Booth relative aims to see him in flesh

October 26, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

The "Enid Mummy," known in show business circles as "John Wilkes Booth," last was seen at a carnival near New Hope, Pa., in the mid-1970s.

Now a relative of President Lincoln's assassin says she plans to hunt for it on the off chance that it was her infamous ancestor.

Virginia Eleanor Humbrecht Kline, 72, of Warminster, Pa., is a distant cousin of Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln April 14, 1865, in Ford's Theatre.

On Monday, Mrs. Kline, another Booth family descendant and two historians asked Baltimore Circuit Court to permit exhumation of remains that were buried in Green Mount Cemetery in 1869 as Booth. Twenty other Booth family descendants are supporting the petition.

The researchers, Nathaniel Orlowek of Silver Spring and Arthur Ben Chitty of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., believe that Booth escaped from Union soldiers and that another man, who had some of Booth's things, was shot to death April 26, 1865, in a burning barn near Bowling Green, Va.

The mummy was that of a man who poisoned himself with arsenic in 1903 in Enid, Okla. He had lived for years in the South and West working under various names, including David E. George and John St. Helen, but had told several people he was John Wilkes Booth.

"The last time the mummified body was seen was in New Hope about 1974," Mrs. Kline said. "That's very close to here, so I'm going to start looking around for it myself."

Mrs. Kline said yesterday that she was unprepared for the calls from reporters and television crews since the news broke that she supported the exhumation request.

"I visited the grave a couple of years ago," Mrs. Kline said, "and I have mixed emotions. My grandfather was a first cousin and my mother's sister is buried in that plot."

The first emergence of Booth-St. Helen was in 1877 when, during a severe illness, St. Helen told Finis L. Bates, a Tennessee lawyer, that he was John Wilkes Booth. Shortly before his suicide, he confided this identity to another man in Enid.

The man reportedly made several other deathbed confessions. A 1938 Saturday Evening Post article said St. Helen also had claimed to be the son of Marshal Ney, a hero of the Napoleonic Wars.

After the man died, Mr. Bates identified the body as that of the man who had claimed to be Booth. He had the body preserved and kept it at his Memphis, Tenn., home.

In 1907, the claim became public when Mr. Bates wrote a book, "The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth or the First True Account of Lincoln's Assassination Containing a Complete Confession by Booth Many Years After the Crime."

The book became the basis of the Enid Mummy theory, which ever since has bedeviled historians who refuse to believe it and the "true believers" who accept it.

Mr. Bates' widow sold the leathery corpse in the 1920s, and it became a star attraction at carnivals and sideshows, labeled as Booth.

In 1931, six physicians examined and X-rayed the mummy at the request of the Chicago Press Club and offered their findings, albeit without identifying the body as Booth's.

Mr. Orlowek interviewed Dr. Charles K. Barnes, a survivor of the six-man team, in 1976. He said Dr. Barnes confirmed the findings of various injuries and deformities on the body, which Mr. Orlowek contends match those of the assassin.

Mark S. Zaid, the Washington lawyer who did most of the research and recruiting of Booth relatives for the court brief, said he has a series of affidavits from people who identified the mummy as Booth's body.

The other Booth family descendant on the petition is Lois Fellows White Rathbun, a great-great niece. Ms. Rathbun, a descendant of Edwin Booth, John's brother and the most famous Shakespearean actor of his day, said she supported the action after reading Mr. Zaid's material.

"I felt there was enough to make it worth doing if, at the very least, it will set history straight," said Ms. Rathbun, who lives in Rhode Island.

Her family had great ambivalence about its history, Ms. Rathbun said. "My grandfather was very ashamed of what happened, and it was the unspoken law in the family that John Wilkes' name was never mentioned, but that we concentrated on Edwin's accomplishments," she said.

Ms. Rathbun said yesterday that when she read about the 1991 disinterment of President Zachary Taylor to see if he had been poisoned (he hadn't), "I thought John Wilkes Booth was just down the road."

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