Finis Langdon Bates

April 16, 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.

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