FBI: Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth

Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth_Page_082

“After a few hours’ rest for myself and horse, I • pushed on toward the west the remainder of the day and the forepart of the night, as best I could, but early in the night I rode into the thick brush located in a small creek bottom some distance from the road and remained there all night./The next morning I obtained breakfast for myself and feed for my horse from an elderly gentleman and lady at a little country home at an early hour without fur­ther incident and interest, save and except the enjoy­ment of the meal, when I turned my course to the southwest, as I had been directed, and followed this direction day after day, impersonating the character of a Confederate soldier. Continuing on down through West Virginia, I crossed the Big Sandy river at Warfield, in Eastern Kentucky, and after travel­ing from Warfield for about two days, and covering a distance of fifty or sixey miles in a southwesterly direction from Warfield, I, as well as my horse, was about worn out, and I was therefore compelled to rest for about a week, claiming to be a wounded Confederate soldier. The parties with whom I stopped was a widow lady and her young son, whose name I can not now remember. But after receiving their kind attentions and needed rest, I resumed my journey with the purpose of traveling to the south until I could reach the Mississippi river at a safe point for crossing it, and find my way into the Indian Territory as the best possible hiding place, in my opinion.

“I finally reached without incident worthy of mention the Mississippi river and crossed the same at what was called Catfish Point, in the State of Mississippi. This point is a short distance south of where the Arkansas river empties into the Mis­sissippi river. I followed the south and west bank of the Arkansas river until I reached the Indian Ter­ritory, where I remained at different places, hid­ing among the Indians for about eighteen months, when I left the Indian Territory and went to Ne­braska and was at Nebraska City employed by a white man to drive a team connected with a wagon train going from Nebraska City, Nebraska, to Salt Lake City, Utah. This man was hauling provisions for the United States government to the Federal troops encamped at Salt Lake City. But I left this wagon train while en route, just before we got to Salt Lake City, and proceeded to San Francisco, California, to meet my mother and my brother, Junius Brutus Booth. After meeting my mother and brother and remaining a while there, I left and went into Mexico. From there I went up through Texas, finally stopping at Glenrose Mills and Grand­berry, Texas, where we are now.

“Of course, I could add many matters of interest to what I have said to you, but I have told you quite sufficient for the present,” saying which he gave me a look of inquiry as much as to say, “Well, what do you thing of me now?” I broke my long, intense and interested silence by saying, as I rose from my seat and looked at my watch:

“It is now about our lunch hour; suppose we re­turn to town,” to which St. Helen assented.



As we were returning to town I continued the sub­ject of our conversation by saying to St. Helen that I had little knowledge of the history of the matters about which he had spoken so in detail, but as of gen­eral information knew that John Wilkes Booth had assassinated President Lincoln, though had no accur­ate knowledge of the facts as detailed by him of the President’s assassination, such as would enable me to reach the conclusion, as to the correctness or incor­rectness of his statement, for I having been a small boy at the close of the Civil War had not had the opportunity to know much of the history of the war, and less of the facts touching the tragic death of President Lincoln, and therefore was left alone to judge of the truth of what he said by the impressions and convictions that his mere relation of it created on my mind. The truth being that I did not believe his story and sought the first opportunity to close an interview as abhorrent as it was disbelievable by me. And out of charity I had begun to regard St Helen as an insane man, bordering in fact upon vio­lent madness, but I said to him:

“I have learned to know and like you as John St. Helen, but I would not know how to regard you and associate with you as John Wilkes Booth, the assassin, and to be kind and generous to you as my friend, I must say I do not believe your story. First because, I like St. Helen, and in the second place is it not true that John Wilkes Booth was killed soon after the as­sassination of President Lincoln, such as has been the general information heretofore practically unquentionedf No, St. Helen, not against my will and in face of these facts can I believe you the assassin and criminal you claim to be. And giving you the benefit of the doubt of your sanity I must decline to accept your story as true. It is possible you may have known Booth and the secrets of his crime and escape, and it is possible that from your brooding over this subject your mind has become shaken and you imagine your­self Booth. To me you are my friend John St. Helen— not the wicked and archcriminal, the assassin, John Wilkes Booth. It would take even more than your sane statement to make me believe that you are any other than John St. Helen. I can’t believe that one of your humane instincts, possessed, as I think I know you to be, of all the attributes of gentle breeding and culture, with the highest order of intellect and re­finement blended with beautiful sentiment, and possessed of a soul unalloyed with crime, can be John Wilkes Booth. Could a man seeming­ly possessed of such attributes, protected by a strong manhood, without physical or mental fear, without an apparent taint of the composition of cow­ardice, play the part of an assassin 1 Booth may have been possessed of all the qualities that it takes to make up the assassin, but St. Helen! In my opinion, no, if I mistake not your character. You would have met the man you sought to slay to the forefront and bid him with equal chance defend the life you would take.

“Then, too, did not the government of the United States announce to the American people, and as for that matter, to the civilized world, that Booth was killed and the death of President Lincoln avenged t Then do you say it is a fact that Booth was not killed at the Garrett barn in Virginia? It is a physical fact that some man was killed at the Garrett home. If not Booth who was this man?”

St. Helen replied by saying, “As you have heard that a man was killed at the Garrett barn, and without positive or direct proof as to who this man was, yet from the circumstances I would say that it was Buddy, the man with whom I had negotiated for my personal leading, incident, for I taEe it to be true that these documents unexplained found upon the body of any­one, and surely by those who did not know me, would reasonably and rightfully justify the conclusion that they had the body of John Wilkes Booth, but they were in fact mistaken. And I do not for one moment deliverance, together with that of my accomplice, David E. Herold, to the Confederate soldiers. You will remember I paid this man with a check made payable to my order by a Canadian bank, and if he did, as I requested, which he promised to do and left me to do, he got my letters, pictures, etcetera, out of the wagon, as I have explained to you, as he was to bring them to me at the Garrett home on the day or night following the day that I left the Garrett home, as I have also explained to you. I take it, without personal knowledge of the facts, that Ruddy and Her­old came to the Garrett home, as prearranged and promised when we separated at the ferry on the Rap­pahannock river, so that the Federal troops, by some means, traced me to the Garrett home, where they found Herold and Ruddy, killing Ruddy and captur­ing Herold. They found on the body of Ruddy the check for sixty pounds, together with my letters, and I think a picture, and by reason of finding these bekngings of mine on the body of Ruddy, I presume they identified it as the body of myself. By this misdoubt the sincerity of the individual members of the government or officers and men who captured Herold and killed, as I suppose, Buddy, in believing that they had killed me, and it was certainly a reasonable and justifiable mistake if they had no other means of identifying me than the check and documents found on the man or body of the man whom we have called Buddy. But in this connection I desire to say, so that my conscience shall be clear and confession complete, that I have no cause to complain of the treatment that I have received at the hands of the Federal soldiers or officers in pursuit of me before and after the killing of President Lincoln, for they were more than once in plain and broad view of me. It is a little remarkable, don’t you think, that it was possible for me to remain within the Federal lines for seven or more entire days and nights, within forty miles of Washington City, in a country entirely open and within the territory completely occupied by the Fed­eral troops, while I waited for Buddy to go within the Confederate lines and arrange to have Confederate soldiers meet us at the Rappahannock river, as the safest and most certain means of my escape ?”

“Then, it is your contention, St. Helen, that the circumstances of finding your letters, etc., on Buddy’s body was all the proof they had?”

“Certainly, they could have only had circumstantial proof—not having killed me. They could only reach the conclusion from the incident mentioned, and I am before you now as a physical monument to the fact that I was not killed.”

“Yes, but I, in my opinion, as well as a large majority of the American people, believe that the gov­ernment has in its possession absolute and positive proof of the killing and death of Booth. However this may be, I shall continue to know and associate with you only as John St. Helen, until I shall have more satisfactory proof of your identity,” when so saying St. Helen and I separated and went our dif­ferent ways to a late luncheon. While I as a fact had little or no confidence in the story told me by St. Helen and did not believe St. Helen to be Booth, still his manner, directness and detail of his statement left its impress on me and gave a justifiable cause for serious reflection.

The former pleasant relation between St. Helen and myself could not be continued with him as Booth, for we forget to recognize merit and friendship in one’s character where there is much to be otherwise condemned. In fact we find our friendship paling to contempt and our admiration to scorn. The criminal becomes common place and unattractive, because he is unworthy, regardless of his physical attractiveness or mental attainments. We recognize in him the villain. What we may call St. Helen’s con­fession tended to clear up the mystery he had thrown around himself when he sought to avoid his appearance before the Federal court at Tyler, by saying his true name was not St. Helen, and I now think of his confession in the light of his hard fight and the payment of money to avoid being taken within the settled and civilized sections of the state of Texas, lest he should be identified to be another than John St, Helen. This was a suspicious circumstance, at least, that in fact St. Helen was Booth, or some other man than St. Helen, for as a fact if he was Booth it was possible and highly probable that he would have been identified by some of the court officials, especially by the United States District Attorney, Col. Jack Evans, who it is more than probable had seen John Wilkes Booth on the stage. Knowing the District Attorney as I did, as also from information of his frequent trips to Washington and Eastern cities during the days of Booth’s triumphs before the footlights would show a well founded reason why St. Helen should not have taken the risk incident to a trip to Tyler, if in fact he was Booth. Then I would think he could have been equally as well John St. Helen, John Smith or John Brown, or any other man, who had committed some crime other than that of the assassination of President Lincoln, for the commission of which he would have been equally as anxious to avoid detection under any other name or for any other crime, if such crime had any connection with the violation of the Federal law. In other words, he could as well have been a mail robber as the assas­sin of a President. So, that I could place but little importance in these statements and circumstances as a proof that St. Helen was in fact John Wilkes Booth, but rather thought of his confession as an evidence of an identity not yet spoken of. So that the true identity of this mysterious St. Helen became more mystifying. Then I would think of what St Helen had said when he thought he was making his dying declaration that he was John Wilkes Booth. And if this was not true why need he in the presence of impending death, as he thought, make the confession that he was Booth? Then, too, I would think this confession was without significance, as St. Helen seemed prompted by no purpose after he had been saved from the Federal court and from death, except to prove to me the fact of his true identity, for what interest could it have been to me or what could it avail Booth, his purpose having been accomplished? So reasoning from the standpoint of cause or motives the conclusions reached were first, that St. Helen was not Booth, because he disclosed his secret without an apparent necessity, or from a business point of view, and not likely from a matter of sentiment Then I would think, is the man demented! And is he living without purpose or reason! Or is he conscience stricken and telling the truth for the relief that its confession brings to him! And thus can reason answer!

Resting in this state of mind I waited an opportune time when St. Helen and myself were retired, effect­ually hidden from intrusion, and expressed to him my apprehension of his perfect sanity as well as of his true identity, and asked him to more fully explain why he had made this confession to me at a time when he supposed he was in his last illness that he was John Wilkes Booth. And that if as a matter of fact he was John Wilkes Booth, why he wanted me to know it. St. Helen, without hesitation but with slow and deliberate expression in substance said:

“I have spoken to you in good faith and in very truth, having in no way deceived or in any manner misled you, and had thought in the statements I have made you I had clearly shown my purpose. But hav­ing failed in this I realize my fault, possibly produced by my long habit of secretiveness of purpose, that my conversations may more or less partake of the long hidden mystery of my life, and in themselves appear mystifying and contradictory in a measure to the legal mind. But you will remember that I gave you these reasons some time ago—that it was first a duty I owe myself and family name that the world might know the motives for my crime. Then, too, I reflect, that my crime is possibly without paliation, certainly has no justifying excuse in the eyes of the world. That in fact the greater part of my purpose in the con­fession I have made you was to secure my release from an attendance on the Federal court. Other than tips selfish motive you can not easily understand, and now in the light of what I have said to you I must confess that I, in fact, think that I was moved by a desire of finding a confidant to whom at a chance risk of my life I could speak fully of my identity and unbur­dened the story of my crime to you, for Ood and the criminal himself only know the punishment it is for one not to be able to take his trouble to a friend and unfold his mind to the ear which will listen with pity, if not approval, and at least share with him the knowledge of his crime. To you, free from crime, it will doubtless occur that this could at most be but lit­tle consolation, but don’t forget that any consolation at all is better than none, and that the life of man at best is but a parasite on the life of others; his friends who give hope of the impossible to himself make life worth the living, and friendships kindled into faith become the beacon fires which illume the hours of our darkness beyond the sunlights of today, and through the shadowed valley to the great beyond where God rules and Justice obtains throughout the time of all eternity.

“After all, be it so. Having made known to you my true identity and the cause of my crime, although I know that you by your actions condemn me in fact, I would think less of you if you did not, for I myself confess, and would the power I had to condemn that which you condemn, conscious that the Arbiter of our being is pitiless in accusation, ever present in persecu­tion and tireless in punishment. Yes, I walk in the companionship of crime, sleep within the folds of sin and dream the dreams of the damned and awake to go forth by all men accused as well as self-condemned. Ah, aweary, aweary! Shall I say that I would that I were dead? Yes, that I could on the wings of the wind, by a starless and moonless night, be gone in flight to the land of perpetual silence, where I could forget and be forgotten, and whisper to my weary soul, ‘Peace, be still.’ But for me, except in death, there is no rest, for God in the dispensation of His justice ordains that the criminal shall suffer the pangs of his own crime. Why, then, should I hope? But hopeless I may turn when all nature is hushed and hear the voice of the supernatural saying:

” ‘Look, Repent and Confess.’ When shines with’ in the light of the star of Bethlehem I shall see ex­tended to me the outstretched arms of the Sainted Mother Mary, I look, repent and confess, and the fires of hope shall rekindle at the urn of my being, with the fagots of incense burning in holy light giv­ing off the perfume of frankincense and myrrh—a food for and a purification of the soul. And this alone can bring relief to my physical and spiritual being. And in my confession to you I appealed for the pity of man that I might live in common knowledge with some one man, the secret that I, John Wilkes Booth, did make my escape after the killing of President Lincoln, whose life to replace I would gladly give my own.”

When I said to St. Helen, drop the curtain on the beautiful sentiments expressed and for awhile listen to me. The statements that you made with reference to Mrs. Surratt and her son John Surratt can readily be accepted as reasonable, but if you mean to say that Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, was the leading con­spirator and had formed a plan to kidnap and finally suggested the assassination of President Lincoln, it is startling to a point of disbelief, an insult to Ameri­can manhood! It traduces the character of a dead man, and is equalled only by the depravity and cowardice characterizing the act of the assassination of President Lincoln. No! I can not yet with­out more proof believe the statement that you make to be a fact. What reason, I pray, could Andrew Johnson have in being a party to the assassination of President Lincoln under the circumstances, or even under other circumstances than such as you have stated?” St. Helen, replying in substance, said: “I am not unmindful of what my statements imply and weigh the consequences as well as to measure my words, when I say that in the light of after events, it was in fact Vice-President Johnson’s only purpose in planning and causing the assassination of President Lincoln, to make himself President of the United States, but he then gave as his reason, among oth­ers, which I have before explained to you, that Pres­ident Lincoln, by the act of the emancipation of the slaves of the South, had violated the constitutional rights of property of the Southern people and rea­soned that if he would override the Constitution of the United States in this respect that Mr. Lincoln was a dangerous man to be President, for that he could with the same propriety and that he would in his (Mr. Johnson’s) opinion continue his policy of the confiscation of the remaining properties of the people of the South. That he (Mr. Johnson) was a Southern man and a citizen resident of the South, and it was reasonable to expect, believe, and in fact know, that he would do more for the South under the then existing conditions than President Lin­coln, who, Mr. Johnson contended, was the South’s greatest enemy, saying that he (Mr. Johnson) was present at a cabinet meeting prior to September 22nd, 1864, by invitation of President Lincoln, when the question of the emancipation of slavery was to be dis­cussed and that upon this occasion it was developed that five out of seven members of President Lincoln’s cabinet, as follows, Wells, Smith, Seward, Blair and Bates, were opposed to the issuance and promulgation of the emancipation proclamation, and the argument made by those men in opposition was that such a proclamation by the chief executive, overriding the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Dred Scott case, was an usurpation of the law and constitution of the United States. To this Presi­dent Lincoln replied:

” ‘The legal objections raised in opposition to the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation free­ing the negro slaves of the United States is well founded and true, but I believe it would be a vital stroke against our sister states in rebellion, and believ­ing this as I do, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and as President of the United States, I shall issue this proclamation as a war measure, believing it to be my official duty. Believing, as I do, that the freedom of the negroes is humane and meritorious and ft blow to the enemy which it can not long withstands and from my understanding of my official dual capac­ity as President of the United States as its Civil Officer and Commander-in-Chief of the Army from a military standpoint, I violate no law or official trust in doing what in my opinion is best and just in the suppression of the present rebellion.’

” ‘This act of President Lincoln,’ continued Mr. Johnson, ‘Was earnest of his policy to be carried out toward the subjugated South.’

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