hard not to see them as the same man.

6 The Mad Hatter

Richard III:

And from that torment I will free myself,

Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.

Abraham Lincoln died long before Enid came into being, but the city’s folklore is full of connections to the martyred president. Besides Booth, a first cousin of Lincoln’s is said to have lived in Enid, and the son of a tutor who worked for the Lincolns settled in the nearby town of Ames. And then there’s Boston Corbett, a man whose name is often preceded in popular accounts by the word mad.

Born Thomas H. Corbett in London, England, in 1832, he moved with his parents to New York when he was seven. As a young man, Corbett married and took up a career as a hatter. His wife died in childbirth, and Corbett immersed himself in the Bible and in meditations on sin. His solution to the problem of temptations of the flesh was to castrate himself with a pair of scissors. In 1858, Corbett took the name of the city where he was baptized as his own to commemorate his rebirth.

When the Civil War began, Corbett ardently opposed the South. He hated slavery and thought the South was acting in the service of the Devil. He signed up with the 12th New York Regiment.

By 1864 he was a prisoner of war, serving part of his time in Andersonville. That notorious camp starved prisoners to the bone, reducing people to living skeletons like those in German death camps 80 years later. At one point Andersonville produced 100 corpses a day, and scavenging animals defiled the shallow graves at night. At the war’s end Andersonville cemetery held 13,000 graves. Corbett didn’t have to wait for the end of the war; he returned to the North in a prisoner exchange in November 1864, but his health was broken. After a medical furlough, he returned to duty in what was expected to be a non-combat post, as part of the regiment’s headquarters detachment. One of the duties of this detachment was to ride in Lincoln’s funeral procession. That was the funeral that made flowers an American death-custom.

Despite their expectation of light duty, Corbett’s detachment was sent to pursue Booth. After three days in enemy territory with little food, they found him. Some histories have Corbett shooting Booth against orders in a fit of patriotic fervor, or even in response to a divine command; others portray him as an inside man sent to silence a ringer before he could talk. The truth, according to Corbett biographer Stephen G. Miller, is that the men of the detachment were under no orders to take Booth alive. Corbett fired when Booth raised his pistol to kill another man in Corbett’s detachment. Corbett aimed for Booth’s arm, but actually inflicted the fatal neck wound.

After the war Corbett spent time in New York City and in Camden, New Jersey. He preached and worked as a hatter, though poor health limited his activities. In 1878 a political connection landed him a job as a doorkeeper for the Kansas state legislature. He continued to preach, becoming a popular speaker across Kansas. His faith was not of the armchair variety; he was perpetually low on funds because he gave his money away to the poor.

Although he was widely regarded as a hero, Corbett received hate mail from Booth supporters. One letter said, “Nemesis is on your heels”—it was signed “John Wilkes Booth.” Such harassment seems to have changed Corbett. He developed a reputation as a man quick to draw his gun, though he never shot anybody. “He was wound pretty tight,” says Miller. One day Corbett went through the state capitol with his pistols drawn, issuing threats to legislators and others who got in his way. No one quite understood the cause of his rage. Having been subdued without any real violence, Corbett was committed to an asylum.

After more than a year of incarceration, Corbett made his escape. The inmates were on a nature walk when Corbett slipped away and stole a messenger’s pony. He turned up at the house of a friend named Thatcher in Neodesha, Kansas. Thatcher had met Corbett in Andersonville, and later had petitioned for his friend’s release from the asylum. He harbored his old comrade for several days.

And this is where Corbett’s fate, like Booth’s, splits in two. One version of history—the “official” one, if there is such a thing—claims Corbett was disgruntled that he had been treated as a madman in the country he had served so well. He vowed to leave the United States forever. Thatcher put him on a train for Mexico, and he was never seen in this country again.

The alternate version has Corbett turning up in Oklahoma around the turn of the century. A man named John Corbit worked as a patent medicine salesman here; his employer believed him to be Boston Corbett. Later, this same snake-oil salesman applied for the pension due to Corbett as a veteran. He was living in Enid in 1902 and 1903; he never offered any comment during the media coverage of David E. George’s death in that city. A government investigator denied Corbit’s claim on the grounds that he didn’t match the description of Corbett—he was, in fact, a head taller. The towering impostor did hard time for fraud.

Another variation has Jesse James poisoning George in Enid. James, who officially died 20 years earlier, is said to have accomplished this feat in his role as leader of a secret cabal of Masons. Yet another version plays on the fact that Corbett escaped the asylum in 1888, the same year Jack the Ripper began his career in London. Both men were violent; both were on record as having a problem with prostitutes. The connection is obvious, at least to some.

7 Mummified

Like every other part of the legend, George’s mummification has been explained in six or eight contradictory ways. One story claims the arsenic with which George killed himself did the job accidentally. The most plausible story comes from the pen of the undertaker, William Broadwell Penniman. It reads like Frankenstein, but, as one commentator noted, with more slapstick. The afternoon of the suicide, Penniman opened George’s right carotid artery and inserted an intravenous tube. He did this, he later wrote, “more to keep familiar with the anatomy of this part of the body than with the idea of preserving or disinfecting it.” Penniman made a bloody mess of this procedure. A witness fainted.

When Mrs. Harper identified George as Booth, Penniman claims to have issued the smooth reply, “That being the case, I believe I will embalm him and keep him.” Penniman made no effort to check Mrs. Harper’s information because the Booth story was “cheap advertising,” and he didn’t want it debunked. When Finis Bates announced his intention of coming from his home in Memphis to see the corpse, Penniman coated it in Vaseline, wrapped it up, and hid it. He would take no chances of Bates being “an irrational Southerner” with designs on the body.

After meeting Bates and hearing his tale of John St. Helen, Penniman seems to have changed his mind. He no longer regarded the Booth yarn as a temporary gimmick for advertising his furniture store. Now he began to see the possibility of real money. Accordingly, he made a further attempt at embalming, injecting a formaldehyde solution into the large arteries in the thighs, apparently in combination with an arsenic compound. “The effect was far from satisfactory,” he noted. “Within a few weeks the skin had the drawn and tanned look of an old mummy.” It was, Penniman confessed, an unnecessary procedure, which he followed with another. He repeated the embalming so that a salesman who supplied him with embalming chemicals could participate. The salesman, who was allowed to work on the body cavity, thought it would be a good selling point in his business to have embalmed Booth. His company used a photo of George’s corpse in a trade journal ad.

It was Penniman, abetted by Bates, who posed George’s corpse with its eyes open and a newspaper spread in its lap. At Bates’s suggestion, he combed George’s hair to resemble the coif in a tintype of St. Helen. The photograph of George in this position was taken before the “drawn and tanned” look set in; his appearance was still lifelike.

Penniman recruited local boys to work as tour guides. The boys—one of whom was the historian Marquis James—would greet people at the train station, telling them the body of Booth could be viewed for a dime. Enid briefly became a tourist stop. Penniman claimed some 10,000 people had viewed the body at his establishment. He made good money with his scheme, but the body suffered. Tourists swiped its collar buttons—more than 50 of them—for souvenirs and took locks of its hair. Once Penniman caught a tourist trying to carve off the corpse’s ear with a pocket knife.

8 Sideshow Days

When the mummy’s drawing power began to dwindle, Penniman finally handed it over to Bates, who had been claiming it since the beginning. Bates planned to make the mummy a sideshow, but couldn’t raise the cash. So he rented it out to other exhibitors, and John Wilkes Booth, or at least his facsimile, was back in show business. The corpse traveled as part of a show featuring lavish live marriages and freak animals. It emerged unscathed from a train wreck that killed eight people, which may have been when it picked up the legend of a Tut-style curse. Tutankhamen had only recently been dug up, and such stories were in vogue. It got kidnapped and ransomed. It was offered to Henry Ford for his museum in Dearborn, Michigan; Ford had the mummy investigated and found its credentials dubious.

By 1931, the mummy had somehow fallen into the possession of a Chicago woman named Agnes Black, who purportedly bought it for $8,000. Black, and the Chicago Press Club, arranged for a group of Chicago doctors to perform an autopsy to establish the mummy’s authenticity. The doctors, led by Orlando Scott, used Finis Bates’s book as a starting point. Bates listed Booth’s physical imperfections: a scar over his right eyebrow, the result of an accident during a stage duel; the left ankle broken in his leap to the stage at Ford’s theater; and a deformed right thumb crushed by a piece of stage gear. The thumb injury seems to have been unknown in Booth’s life before 1865. Bates apparently found out about it from a woman who claimed to have married yet another post-war Tennessee Booth.

Using gross examination and X-rays, the doctors supposedly found evidence of all three anomalies. An autopsy report signed by half a dozen physicians was issued to the press. The surgical scar on Booth’s neck is not mentioned in the report. But it is mentioned in an affidavit signed by two doctors who refused to sign the report. One of these renegade physicians attested that he had used a fluoroscope to look for scar tissue on the mummy’s neck—and found none. He said Orlando Scott had asked him to lie about this finding and go along with the “publicity stunt.” Dr. Scott told newspapers the X-rays had revealed a metal fragment in the mummy’s stomach, which the doctors retrieved by cutting through the mummy’s back. The fragment proved to be part of a signet ring bearing the letter B. The autopsy report does not mention the ring.

Booth scholar Blaine Houmes, who is also a physician and a deputy medical examiner, has seen the X-rays. He says they show no sign of a broken leg.

In 1932 a retired carnival performer named Barney Harkin owned the mummy. Harkin had worked as a tattooed man before settling down as a landlord in Chicago. The mummy lured him back. The eccentric Harkin believed Napoleon had escaped after Waterloo and a dummy had been sent to St. Helena in his place. That John Wilkes Booth was for sale in Chicago did not strike him as utterly improbable.

Harkin and his wife, Agnes, ran their show from a truck in which they slept at night, the mummy bunking between them for safety. Barney handled the gate; Agnes lectured the crowd, showing the Chicago X-rays and turning the mummy to show its shortened left leg. Hecklers sometimes claimed the figure was wax; she silenced them by rolling the mummy on its side and opening a flap in its back that had been cut at the autopsy. The mummy wore nothing but khaki shorts, and between shows Agnes Harkin lacquered its skin with Vaseline and combed its hair, which had gone white since the day David E. George expired with an atrocious dye job decades earlier.

Barney Harkin toured with the mummy into the 1950s. He died a destitute widower in Philadelphia. His landlady seized the mummy in lieu of his unpaid rent. The building where she stored it was demolished, and the mummy’s trail since then has been difficult to follow. Scattered reports had sideshows exhibiting the Booth mummy as recently as the mid-70s, alongside a pickled set of Siamese twins and the car in which Jayne Mansfield was decapitated. All sources seem to agree it’s now in the hands of “a private collector,” but this person declines to speak with the press.

Ken Hawkes, an autopsy assistant from Memphis, spent a decade searching for the mummy. If he ever finds it, he’ll happily buy it. But he’d settle for a few clippings and scrapings for testing and maybe a full-body X-ray. That sort of evidence might settle the debate for good. He estimates he has checked out 2,000 leads. He once came across a collector who owned the mummified leg of a victim in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and other collectors who had complete mummies of 1920s gangsters. One lead pointed to Seattle, where Ye Olde Curiosity Shop exhibits a mummy named Sylvester. Sylvester had indeed worked under the name John Wilkes Booth at one point in his own sideshow career, but old photos of the mummified David E. George make it clear that Sylvester was only a knock-off. Sylvester’s true identity has never been established.

Hawkes located several mummies kept in homes. Some of these are relatives of the people they now reside with. According to Hawkes, the publicity surrounding David E. George in the early 1900s created a fad for mummifying relatives with a combination of arsenic and formaldehyde.

Blaine Houmes says the X-ray pictures from 1931 are studded with granules of a heavy metal—doubtless arsenic. If the mummy still exists, the concentration of arsenic in its tissues makes it a health hazard. The elusive “private collector” may be breathing in death every day, dying of slow poison even as he hoards his immortal emblem.

9 We Belong to the Land

Four months after my first expedition to Enid, I make another. The town has been invaded by a heat wave and a steer convention. The sign on a bank says 103 degrees and the marquees on the hotels say WELCOME INTERNATIONAL BRANGUS ASSOCIATION. Brangus are a breed of cattle compounded of Brahman and Angus. I go to see the Brangus at the fairgrounds and, though no events are going on at this particular time, I see people in Wranglers and oversized belt buckles grooming their velvety black castratos. They’ve been brushed to an exquisite lacquer, like contestants in a beauty pageant. When a steer looks at me, it’s like gazing back into two cups of black coffee.

I visit the cemetery where lies the body of Dolly Douthitt, the colorful murderer the man at the museum told me about. The trees all around have a curiously ordered appearance, even for a cemetery. After a while I realize why. All of them, pines as well as elms, have been pruned up to about 10 feet, so that the whole expanse of the cemetery is visible under a green canopy. Through that canopy I can see hawks wheeling in the clear sky. The tune of the Oklahoma state song, from the Broadway musical, suddenly crawls through my mind: “Sit alone and talk, and watch a hawk makin’ lazy circles in the sky. We know we belong to the land…”

The grave is easy to find. The marker is a gray pedestal inscribed DOUTHITT, on top of which stands a six-foot black cylinder with shimmering flecks; on top of that stands a six-foot white angel holding flowers. Flanking this are two knee-high cylinders for husband and wife. The murdered husband’s epitaph reads, “God’s ways are mysterious. I am not afraid to die but want all those I have wronged to forgive me.” Dolly’s cylinder has nothing but her name and dates. Three of her children are buried in this patch of ground, all having died young; one is the suicidal Loma. The graves are pocked with the holes left by cicadas when they emerged from burrows to shuck their shells and become winged adults. I hear those insects in the barbered trees, singing in the heat.


Originally published (with additional photography) in This Land: Spring 2016