THE FOLLOWING IS A LONG AND UNPROVEN PERSONAL PET THEORY ONLY OF INTEREST TO FANS OF THE ABSURD AND OR THE LINCOLN ASSASSINATION
This is just an interesting “whatever happened to” that may or may not be true, but I’ll mention it since to my knowledge it’s original to me. It’s like something out of a Vonnegut novel, but it’s been a little pet theory of mine since I was a teenager reading about the Lincoln assassination and various odd conspiracy theories about same and first heard of David George and other “alternate J.W. Booths” (who of course as a kid I believed in because it was more interesting, just like Hitler surviving the Bunker was from the '40s onward or Elvis faking his death would be to some in the late 1980s.)
Okay, John Wilkes Booth was shot and killed by a NY cavalry private named Boston Corbett. Corbett changed his story a few times over the next few days, claiming at one time Booth was about to shoot at him and that he’d heard the order to fire and other things, but the truth seems to be that Corbett, who like all of the other men on the expedition was under direct orders to take Booth alive if at all possible, deliberately disobeyed orders and shot Booth in the back of the neck, instantly paralyzing and mortally wounding him. Corbett later admitted that he did this, but that he was acting on higher orders— from God.
In fairness to Corbett, he probably only expedited the inevitable: I seriously doubt Booth could or would have survived that night under any circumstances. He seemed resigned to his fate, he knew on some level he was a failure (i.e. he was not the Junius Brutus of the South but hated in the south and in the north for his “one mad act”), he was not afraid to die, not afraid to kill, and he was armed to the teeth. (While he famously used a derringer to kill Lincoln and an off-brand Bowie knife on Rathbone and any other would be-pursuers, in the barn he had two hand cannons, two repeating carbines, and knives- had he been taken alive there’s little doubt he’d have taken down several Federal troops, so Corbett very possibly actually saved lives with his action, but not the point: he was a loose cannon who went against orders to kill Booth and was not acting in his self defense.
Corbett was nuts. This was apparent even immediately after Garrett’s Barn, but some reporters and journalists (some of whom championed his petition to receive the huge “dead or alive” bounty on Booth) spun it, saying in affect “well yeah, of course he’s nuts- his wife died in childbirth and while he was still grieving he went into the army, saw some of the bloodiest fighting in the war and he was a prisoner at Andersonville and other hellholes” (he also testified at Wirz’s trial), but he was nutty long before that night at the tobacco barn or before Fort Sumter even.
He was English (not that this has anything to do with his nuttiness necessarily) and may have had one environmental contributing cause to his madness: he was a hatmaker and a tanner by trade at a time when that profession handled mercury, which does cause blood poisoning which affects the mind. He also went through periods of religious mania. He also probably had syphilis as a result of visiting prostitutes, and he probably infected his wife (who did die in childbirth- whether that has anything to do with syphilis or not is doubtful), but when she died he went back to prostitutes, then into religious mania again, and taking literally the “if thy right hand offend thee cut it off” “better to enter heaven maimed” passages of the Bible, he atoned for his whoremongering by, just before the war, castrating himself with a pair of scissors. So, boy had issues long before he ever saw Andersonville.
Anyway, he killed Booth, argued for the bounty money, received only a small portion of it (the same as every other private in his unit received) and was damned lucky not to have been imprisoned for mutiny for disobeying a direct order, but it would have been too much negative press if he had. He went back to hatmaking and was a minor celebrity who gave speeches for a while, but pretty soon no journalist or friend or supporter could defend him anymore: boy was just flipping crazy. He would go into manic religious fits and bouts of drinking and whoring again (apparently he wasn’t impotent) and he got increasingly violent and threatening. He was jailed several times for assault, once when he pulled a pistol and tried to kill his hosts when he was guest speaker at a reunion of Civil War veterans in Ohio. The word was out: don’t hire him, don’t go near him, he needs to be in a padded room, and he probably would have been except this was the late 19th century when you could still get away from your past and any bad rep by just walking west, and he did.
1878: Corbett was in Kansas, where it was known he killed Booth, but the rest of his past hadn’t caught up with him. He became a local celebrity again, even though he was living in a hole cut into a hillside (literally) and acting “eccentrically”, and was celebrity judge at sporting events and fired the pistol at races and things like that (much like Tim Stack of Camden on My Name is Earl). Like a lot of people with violent mood swings he seems to have mellowed a bit as he got older, which helped, and in the 1880s he was even given a job as “special guest celebrity” in various capacities with the state of Kansas: security guard, chaplain (until a couple of his prayers proved a bit too bizarre), and other things, finally becoming a doorman at the statehouse in Topeka. It worked out fairly well for him- he got three hots and a cot, and Kansas got an interesting conversation piece.
But while people with violent mood swings do often mellow with age, there’s a huge difference in mellowing and getting well. During a “for old time’s sake” relapse in 1887 he decided that there was blasphemy going on in the state house following a prayer he took objection to (he was still pissed over not being chaplain anymore also) and pulled his pistol (which he wasn’t even supposed to have- that’s why he was doorman, the security thing didn’t work out to well) on the legislature and threatened to send them all to Hell right there on the spot. He was overpowered and disarmed before anyone was hurt.
That’s when Kansas joined the “Andersonville/smandersonvill, that sumbitch is crazy” club and had him committed to the state asylum. Because of his celebrity and “service to his country” he was given special treatment, such as a private cell. This made it easier for him to escape, which he did a few months after his confinement. He stayed with a former cavalry buddy for the winter then left saying he was going to Mexico. It’s not known exactly where he wound up, though it is known he was a travelling salesman for a while for a pharmaceutical company called W.W. Gavritte and Company.
The Kansas legislature didn’t exactly go looking for him. His paper trail dies at this time. This was in 1888.
Aw’ight, keep him in mind for a second.
In 1902 an old drifter living in a boarding house in Enid, Oklahoma was dying. He had no visible means of support though he somehow had some money, and his stories about his past were few, inconsistent, and a bit over the top. He knew a lot about the Lincoln assassination however, and there were rumors about his true identity. His name was David George he said, but when he died in January 1903 he gave a statement in which he admitted his real name was John Wilkes Booth. He was Lincoln’s killer, he was not killed at Garrett’s Barn but through various odd means and high protection had avoided death and changed his identity, and wound up finally in Enid. By some accounts he committed suicide and confessed while dying, by others he died of natural causes, those there couldn’t seem to get it straight.
In any case, George/Booth was soon the talk of the tabloids across the nation of course. Was he really Booth? Certainly looked like him… if you close your eyes and squint and imagine 40 years on Booth. Various “experts” pronounced him legit due to the shape of ears and shape of hands and supposedly a faded JWB tattoo like the one Booth had, etc., though I think there was a lot of “don’t look too closely at the postmarks” factor on the expert testimonies. And there was a definite profit incentive to having him proclaimed Booth, because whether he was or whether he wasn’t, either way being Booth is how George made his living after he died (again?).
George’s body wasembalmed and photographed immediately after his death, and in lifelike poses (not an uncommon thing at the time). Then the body was taken around to county fairs and museums, even toured Europe. The signs obviously didn’t read “Come see an Honest to God dead Oklahoma Boarding House Resident- just 25 Cents!” but “Body of John Wilkes Booth” of course, often with other memorabilia on display and of course the whole story of how J.W. Booth/David E. George pulled it off. It had some success, but the body didn’t age too well and interest waned and the price to look at it went down and even before then there were “imitators” and “fake” mummies of Booth. The body just kind of disappeared at some point- the last definite siting was in the early 1940s, there are accounts of it from the 1970s but it’s generally believed this one was one of the “fake” Booth/George mummies. Nobody really knows what became of the George/Booth mummy.
Okey doke— David E. George, wheover he was (and while there are a couple of fairly respected historians who say there were some cover-ups re: Lincoln/Booth, I don’t think there are any who believe George’s claim or even that Booth wasn’t the man killed in the barn), died in a boarding house in Enid, Oklahoma.
Boston Corbett was last known to be working for a patent medicine house that had its headquarters in… Enid, Oklahoma- about a decade before George’s “death”.
The 1890 census was destroyed in a fire- it would be interesting to see if George or Corbett either one were in Oklahoma at that time. Enid’s not a super tiny place- current population around 50,000, though at the time of George’s death and Gavritt was based there it was much smaller, perhaps a few thousand at most. (1908 picture.) I think it’s interesting though that both George and Corbett have connections to it, and that one appeared a few years after the other disappeared.
Possibilities (these are only my own theories):
-George and Corbett knew each other, and that’s how George got some of the insider info about the assassination night in his account
-Corbett was known, and because of his insanity but interesting tales some of the men who mummified George had the idea for years of “let’s write an alternate history and make some money once somebody who bears a vague resemblance to Booth and doesn’t have kinfolk dies and we can borrow the corpse” plot
Most intriguing- and I won’t say it happened, but I think it’s a possibility, and an interesting notion:
Corbett was, as we have seen, stark raving mad. And obsessed of course with J.W. Booth among other things, and had reason to want to change identities.
Could it have been that Corbett either
a- was an old man babbling on about Booth on his deathbed, and the tales of this oddity grew until suddenly it was reported ‘he was Booth’
or even (the most “most interesting” theory with nothing but thinnest of evidence and that not totally convincing but still with just enough ‘I can see it’ to be feasible)
b- in his madness, and in his identity changing, and in his continual reflection on the night at the barn, and in his desperation to be liked, and did I mention his madness? Corbett somehow decided he was John Wilkes Booth? And really believed it on his deathbed? Similar to the way Lennon’s murderer Chapman “became” John Lennon at times.
In any case, I think it’s intriguing the possibility that the murderer of one of history’s most famous murderers may have toured the country post mortem— as his victim.
Again, no proof, just supposition.
Boston Corbett (ca. 1865)
David E. George, 1903(post mortem, but barely)
Composite- a layering I did of the two pics- eyes and nose line up quite nicely, and both had huge hands [but I wasn’t able to find pics that allowed me to transpose them])). Note they have the same number of facial features.