Blog

Finis Langdon Bates

April 16th, 2014

by Richard Alley, 2014 Volunteer Writer-in-Residence

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, in the Ford’s Theatre by the actor John Wilkes Booth. Booth escaped that night and would make his way through the federal troops that ringed the city as the manhunt increased. He eventually found his way across the Potomac River to Port Royal, Virginia, and the farm of Richard Garrett. The barn where he hid was set ablaze but not before Sergeant Boston Corbett was able to get a shot off, mortally wounding the murderer.

Booth’s corpse made its way from Virginia to the ironclad USS Montauk and on to the Washington Navy Yard where it was said to be identified by more than 10 associates before an autopsy.

Abraham Lincoln is not buried in Elmwood Cemetery. His remains are in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Ill. Booth, likewise, is not in Elmwood. The assassin’s body would first be buried beneath a cell in the Navy Yard before being exhumed later and finally finding its resting place in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

But Finis Langdon Bates is buried in Elmwood. Bates is the man who claims that most of what happened after Booth entered Virginia is not only speculative, but untrue. Bates claimed – in a 310-page book, mind you – to have met Booth, now John St. Helen, in Texas in 1872. And more than that, he claimed, after a period of time, to have had St. Helen’s (Booth’s) mummified corpse at his home at 1234 Harbert in Midtown Memphis.

The two men became acquainted while Bates was just beginning his career as an attorney. “ … I was entering the threshold of manhood, a lawyer yet in my teens, in the active practice of my profession, having settled at Grandberry, the county site of Hood, in the State of Texas, near the foothills of the Bosque mountains,” Bates wrote in his 1907 book, “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth.”

In the working of a case, Bates requested that St. Helens to go to federal court to testify on behalf of his client. St. Helen adamantly declined and refused to give a sufficient reason until he’d retained Bates as his own lawyer. Once that was accomplished, he said, simply, yet with a flourish of the theatrical as Bates points out: “I say to you, as my attorney, that my true name is not John St. Helen, as you know me and suppose me to be, and for this reason I cannot afford to go to Tyler before the Federal Court, in fear that my true identity be discovered, as the Federal courts are more or less presided over in the South and officered by persons heretofore, as well as now, connected with the Federal Army and government, and the risk would be too great for me to take …”

The two became friends, yet it wasn’t until five years later, as St. Helen, sick and thought to be dying, called Bates to his bedside, saying, “I am dying. My name is John Wilkes Booth, and I am the assassin of President Lincoln. Get the picture of myself from under the pillow. I leave it with you for my future identification.”

St. Helen recovered and lived, and Bates kept his confidence, not hearing the entire story for some time later when the two men took a long walk on the Texas prairie. It was there that St. Helen told the story of his life as Booth, born on a farm in Maryland outside Baltimore, of his father, Junius Brutus Booth Sr., and about the family business of acting, as well as a vivid account of the conspiracy, which involved Vice President Andrew Johnson as co-conspirator, to kidnap, and then murder, the president. “I entered the President’s box, closed the door behind me and instantly placed my pistol so near it almost touched his head and fired the shot which killed President Lincoln and made Andrew Johnson President of the United States and myself an outcast, a wanderer, and gave me the name of an assassin.”

Bates did not immediately believe St. Helen’s story. Bates told him, in fact, that he believed he may have known Booth and the secrets of the crime and escape, “… and it is possible that from your brooding over this subject your mind has become shaken and you imagine yourself Booth.”

Bates and St. Helen eventually went their separate ways, the latter to Leadville, Colo., to try his hand at mining, and the former to Memphis around 1878.

In December of 1898, a Sunday edition of the Boston Globe newspaper dated the 12th of that month appeared in the reception hall of Bates’s home in Midtown. “How this paper came to be in my home is unknown to me. I did not take it by subscription, nor have I or any member of my family ever, before or since, purchased a copy of the Boston Globe …”

In that newspaper was the first published statement of General D. D. Dana giving a detailed statement of his pursuit of John Wilkes Booth following the assassination. “To my surprise the story of Gen. Dana corroborated in its minutest detail the story St. Helen told me in his confession recounting Booth’s escape from Washington, D.C., to the Garret home, in Virginia,” Bates wrote.

Bates contacted Dana and sent him the picture that St. Helen had given him on his death bed. Dana was convinced that St. Helen was Booth, setting Bates off on an inexhaustible jag of research, the minutia of which is recounted in his book. He is without a shred of doubt once he is contacted by Judge Advocate General John P. Simonton of the War Department (as a citizen and not an official representative) that he is not convinced of Booth’s death years before. It is revealed on several occasions that inadequate, if any, identification of Booth’s body was had after his death.

Bates made it his single-minded mission to find St. Helen, tracking him to Fresno, Calif., where he’d only passed through town. He also sought to investigate and learn the identity of the men who aided Booth’s escape.

So convinced was he that Booth lived, Bates sent a letter to the War Department from his office Downtown at 297 Second St. on January 17, 1898, stating as much and inquiring whether it “Would be a matter of any importance …” to the Department.

The response: “ … the matter is of no importance to the War Department.”

He wrote then to Secretary of State John Hay with no interest found there either.

While tracing St. Helen from Fresno, Bates read a story from Col. Edward Levan of Monterey, Mexico, who claimed to have roomed with a man he believed to be Booth in Lexington, Kent., during the winter of 1868. The man went by the name of J. J. Marr and soon left Lexington, settling in Village Mills, Texas, before going on to Glenrose Mills where Bates first met St. Helen.

There are many other recorded sightings, from San Francisco to Mississippi to Texas, long after Booth was thought to be dead. Col. M. W. Connolly, “a distinguished newspaper man,” believed that David E. George, who died in Enid, Oklahoma, was Booth. George was known to have deposited money in banks, taken work as a house painter and lived in hotels.

In April 1902, a Mrs. Harper in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma received another deathbed confession from George (Booth) similar to the one Bates had received in 1877. And just like that first time, he recovered.

George would commit suicide in Enid, Okla., on January 13, 1903, by taking poison. It was learned that he was worth about $30,000, owning property in El Reno, Okla.; Dallas, Texas; and a lease on 600 acres in the Indian Territory.

The local newspaper, the Enid Wave, would conduct a thorough investigation and conclude that the corpse in the morgue might very well be that of Booth. Many other publications would follow suit.

Bates was summoned from Memphis to identify the body and he immediately took the Frisco Railroad Line to Enid. It was estimated that more than 50,000 men, women and children had viewed the body believed to be that of Booth.

There were physical descriptions of George (St. Helen, Marr, et al) that closely resembled those of Booth such as a deformed right thumb where it met the hand, crushed in the cogs of machinery used to hoist a stage curtain; and the permanently arched eyebrow where it had been sewn up after a too-enthusiastic, dramatic saber battle. The broken leg Booth suffered when he jumped from the balcony of the Ford’s Theatre could be seen in the damaged bones of the corpse as well. The original picture Bates had been given was trotted around to Booth’s family and acquaintances as well without a single denial that St. Helen’s visage was the likeness of Booth.

Bates claimed that body, preserved by the embalmer, in Enid and returned it to his home in Memphis where it resided in his Midtown garage and later became the stuff of carnival sideshows. Over the following years it made the rounds with a stop at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and would later be subjected to examination by doctors in Chicago who found the leg break, thumb and a neck scar consistent with those injuries reported of Booth. Bates tried unsuccessfully to interest automaker Henry Ford in purchasing the mummy for $1,000.

It traveled over the years with various carnivals and showmen, “surviving” train wrecks and even kidnapping. It was stored in a Philadelphia basement and went missing for a time.

The mummy was last seen in the 1970s, its whereabouts currently unknown.

Bates was born in Mississippi and married Bertha Lee “Bertie” Money in 1869. The couple had two daughters, Emma and Olga, and a son, Bertram. Bertie died and, in 1890, Bates married Madge Young Doyle. The couple had a son, Langdon, who married Bertye Talbert, and they had a daughter, the actress Kathy Bates.

Finis Langdon Bates died at the age of 75 on Nov. 29, 1923, due to “cardio renal” failure according to his death certificate. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

0 comments »

Love and Death at the River's Edge: the Story of Alice Mitchell and Frederica Ward

April 4th, 2014

by Richard Alley, 2014 Volunteer Writer-in-Residence 

On the banks of Memphis on January 26, 1892, where cobblestones from an Illinois quarry had been laid not long before to facilitate commerce flowing into the city via the Mississippi River, visitors disembarking a river boat might have expected to see throngs of people coming and going. There would have been men groaning beneath the weight of cotton bales being loaded on and off barges while others, dressed in all their finery, waited to board vessels of the Lee Line, bound for Vicksburg or New Orleans. On a bluff above the activity, construction of the Cossitt Library being built of red sandstone and taking on the shape of a modern-day castle, would have impressed and awed the new arrivals.

What they wouldn’t have expected, what no one could have imagined there on a day filled with the excitement of travel and the thrum of the masses, would have been the murderous scene played out before their eyes. It was on that day at 4 p.m., on the railroad tracks at the bottom of the Customs House Bluff overlooking the cobblestones, that 19-year-old Alice Jessie Mitchell cut the throat of 17-year-old Frederica Ward.

These young women weren’t strangers to each other, they’d been schoolmates at the Higbee School for Girls at Beale and Lauderdale. But they were more than friends. In a time when such things were kept behind closed doors, whispered about in hushed voices, if at all, Alice and Freda, as she was known, were lovers.

The two had elaborate plans to run away together to St. Louis where they would live as husband and wife with Alice dressing the part and taking the name “Alvin J. Ward.” They’d discussed it, they’d dreamed of it all along, and an engagement ring had been exchanged. But Freda’s family had moved upriver to Gold Dust, Tenn., and when her sister, Ada Ward Volkmer, became aware of the affair, she wrote a letter to Alice ending it.

Freda came to Memphis the next winter with another sister, Josephine, to visit a family friend, Mrs. Kimbrough. During their stay, Alice had developed a habit of driving her buggy back and forth in front of the house on Hernando Street to catch a glimpse of her former love. On the day Freda was to leave Memphis, Alice followed her and her sister from Kimbrough’s house to the top of the bluff where they began the descent to the river on foot. Alice came up behind Freda, reached around her body and slashed at her throat with a straight razor. Leaving Freda bleeding on the train tracks where bystanders gathered her up to rush her to a doctor, Alice made her way back to the top of the bluff and home to 215 Union Street, where she told her mother what she’d done.

The newspapers of the day – the Public Ledger, Evening Scimitar, Memphis Appeal Avalanche and Memphis Commercial – played to the sensationalism of the circumstances of the crime. It is said to be the first time the word “lesbian” appeared in news print. The sensationalism spilled over into the courtroom of Julius DuBose, a colorful judge with a flair for show. When the trial began in July, he’d had the courtroom enlarged to accommodate the crowds.

Alice’s attorneys, General Luke Wright and Colonel George Gantt, entered a plea of insanity. Love letters between the two young women were read aloud and Alice’s friend, Lillie Johnson, who had been present at the murder, testified that they’d had plans to elope. As evidence, the engagement ring was produced; an inscription read “From A. to F.” While on the stand, Alice admitted, “I wanted to cut her because I knew I could not have her, and I did not want anyone else to have her.”

After a six-day trial, it took the jury just 20 minutes to declare the defendant insane. She was sentenced to the Tennessee State Insane Asylum in Bolivar, Tenn.

Alice died on March 31, 1898, at the age of 25. The official cause was “consumption” or tuberculosis, while her death certificate states only “non-contagious.” Another story says that Alice drowned herself in the water tank atop the asylum. She is buried in the family plot at Elmwood Cemetery.

Freda is across the cemetery in an unmarked grave, a lone sapling marking the area where she is interred. 

0 comments »

Jasper Newton Smith

February 6th, 2014

by Richard Alley, 2014 Volunteer Writer-in-Residence 

It’s one of the first markers seen after crossing Morgan Bridge. This isn’t the original entrance to Elmwood Cemetery, that was off of Walker Ave., on the south side of the 80 acres. This newer passageway is narrow, confining, yet once traversed it gives the visitor a feeling, of all things, of openness and a sense of space; to cross over is to be delivered.

Straight ahead, slightly to the right, is a grave that isn’t. There is no one buried there but, instead, a monument stands to the memory of a man and it is his likeness, in profile to the visitor there at the intersection of Page Ave. and Morgan’s Grand Tour. The statue of a lion, as is custom when there is no body within, watches over that memory.

Jasper Newton Smith was poor when he came to Memphis from Giles County, Tenn., in the late 19th century. He soon went to work for Mary Moore, described in later accounts as an “eccentric widow.” Smith worked at odd jobs and acted as her caretaker. The two became close and were wed in 1878, a year that would see thousands in Memphis perish from Yellow Fever.

Mary was born in Missouri in 1837, and died of pneumonia on Feb. 19, 1897. Jasper inherited her money and property, amassing some 100 properties throughout Memphis with others in St. Louis, Baltimore and Mayfield, Kentucky.

Two years after his wife’s death, Jasper would go missing. He never returned and his body was never recovered. In his fifties at the time, with graying hair, a moustache and “a small bunch of whiskers on his chin,” wrote a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, he was last seen the night of May 26, 1899.

Jasper dressed plainly, though, at the time, his fortune was said to be worth $200,000 (almost $5.5 million in today’s money). Indeed, accounts claim he had been in the habit of carrying large sums of money and that “he had a tobacco sack full of greenbacks” on him the day before he disappeared and displayed some gold to his niece, Ida Smith, who lived with him at his home at 392 Madison St.

Those close to him believe Jasper was a victim of foul play as he was a man of habit and had not mentioned going abroad. He was a drinking man, but did not drink heavily, yet one of the last places he was seen was at Whiskey Chute Alley, a blocks-long string of saloons, oyster bars and gambling houses stretching from Madison to Court, and from Front to Main St. Renamed Park Alley in 1942, it was a gathering place for businessmen and Jasper had been seen there with a nephew before he disappeared. Another report puts him at the Montgomery Park horse racing track on East Parkway the night before with that same nephew.

In Elmwood, adjacent to Jasper’s monument, two other markers on the same plot belong to his sisters, Eliza and Ruth Smith, who inherited his estate once he was declared legally dead seven years later. Eliza died on Aug. 12, 1910. The cause of death is listed as “chronic diarrhea” with a contributing factor of exhaustion. She was 55 years old.

Born in 1848, Ruth outlived them both, passing in 1918 at the age of 70.

The mystery of Jasper Smith was never solved, though speculation swirls like nearby gingko leaves in autumn. Did the sisters have something to do with his disappearance? The purchase of the plot and his monument a final act of respect and, perhaps, an effort towards an apology? It is worth noting that the sisters’ monuments, equally as tall, are turned away from that of Jasper’s as though they wanted to be near him, yet not necessarily with him in eternity. Had it been the nephew in Jasper’s company on the final night he was seen in public? Or could it have been any of the desperate, fearful men who must have populated the pubs and gambling houses in that year of Memphis’s fever? We may never know for sure, but the statue of the man and his lion looking over him will forever act as a reminder and memorial.

3 comments »

It's a Small World

December 12th, 2013

Submitted by Guest Blogger Cathi Johnson

On November 11, 2001, my oldest daughter Ashley was killed in a car accident.  Each of the twelve years since, I have take 11.11 as a personal day, seeking no human interaction, a time for reflection and nowhere to go, no place to be.  I do what feels right, when it feels right.

This year was no different.  I intended to go to Elmwood shortly after they opened, but got involved in something else at home, so I left for Elmwood when I got done. 

In the section where I do most of my volunteer stone preservation work, Chapel Hill 2, single infant burials from the late 1880s, I started doing a little lawn maintenance, dragging downed tree limbs from the far end to the curb.  As I walked to the curb, a truck stopped right in front of me. 

“Darn,” I thought.  “People.  Now I have to interact.”

I could have nodded hello and turned away, but when a man emerged from the truck holding a map and gazing about in bewilderment, I felt the need to offer my services.  “May I help you?” I asked. 

Grunt.  Awkward silence.  Then a mumbled, “They keep moving these things around.”

More silence as I digested that statement.  Er, what exactly could he be thinking was being moved around?  In a cemetery? 

The man was still standing there clutching the map.  He did not offer it to me to look at, nor did he ask a question.  I tentatively leaned closer, keeping my feet in place.  Grudgingly, he finally allowed me to see the map.  It was indeed a map of Elmwood, and someone from the office had marked in red the location of a burial.  He was in the right place – Chapel Hill 2. 

Emboldened, I asked for the name of the person they were looking for.  “Louis Kummerer,” he said. “I know exactly where that child is buried!” I replied.  “Come with me.” 

Eager now, the man and woman carefully followed me across the uneven grass to Louis’ marker.   During my volunteer work, I had found the cradle portion in three pieces, and the upright headstone broken from its base, lying 5 feet away.  Each piece has been restored and re-set.  I admit I felt some pride as I presented them to Louis.

I discovered that the man and woman were mother and son, and that Louis was her father’s infant brother.  And now, years later, his family was reclaiming him, remembering him, mourning him. 

Silently, I left them there and went back to my work.  But on this day, set aside every year to honor the memory of Ashley, when I could have arrived earlier and been gone by the time they parked the truck, or not offered to help, or not been shown the map, I marvel at how small the world really is.

1 comment »

Precious Memories

November 25th, 2013

Recently a woman stopped by the office with a small bag of items she hoped we could bury at the gravesite of her Great-Great Grandmother who was buried in Elmwood in 1960. Fighting back tears, she explained the reason for her request.

In February of 1901, her Great-Great Grandparents were living in St. Louis and lost their first born child, a son named for his father, Roy. The child had just turned 6. The child’s mother, Jeanette, packed up a few items to remind her of her departed son:  some toys, a pair of christening shoes, a mitten and a sprig of fern probably taken from a funeral wreath. She carefully packed these things away and moved on with her life. Jeannette raised more children, moved to Little Rock and then Memphis, grew old, died and was buried in Elmwood next to her husband. The child was rarely, if ever, mentioned over the next 112 years. The stored items quietly passed down thru the next three generations. Until now.

A Great-Great Granddaughter found the items while going through her mother’s things. Here was a handful of items bringing home a poignant reminder of a mother’s grief for a small child taken long before his time. The woman feared that eventually someone was eventually going to come into possession of the items, have no idea of what they were, and that they’d end up discarded without care.  These items symbolized her Great-Great Grandmother’s tragic loss and grief and she felt that they needed to be reunited with Jeannette once more. 

Elmwood was contacted and asked if the items could be buried in Jeannette’s plot, and that’s what we’ve done. A mother and her only son’s possessions together again, united for all eternity. Keeping family memories alive is what Elmwood is about. We honor and welcome that responsibility.

5 comments »