The Escape of John Wilkes Booth

This story is only indirectly connected to Dayton, but too fascinating not to share!

In 1924, Whitney Bolton, editor of the Dayton Daily News, wrote an article telling of the escape of John Wilkes Booth, after interviewing reporter John Young. At age seven, Young had attended the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre with his father. It was a night Young would never forget.

Near the end of the second act, a shot rang out and a man crashed to the stage, brandished a long knife, yelled, “Sic semper tyrannis!” and ran away, a significant limp in his step.

Years later, Young interviewed James Kelley, a man who had been a member of the Richmond Theatre Company with John Wilkes Booth. Booth and Kelley had shared a dressing room and the services of a young dressing valet named Henry.

When the war started, Booth became passionate for the South, at first enthusiastically, then slowly becoming sullen and angry. The change in his mood caused John Wilkes Booth to be fired from his acting job. Booth left for Washington, and took Henry with him. He left behind a number of play manuscripts with scribbled notes in his handwriting. Kelley kept the manuscripts.

Kelley moved to Michigan and started working in the furniture business. On a trip to New York, he ran into Henry – the valet he and Booth once shared. After asking Henry what he was doing these days, Henry dropped a bombshell. He had been working for Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, “ever since Marse John got away.”

Stunned, he asked Henry if he just said that John Wilkes Booth got away.

Henry explained that after shooting the president, John Wilkes Booth had mounted a horse behind the theater, made his way to the Potomac River, taken a boat downstream to the Chesapeake Bay, then was taken on a British sailing ship to Liverpool, where he then made his way to Bombay, India.

Incredulous, Young wrote a letter to Booth in India, and after several months he received a response. This man Henry mentioned was in fact his old dressing room companion and he had escaped. Booth said he had been living on money his family sent him. Kelley and Booth corresponded for several years before Kelley met Young and told him the story.

As proof, Kelley showed Young the letters he received from India, and they compared the handwriting to the play manuscripts Wilkes had jotted notes into, and both men were satisfied that the handwriting was the same.

In 1992, Dayton Daily News’s Roz Young picked up the story, rehashing the tale. The article generated a lot of interest and a many responses, spurred on by an episode of Unsolved Mysteries that also mentioned conspiracy surrounding the alleged death of John Wilkes Booth.

One such response came from Helen Currie, a resident of Miamisburg, who claimed her uncle Ely Brown had in fact, met Booth as an old man as he visited confirmed relatives of John Wilkes Booth.

Ely Brown grew up in Bethel, Ohio. As an adult, he told of a story of meeting an older man with a slight limp and having the following conversation with him:
Ely greets the man, calling him Mr. Booth.

“Why do you call me Booth?” asked the man.

“That is your name, isn’t it?” Ely asked.

“Yes.”

“That is the reason I called you Booth.”

“Do you know anything about history?” the elderly man asked.

“Not much.”

“Do you know that Lincoln was assassinated?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know who killed him?”

“I’m not too sure. I heard different stories but it seems to me the man was hanged, shot or burned while in a barn.”

“Booth is living today. I do not mean yesterday or an hour ago. He is living now.”

“How do you know?” the boy asked.

“I know. I know. I can tell you where he has been every day since Lincoln was killed.”

“He followed this by mentioning different places,” Brown wrote. “I am unable now to quote exactly or in their strict order, but I seem to remember Canada, Italy, St. Louis, Missouri and Oklahoma. I do remember distinctly that he ended his list with Enid, Okla.”

“What relation are you to John Wilkes Booth?” the boy asked.

The man gave no answer.

Finally the boy asked, “Cousin?”

“We’ll call it that,” he replied. “Young man, do you know why Booth killed Lincoln?”

Ely answered that he didn’t know.

“I am going to tell you why and never forget this as long as you live. Booth was hired to kill Lincoln by the man who succeeded him in office,” the old man continued. “Do you know who that was?”

“I think it was Andrew Johnson.”

“To this he made no reply,” Brown wrote, “but if eyes could talk, they were plainly telling me, ‘Yes, I was hired by Johnson to kill Lincoln.'”

Ely mentioned that during this conversation, he noticed the older man was missing part of his right thumb. After the conversation was over, he didn’t mention it to anyone for years, fearing he would be laughed at for believing it was John Wilkes Booth.

Years later, after reading articles about US Presidents, he saw an article stating the Andrew Johnson would leave no stone unturned to attain what he wanted. He also saw an article in Life Magazine with a picture of the mummified body of a man who claimed to be John Wilkes Booth, and who had committed suicide in Enid, Oklahoma. The body had been studied at the University of Chicago and x-rays showed a broken leg and part of the right thumb missing. The mummified body also had a signet ring with the letter “B” in its stomach. The conclusion was that this was in fact the body of John Wilkes Booth. After reading these articles and recalling his encounter, Ely was completely certain that he had met the infamous actor.

Did John Wilkes Booth avoid execution by Thomas “Boston” Corbett? If he did, who was shot that day?

“Enough is known about Booth’s various broken bones that a surviving skeleton could easily be proven to fit or not to fit the facts,” says Dr. Arthur Chitty, professor of history at the University of the South, “and thus either put an end to the myths or else raise up an entirely new wave of biographical research. Meantime, the mystery lives on.”

Interestingly enough, during the Civil War, John Wilkes Booth’s brother, Edwin Booth, saved the life of Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son.

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