The purported mummy of John Wilkes Booth in 1937
Getty Images / William Vandivert / The LIFE Images Collection
The purported mummy of John Wilkes Booth in 1937.

In 1877, a young Granbury, Texas, lawyer was summoned to the bedside of a dying acquaintance. As Finis L. Bates entered the room, he saw a doctor holding the wrist of John St. Helen and timing the man’s fading pulse. “St. Helen is dying and wishes to speak to you alone,” the doctor said before leaving behind the lawyer and patient. Weak and barely conscious, St. Helen whispered, “I am dying. My name is John Wilkes Booth, and I am the assassin of President Lincoln.”

St. Helen lived through the night—as well as the next one and many more after that. According to Bates, St. Helen told him that Vice President Andrew Johnson had masterminded the assassination plot and had given him a password that allowed him to escape the massive manhunt. The man claiming to be Booth said that someone else had been killed in Richard Garrett’s tobacco barn on April 26, 1865, and passed off as the assassin to allow the pursuing posse to collect the sizable reward. St. Helen said that while an innocent man rested in peace in the Booth family plot in Baltimore, he drifted across the Wild West under various aliases.

Soon after St. Helen shared his story, he skipped town. More than a quarter-century later, Bates read a story in a Memphis newspaper that awoke old memories. In January 1903, a drifter named David E. George had locked himself in an Enid, Oklahoma, hotel room and committed suicide by ingesting a lethal quantity of arsenic. According to the news report, the wife of a local Methodist minister said that George had botched an earlier suicide attempt nine months earlier and, believing he was dying, confessed: “I am not David Elihu George. I am the one who killed the best man that ever lived. I am J. Wilkes Booth.” Side-by-side illustrations of Booth and George that ran in newspapers revealed a striking resemblance between the two mustachioed men. Newspapermen jumped on reports that Junius Brutus Booth III, nephew of the assassin, said that George resembled his uncle—without mentioning that Junius was born in 1868, three years after Lincoln’s murder, and had never set eyes on his uncle.

Bates, the grandfather of award-winning actress Kathy Bates, also recognized the man in the newspaper. It was John St. Helen. Bates hastened to Enid and found the embalmed body of the mysterious man at W.B. Penniman’s mortuary and furniture store. Bates tried to gain custody of George’s unclaimed body, but for years it became a local tourist attraction. Dressed in a respectable suit, the embalmed body sat a chair in Penniman’s front parlor with its glass eyes staring out blankly at the open newspaper on its lap. Thanks to the arsenic Penniman used in the embalming as well as the arsenic swallowed by George, according to newspaper reports, the body became a well-preserved mummy.

Around 1907 when Bates published “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth: Written for the Correction of History,” a 309-page book in which he detailed St. Helen’s account of how he escaped the manhunt, the lawyer gained custody of the cadaver. Bates rented out the corpse to carnivals, state fairs and midways, and the supposed mummy of John Wilkes Booth became a freak-show mirror image to the solemn funeral train procession taken by Lincoln’s embalmed body in the weeks after the assassination.

If the body was indeed that of Booth, the former actor was much less of a box-office draw in his post-mortem career. The mummy “scattered ill luck around almost as freely as Tutankhamen is supposed to have done,” reported the Saturday Evening Post in 1938. The magazine reported that nearly every showman who had exhibited the specimen had been financially ruined. In 1920 a circus train carrying the mummy wrecked en route to San Diego and killed eight people. Soon after, the mummy was kidnapped and held for ransom. Union veterans even threatened to lynch it—apparently in a desire to kill Booth twice.

After Bates died in 1923, his widow sold the mummy to William Evans, the “Carnival King of the Southwest.” After Evans quit the carnival business, he took the oddity back to his Idaho potato farm and opened his doors to curious tourists who drove by the sign posted outside: “SEE THE MAN WHO MURDERED LINCOLN.” A Lincoln assassination buff convinced Evans to resume the mummy’s tour of America, but the re-launch fizzled. The Saturday Evening Post reported that Evans was ordered out of Salt Lake City for “teaching false history,” and fined $50 in Big Spring, Texas, for transporting a corpse without a license.

In spite of the mummy’s checkered history, carnival man John Harkin and his wife bought it for $5,000 around 1930. The Harkins traveled the country in a battered truck with the leathered, hollowed-eyed mummy occupying a berth on the floor as they slept on adjacent bunks. Harkin promised $1,000 to anyone who could prove that the mummy was not Booth, and he boasted that he never paid out a dime. In 1931, a group of Chicago doctors, including the city’s health commissioner, X-rayed and examined the corpse and claimed that the body’s fractured leg, broken thumb and neck scar were consistent with injuries attributed to Booth. (Never mind that the fracture was found on the mummy’s right leg, while the injured bones set by Dr. Samuel Mudd were on Booth’s left leg.)

Beginning in 1937 and continuing into the 1950s, the mummy was part of Jay Gould’s Million Dollar Circus traveling with trained elephants, acrobats and a high-diving dog act. According to a PBS report, the mummy was last seen in public in the late 1970s and may be in the hands of a private collector. While some family members have voiced support for exhuming the body buried in Booth’s grave for DNA testing to determine if it’s truly his, courts have so far denied the requests.