The history of the University of the South, Sewanee and the surrounding area is filled with many stories of unusual happenings and events. The presence of Al Capone in Monteagle, John Dillinger at Beersheba Springs and the many ghosts of Sewanee are just part of the intrigue that surrounds the institute of higher learning established in 1858 on the Cumberland Plateau between Chattanooga and Nashville.
Another fascinating story in local folklore is the question of whether John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, actually died in a barn fire on April 26, 1865, near Port Royal, Virginia, while being pursued by federal troops.
The killing of President Lincoln by Booth has been well documented and the theory of the assailant not being the body in the burning barn has not been strongly believed by many but is still advocated by a few naysayers.
In 1997 author Patricia Short Makris in her book The Other Side of Sewanee included a paragraph about a Booth rumor that he was seen in the Sewanee Depot Village “during the latter part of 1871 and early 1872." Another story asserted that he had pawned his watch at a local store. It was later claimed and allegedly verified that he had married a Sewanee woman (Louisa Price Payne) and had fathered a daughter by her.
Makris, in a paragraph on Booth, raises the question of whether the man allegedly seen at Sewanee had gotten away with murdering Abraham Lincoln or had been one of the greatest impostors who ever lived.
Former Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter John Wilson interviewed University of the South historiographer Arthur Ben Chitty in June 1992 and he claimed that he believed that Booth was in Sewanee and married a local girl in 1872.
Chitty and another colleague, Nathaniel Orlowek, a 34-year-old religious educator at Beth Shalom Congregation in Potomac, Maryland, believed enough in their 1872 Sewanee theory that they wanted to exhume Booth’s body from the Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland. He had originally been buried in great secrecy on April 28, 1865, under the floor of the Arsenal at the Washington Navy Yard prior to being removed to the Booth family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in 1869.
Dr. Chitty questioned the identification of the body by Booth’s older brother, Edwin Booth, when it was exhumed in 1869 as being “carefully staged.”
Questions as to the identity of the individual that died in the barn arose intermittently and formed much of the basis for Chitty and others contentions that John Wilkes Booth did not die in the fire but escaped and was in Sewanee in 1872.
Documentary evidence at the Franklin County Courthouse in Winchester show a marriage record dated February 24, 1972, of John W. Booth to Louisa P. Payne as well as a tax record for John W. Booth saying that he resided in the 18th District in Sewanee. Micayah, step-son from Louisa’s first marriage, always maintained that John Wilkes Booth was his step-father.
Another rumor existed that while in Sewanee, “Booth performed for the students at the university exhibitions of sleight-of-hand and readings from plays on Saturday night.”
In 1994, Chitty, Orlowek and 22 descendants of Booth filed a court petition seeking to exhume the body at Green Mount and to have it examined to determine the age, sex, race and evidence of Booth’s broken leg when he jumped from the stage at Ford’s Theatre after shooting President Lincoln.
The petition was denied and an appeal was also unsuccessful in 1996. The opinion by a three-judge panel held that there was overwhelming evidence that indicated that Booth did die in the barn fire in 1865 and his body was transferred to Green Mount in 1869.
An individual named Daniel E. George committed suicide in Enid, Oklahoma, in 1903 and prior to his death claimed he was John Wilkes Booth. He allegedly had earlier confessed the same to a lawyer, Finis L. Bates. Bates claimed that he had acquired possession of the mummified body of Booth and wrote a book in 1907, Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, which claimed that Booth had changed his name to John St. Helen until he committed suicide in 1903.
After the successful publication of his book, Bates displayed the mummified body he claimed was Booth at carnivals and side shows throughout the country for an admission fee and was photographed at Jay Gould’s “Million Dollar Spectacle.” The mummy was subsequently kidnapped and is now missing.
In 1977 the book and movie adaptation, The Lincoln Conspiracy, revived public interest in the conspiracy theory. With the improvement and advancement in the accuracy of DNA scientific testing, Booth descendants may once again attempt to exhume his body to solve the longstanding question of whether John Wilkes Booth is buried in Baltimore, Maryland.
Anyone interested in the Chitty-Orlowek theory pertaining to the death of John Wilkes Booth or the alleged imposter should start with reading John Wilson’s lengthy aforementioned article at The Public Library in Chattanooga. A trip to the library at the University of the South in Sewanee can further your curiosity by reviewing Arthur Ben Chitty’s extensive collection of books in the archives on Booth that are present.
Did John Wilkes Booth survive the barn fire and reside at Sewanee? This is a perplexing question for history and conspiracy theorists.
* * *
(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at firstname.lastname@example.org)