Friday, May 20, 2011

The DNA of John Wilkes Booth: Nothing to Lose and Much to Learn about a Tragic Love Story

John Wilkes Booth
The National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., and the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, possess three vertebrae specimens that, according to the government, come from the body of the man who killed President Abraham Lincoln.  The vertebrae were taken from John Wilkes Booth during the official autopsy performed on April 27, 1865.  Booth had been killed a day earlier, April 26, 1865, after being shot by Union sergeant Boston Corbett at Garrett’s farm in Virginia. However, there is an ongoing effort today by Booth's descendants, using the services of DNA specialists, to prove John Wilkes Booth did not die at Garrett's farm on April 26, 1865, but actually lived for an additional forty years, dying in his early sixties. Booth's descendants have long believed John Wilkes Booth escaped the Union's attempts to capture him.

Joanne Hulme, a distant Booth relative, wrote on March 2011, "At no time did any of John Wilkes Booth's family identify the body at Garrett's farm; not on the Montague, not at Weaver's Funeral Home, and not at the barn. The government could have brought the Booth family forth, but chose not to. Joseph Booth, John's brother, said numerous times that neither he nor Edwin Booth ever identified the body." Over 95% of all Booth descendants today believe the so-called 'body in the barn' was not that of forefather John Wilkes Booth.

The body buried at the Arsenol
Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the body in the barn to be immediately and secretly buried in the Old Penitentiary on the grounds of the Washington Arsenal, land now a part of Ft. McNair. A grave was dug beneath the prison floor on the evening of April 27, 1865, and the remains, wrapped in an army blanket and placed in a gun box, were lowered into a hole and covered by a stone slab. One photograph of the body had been taken during the Booth autopsy and it was given to Stanton, but the photograph immediately disappeared. Unlike Booth's diary which was also given to Stanton and disappeared but then reaapeared two years later, the autopsy photograph, which could have identified the body as Booth's, never reappeared.  Nearly four years later in February of 1869, President Andrew Johnson ordered the body exhumed and given to the family. Ironically, in Baptist Alley behind Ford's Theater, the very alley in which Booth had made his escape after assassinating the President four years earlier, the casket was opened and the decomposed body, now a skeleton, was for the first time shown to a representative of the Booth family.

The skeleton was then taken to Baltimore and re-buried in February 1869 in the Booth family plot at Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland. Booth's granddaughter Izola Forrester wrote in her 1937 book This One Mad Act that it was common knowledge in the Booth family that John Wilkes Booth did not die in the barn at Garrett's farm. Blanche DeBar Booth, John's niece, swore in an affidavit late in her life that her uncle John tried to contact her after the turn of the century, and that both Edwin Booth (John's brother) and Mary Ann Holme's Booth (John's mother) had personally met with John Wilkes Booth after his alleged death in April 1865. 

Circuit Court for Baltimore, Maryland
In October of 1994, a petition was filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore, Maryland to "exhume the alleged remains of John Wilkes Booth from Green Mount Cemetery (in Baltimore)."  Two descendants of Booth, a great-niece named Lois White Rathbun and a second cousin named Virginia Eleanor Kline, filed the petition. The Booth family was assisted by historian Nathaniel Orlowek, historiographer and professor Arthur Ben Chitty from University of the South, and Washington D.C. super lawyer Mark S. Zaid. The cause for the petition was the belief that John Wilkes Booth was not shot and killed on April 26, 1865, at Garrett's farm, but escaped Virginia and eventually lived in Tennessee and Texas under the alias "John St. Helen" and then eventually moved to Oklahoma under the alias "David E. George" where Booth eventually died in Enid, Oklahoma on January 13, 1903 (see Statement of Case: Appellate Brief). Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan ruled against the Booth family and declared the body buried at Green Mount could not be exhumed. After losing on appeal, the Booths turned their attention in 2010 on an effort to exhume the body of John's brother, Edwin Booth, buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge MA. Once Edwin's body is exhumed, DNA will be compared to the vertebrae taken from the body in the barn.

If the DNA of Edwin Booth matches the vertebrae the government claims to be from John Wilkes Booth, then the "Booth Legend" will be laid to rest. If not, the interest in the man named John St. Helen/David E. George will explode. Either way, there remains an incredible and mostly unexplored story of love, tragedy and mystery--the story of David E. George.

The Suicide of David Elihu George
David E. George
David Elihu George committed suicide in Room #4 of the Grand Avenue Hotel in Enid, Oklahoma on Tuesday morning, January 13, 1903, by drinking strychnine poison. Mr. George was in his early sixties at the time of his death, and little was known about him when he died. David George had come to Enid just a few weeks earlier, in December 1902, and lived in the Grand Hotel paying for a week's rent at a time. He went about town verbally advertising himself for hire as a house painter. Mr. George was in his early sixties, was known to drink heavily at night in the bars on the town square, was occasionally seen by the proprietors of the hotel sitting in the lobby reading vaudeville and/or theatrical journals. He also possessed an affinity for quoting Shakespeare. Very little else was known about this stranger--until after he died.

The Enid Wave published in its January 13, 1903 afternoon edition a one-paragraph article about the David E. George suicide. A local pastor, Rev. E.C. Harper, brought the nickel paper home and read the headline to his wife Jessica. The couple had moved to Enid just a year earlier from El Reno, Oklahoma. While her husband was a pastor in El Reno in 1900, Mrs. Harper had attended to a "David George" on his sickbed. The deathly ill man had confessed to Jessica Harper that he was "John Wilkes Booth," wishing to clear his conscience of "killing the greatest man who ever lived." Mr. George, would eventually recover from his serious illness of 1900, and continued to work in El Reno, never mentioning again his alleged real identity. Mrs. Harper and others in El Reno, including Rev. E.C. Harper, dismissed the George's 1900 'Booth confession' as either the delusions of a sick man or the deception of an insane man.
The Grand Hotel, Enid, Oklahoma today
Upon reading the Enid newspaper account of  David E. George's suicide that Tuesday evening, January 13, 1903, the Harpers wondered if this "David E. George" who died earlier that morning at the Grand Hotel could be the same David George they had known in El Reno. Mr. Harper went down to the town square and entered the Penniman Furniture Store, which doubled as a funeral parlor, and viewed the George body. With no known relatives in Enid, the body was under the care of embalmer W.H. Ryan.  Rev. Harper saw George's body and realized it was the same man that he and his wife had known in El Reno. The minister suggested to W.H. Ryan that government authorities should be notified because "this man confessed to my wife that he was John Wilkes Booth." It was the next day, January 14, 1903, that the Enid newspapers had a field day with the testimony of Rev. and Mrs. Harper. Enid officials did handwriting analysis of David George's and John Wilkes Booth's handwriting and noted uncanny similarities. The body of George was carefully examined and several distinguishing and unique features in common with Booth were noted. The death of David E. George and his "Booth confession" to Mrs. Harper spread throughout the country via newspapers.
Finis Bates
Enter Memphis, Tennessee attorney Finis Bates. Mr. Bates read in the Memphis newspaper the story about David George's suicide and wondered if this man who confessed to being Booth could be the same man Bates knew as "John St. Helen" years earlier in Texas. Thirty years before, in the early 1870's,  Finis Bates was a young lawyer in Granbury, Texas. He had represented a man named John St. Helen in a tax and liquor license case. In late 1872 Bate's client, John St. Helen became ill. St. Helen called for his attorney to come and see him. Just like David E. George would later confide to Mrs. E.C. Harper in 1900 that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth, so too John St. Helen confessed to Finis Bates that he was John Wilkes Booth. However, unlike Mrs. Harper, the curious young lawyer who heard the confession took St. Helen at his word and probed his client about the Lincoln assassination. Bates transcribed St. Helen's answers to his questions and would later discover that John St. Helen knew facts and information about the case that the government had not yet released to the public in 1872. Shortly after confessing he was Booth and giving to his attorney specific details of the Lincoln assassination, John St. Helen disappeared. Finis Bates would eventually move to Memphis, Tennessee where he became what was then called Attorney General (assistant D.A.). Bates worked for over twenty-five years seeking further information about John St. Helen and/or anybody who claimed to have seen John Wilkes Booth after 1865. In 1900 Finis Bates filed paperwork with the federal government, giving them information from the notes he transcribed during John St. Helen's 1872 "confession." Bates requested that the government's John Wilkes Booth reward money be given to him (Bates) on the premise that the government had made a mistake and killed the wrong man in the barn at Garrett's farm. Bates argued to the government that he (Bates) knew the current identity of Booth (John St. Helen) and that he could help the government capture him. The government sent a form letter back to Bates saying Booth had already been captured and killed.

After reading of the death of David E. George and his confession to being Booth, Finis Bates would make his way to Enid, Oklahoma by train in the spring of 1903 to see if George could in fact be the man he knew as John St. Helen. Finis Bates entered Penniman's Funeral Home and, according to Mr. W.H. Ryan, turned white as a sheet when he saw David E. George's body and exclaimed, "My old friend! My old friend John St. Helen!"

Finis Bates believed so much that David E. George/John St. Helen was in fact John Wilkes Booth that he went on to stake his professional reputation on proving it. He was not alone. The first President of the Oklahoma Historical Society, W.P. Campbell, believed David E. George/John St. Helen was John Wilkes Booth. The two books these two men wrote defending their views are available on-line. The titles of the two narrative books are self-explanatory: John Wilkes Booth: Escape and Wanderings until Final Ending of the Trail at Enid, Oklahoma, January 12 (sic), 1903, by W.P. Campbell, and The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth: Or, the First True Account of Lincoln's Assassination, Containing a Complete Confession by Booth (published 1907) by Finis Bates. These two books are lampooned by many, but Bates' book became a bestseller (70,000 copies) within just a few months of its publication in 1907. Both these men wrote emphatically that John Wilkes Booth died in Enid, Oklahoma on January 13, 1903. The impending DNA tests by the Booth family will either destroy their century-old Booth escape premise or the DNA tests will cause many historians who have mocked Bates and Campbell to re-read their material with greater focus.
What piques my curiosity is the life of John St. Helen/David E. George from 1865-1872 and how he came to first encounter attorney Finis Bates in Granbury, Texas. Where did John St. Helen/David E. George come from? Who was he? What about his family? If he is proven not to be Booth, how long did he carry out his Booth deception? It is incontrovertible David E. George and John St. Helen are the same man. One does not have to come close to believing David E. George is John Wilkes Booth to see that David E. George is John St. Helen. Where was John St. Helen prior to appearing in Texas in 1872? I believe the answers to these questions from the beginning of understanding a tragic love story, regardless of your view of "The Booth Legend."

The Mystery of the Love Story Begins
In early February 1903, not quite four weeks after David E. George died in Enid, the mayor of El Reno (Booth's former place of residence for at least three years immediately prior to Enid), received a letter from Mrs. Charles Levine of New York City. The Enid Eagle, Enid's morning paper, reported on this letter in its February 19, 1903 edition. Mrs. Levine wrote that she was the daughter of John Wilkes Booth, and if indeed, David E. George was Mr. Booth, she was entitled to his estate, an estate that the papers were then reporting to be quite sizable (later discovered to be untrue). Most modern historians, including C. Wyatt Evans, dismiss Mrs. Levine's letter as an attempt by a greedy easterner to either glean money or gain fame by inserting herself into the David E. George drama playing out in Enid, Oklahoma. C. Wyatt Evans lumps Mrs. Charles Levine into a very broad category of other crazy "interlopers" who tried to profit from the George death, and only devotes one paragraph to Mrs. Levine in his otherwise excellent book The Legend of John Wilkes Booth: Myth, Memory and a Mummy. Evans places his information about Mrs. Levine in the same paragraph as his description of quack "palm reader"  who also sought to profit from the George story by reading the dead man's hand. I believe, respectfully, that C. Wyatt Evans is wrong about Mrs. Levine's motives for "inserting herself" into the George drama in Enid.

Marriage License of John W. Booth to Louisa J. Payne February 1872
Mrs. Charles Levine was born Laura Ida Elizabeth Booth in Payne's Cove, Tennessee, a few miles west of Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1873. She was the daughter of Louisa Holmes Payne and John Wilkes Booth (see marriage certificate to the left).  Louisa J. Payne was a Confederate Civil War widow. Her first husband, Confederate soldier C.Z. Payne, died in 1865 toward the end of the war.  Louisa was left to care for her young son McCager (or "Cage"). Louisa worked as a seamstress for the recently opened University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. In 1871 Louisa met a man named Jack Booth who claimed he was a "distant cousin" to John Wilkes Booth. Louisa fell in love, and she married Jack in February 1872. However, after the wedding, Jack told Louisa that he had a past, and his name was not really Jack. When she pressed him for the truth, Jack told her he was actually John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of the Republican President. Louisa, a devout Christian and southern Democrat, could forgive her husband for his war actions and personal deceptions to her,  but she insisted that he sign their marriage certificate with his God-given name. And so, on February 24, 1872, a new certificate was signed in the presence of Rev. C.C. Rose, listing the marriage of John Wilkes Booth and Louisa Payne. The late historiographer for the University of the South, Dr. Arthur Ben Chitty, did extensive research into Louisa Payne and her marriage to the man claiming to be John Wilkes Booth. Dr. Chitty eventually discovered the marriage certificate itself, located in the Franklin County Courthouse in Winchester, Tennessee. Dr. Chitty archived at The University of the South several audiotape interviews of men who personally knew McCager Payne, who in 1872 became John Wilkes Booth's step-son. Dr. Chitty discovered that McCager had intimate knowledge while a youth that his stepfather was actually John Wilkes Booth.

As a newly married couple Louisa and John Wilkes Booth moved to Memphis, Tennessee because, as Louisa would later say, "my husband had been told he would be paid a large sum of money owed him for his offical work on behalf of the Confederacy." While in Memphis, Louisa overheard some men on the street discussing her husband and pointing out where the "skunk" was now living. Louisa informed John that men knew who he was and his life was in danger. John told Louisa that it would be better if they separated for a season. He would go to Texas and she should go back to Tennessee until things cooled off. John promised Louisa that he would return to Tennessee after things settled down.

Louisa went back east to Payne's Cove Tennessee and the man claiming to be John Wilkes Booth headed south. Unbeknown to the couple at the time, Louisa was pregnant with John's child.  Louisa Payne would give birth to Laura Ida Elizabeth Booth, named after one of John Wilkes Booth's sisters while living alone in Tennessee in early 1873. Her second husband, the man she first knew as "Jack Booth," but later claimed to be "John Wilkes Booth" went to Granbury, Texas -- and would change his name to John St. Helen. Historian Steven Miller suggests that John St. Helen, the man who confessed to being "John Wilkes Booth" to attorney Finis Bates, is a different man from the person who married Louisa Payne. My research on a book about the Lincoln assassination and the bizarre connections to Enid, Oklahoma suggests they are the same man. This man--Jack Booth/John St. Helen, David E. George, is either a deluded and deceptive man who pretended to be John Wilkes Booth for over four decades, or as many in the family of John Wilkes Booth now believe, this man was actually John Wilkes Booth himself.

DNA testing in 2011 could help solve the mystery.

Back in Tennesee in 1873, Louisa Booth received financial help from the family of her deceased first husband (C.Z. "Zeb" Payne). She went to work caring for her son McCager and her newborn infant girl. Louisa kept hope that her husband would return to her from Texas, but she never heard from him. In 1879, seven years after marrying the man who claimed to be John Wilkes Booth, beautiful 36-year-old Louisa Payne was raking and burning leaves in her front yard when her dress accidentally caught fire. Louisa ran to the creek in an attempt to extinguish the flames, but the burns on her body would prove to be fatal for her. Before she died, Louisa called her six-year-old daughter Laura Ida Booth and her fourteen-year-old son McCager Payne to her bedside. The mother informed her children that Ida's father was John Wilkes Booth. McCager would later tell friends at the mill where he worked late in his life that he already knew John Wilkes Booth was his stepdad because of conversations he had overheard between his mom and stepdad when he was a boy. Caught listening in one time by his step-dad, McCager was threatened that if the boy told anyone that his step-dad was John Wilkes Booth, "I will kill you."

After the death of her mother, young Laura Ida Booth would go to live with friends and family. Laura Ida Booth eventually became an actress herself and married a fellow actor named Charles Levine in New York City. When Mrs. Charles Levine heard of David E. George's death in Enid, Oklahoma in early 1903, and that David E. George had claimed to be "John Wilkes Booth" before he died, Mrs. Levine sent her letter to the mayor of El Reno claiming George's estate "if indeed he is John Wilkes Booth."

Mrs. Charles Levine was serious in her query about Booth's estate, believing herself to be his daughter. Her letter should also be taken seriously by historians. Again, one of two options is possible regarding the man who appears as Jack Booth/John St. Helen/David E. George/ and who fathered Laura Ida Booth: (1). Either this man is a devious and/or deluded individual who kept up a false front for four decades about being John Wilkes Booth, or (2). This man is actually John Wilkes Booth.

To take the latter position opens oneself up to ridicule from mainstream historians. I remain personally unpersuaded. What is certain, however, is this: The DNA testing of the vertebrae from 'the body in the barn' will either be a match to John Wilkes Booth and lay to rest the "Booth Legend" or the DNA testing will NOT provide a match and the escape theories for Lincoln's assassin will explode. Either way, historians ought to give Laura Ida Elizabeth Booth (Mrs. Charles Levine) and the letter she wrote to the mayor of El Reno in February 1903 far more serious attention than they are currently being given.

Stay tuned ....

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Saved from Hell in a Jail Cell at Cozumel

Rachelle and I and the four kids are on a cruise of the Caribbean (March 13-20, 2011) with Rachelle´s parents, several extended family members and a few close friends to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Rachelle´s mom and dad. We departed Galveston early Sunday morning and had a wonderful time at sea Sunday and Monday, including Monday night when Rachelle and her sister put on an exceptional reception in the conference room of The Voyager of the Seas to honor their parents. Rachelle and I have looked forward to this cruise for a couple of years, not the least reason being it marks the first time in many years that all four of our children have been able to accompany us on a family vacation. Tuesday morning, March 15, we docked at Cozumel, Mexico, an island off the Mexican mainland. We decided to be a little adventuresome and rent a jeep to cruise the island. We six Burlesons had a tremendous time in the morning while doing some shopping in downtown Cozumel, then shared lunch together, and followed that up with a trip to the south side of the island to try out a beach that had been recommended to us. That´s when things took a turn for the worse for me.

While mom and the kids enjoyed the sun, I took the jeep and went back north about five miles to pick up a map to identify a beach we could enjoy as a family the next day when our ship would dock at Grand Cayman. On the way back to the beach I saw a family of four in a broken down jeep. I spent the next forty minutes getting them to their hotel, and received profuse gratitude from the entire family which consisted of a family physician from Victoria, his wife, and two teenage daughters. I still had plenty of time to get the Burleson crew and head back to the ship for departure. I got back on the Coastal Highway and headed south. As I was turning right off of the highway into the entrance of Sanchez Beach, I noticed two jeeps full of people parked beside each other on the shoulder. I thought to myself "I sure hope they are not broken down too!"  Unbeknown to me, a small unmarked road runs parallel to the highway I was on.  I looked at the two jeeps as I passed them and turned right into the entrance of the beach. A motorcycle heading north on the small unmarked road crossed my path just as I reached the beach entrance. There were no yield signs for either the motorcycle or me. In the United States, the yield would be for the motorcycle on the access road, but in Mexico the yield is for me as I turn right off of the main highway.


I broadsided the motorcycle. The driver and the passenger flew off their bike into a culvert next to the access road. I stopped horrified. I had not seen the bike until impact. I immediately got out and checked on the two persons that I hit. Both the driver and passenger of the bike were hurt, but conscious. I tried to comfort both men while the people in the two parked jeeps called the ambulances. As soon as the ambulances arrived I went on into the park and picked up my family and came back to the entrance to wait for the police. The ambulance attendants told me that both men would be okay, but at least one had a broken leg. After about ten minutes of waiting the tourist police of Cozumel arrived.

The tourist police were very friendly. I was told that my family should go back to the ship, but that I needed to head to the Cozumel tourist police station. Carlos, the English speaking tourist police officer, informed me that after about forty minutes to verify insurance and do some paperwork that I too would be on my way in plenty of time to make departure. My older two boys, Kade and Boe insisted on going with me, so we sent Mom, Charis, and Logan to the ship and told them we would make it just before departure. The jeep rented for $60.00 and I had purchased the premium insurance policy for $35.00, something I hardly ever do. Carlos told me that it was good I had the excellent premium insurance that came with the rental. I drove the jeep with Carlos in the passenger seat and the two boys in the back. The jeep had suffered minimal damage, but obviously my thoughts were with the two Mexican men whom I had hit.


When we arrived at the tourist police station the scene was chaotic. Very few officers spoke English. They were friendly, but the entire station looked like disorganized mayhem. I knew instinctively that we would not make departure on the ship, but my feelings were confirmed when we met a lady who had run into two motorcycles that morning and had been at the station going on six hours. The port authority arrived forty minutes later at the police station and informed me that we needed to leave immediately. The police said that my boys were free to go, but that I would be missing departure. Both Boe and Kade insisted that they stay behind in Mexico with me, but I told them that the others needed them on the ship. The two boys discussed it and decided that Boe should stay with me, and  Kade would return to the ship. I tried to dissuade Boe from staying with me, but he steadfastly refused to leave. I later would reflect on how fortunate I am to have a son as stubborn as I. Rachelle later told me when she, Charis and Logan saw Kade running to catch the ship, making it on board just seconds before departure, she felt incredible sadness and knew I would be in for some trouble.

Boe and I waited at the tourist police station for a couple of hours. Carlos eventually told me that due to the broken bones in the two men I hit, I might be in for a longer stay. Mexico law is different than in the United States. I would remain in custody at the tourist police station until a representative from the car rental company had made his evaluation at the hospital of the two victims. The insurance would cover all medical costs and vehicle damage, but it was practice in Mexico that the person responsible for the accident would provide a cash payment for "lost wages." This little tidbit of information startled me. I asked how much was customary, and the answer given was "It depends on the amount of money the two men made during the week, how many weeks they would be off work, and whether or not the family members of the two men would sign off on the agreement."

I knew that I might need some help. I asked that the American Consulate be called. A few minutes later I was speaking with Ann, the Consulate representative, the first of many people who would become literal life savers to me in the next twenty four hours. Ann said she would make her way to the tourist police station. After about thirty minutes she arrived, just shortly after the family members of the two victims had arrived. The negotiations began. The car rental agent informed Ann that the two Mexican workers made about $10 a day, six days a week, and would be off a month. I thought the month extremely optimistic, so I suggested to Ann we pay them both for three months. I also told her if that was not acceptable that I would be willing to pay $1,000 a person. Ann said she thought that offer to be generous and asked if I had that much cash on me, for the families could not take credit cards. I told her that I did not and she suggested that I contact someone who could wire me the cash. I called Faye in our Finance Office, using the Consulate cell phone, and put her on notice that I might need some help in getting money to Mexico. I told Faye I was going to try to first get money myself wired by my own credit cards, a prospect that ended after a couple of minutes on the phone when the Western Union representative told me that I would have to purchase the wire transfer in person. I called Faye back and she and her husband (both true friends) spent the next several hours ensuring that my son Boe could pick up thousands of dollars in cash in order to bail his dad out of custody.

But things quickly got worse. The families called for an attorney and made their first counter offer. They wanted $6,500 in cash. The American Consulate thought that number exorbitant, but I found it impossible. It was now dark and there was no way I could get that amount of cash money, even by wire transfers which had a limit of $1,500 and must be from a debit card. I could not be released from custody until the families signed off on the lost wages settlement. Boe volunteered to go outside with the car rental representative, the port authority, and a translator to negotiate. If we could not reach an agreement within thirty minutes I would be transferred from the tourist police to the Mexican state police. The families would not budge off their number. What the families did not seem to know, because their attorney was keeping the information from them, was that if I went to Mexican jail, there would be a hearing before a judge in a few days,  the car rental company would post my bond at the hearing, and I would be free to leave the country ... without paying them a cent. However, my intention was to be fair and to do what was customary, but I frankly could not afford $6,500 cash and my counsel thought the sum exorbitant compared to other situations. On top of all the additional fines, fees and bribes that were required to get me out of jail, we were in a severe cash crises. Boe informed both families that we could not get the $6,500 in cash, but we would do what we could to pay for three to four weeks of work missed. By that time we had been told the two victims would fully recover, for which we were very grateful.


But at 6:00 p.m., Tuesday night, March 15, three hours after our ship left the dock, the Mexican police walked into the tourist police station and the entire mood changed. I had been told before that the one country in which you did not want to have an injury accident while driving a vehicle was Mexico. I was about to learn why. The set time for the tourist police to settle the incident had ended. Now it went to the regular police. I was ordered to remove my wedding ring, my hat, my watch, my billfold, and any other valuables to my son. A very big young man was brought out of a holding room in handcuffs and the police removed one of his handcuffs and ordered me to place my wrist in it. Handcuffed to this behemoth of a man, I was ordered to walk out of the police station into a waiting transport car where I would be taken to the Mexican jail where I would be held for three days until my preliminary hearing before a Mexican judge. The rental car insurance company would represent me. I was not allowed to say anything and over the very loud verbal protests of my son Boe, I was escorted out. I later learned the Port Authority officers were arguing in Spanish that I was not a criminal and the treatment I was receiving was out of line.

I was stunned. All I could think about was my wife´s warnings not to rent a car in Mexico, warnings unheeded, but very productive because they became the incentive for me to by the premium insurance. Without that insurance, I would have been responsible for all medical and vehicle bills in addition to the cash the Mexican authorities were already demanding. American insurance is not accepted in Mexico, only cash. If you are without Mexican car insurance and have an accident you must pay cash and settle up with your insurance company later.  I had the best possible Mexican insurance, but I had not been informed that in an injury accident, no insurance in Mexico will pay "lost wages," and you can´t get out of jail until the injured victim´s family agrees to a settlement on lost wages and the officials are satisfied with the payments to them.

I have never been handcuffed before. I have never been to jail. I had seen enough television shows about Mexican prisons, like Prison Break and others, to know that Mexico is notorious for its horrible jail system. When we arrived at the jail, the young man and I were escorted to a jail cell where no amount of words would be adequate to describe the scene. It was worse than I ever could have imagined. One concrete bed for two men, one concrete toilet in the center, ants and spiders crawling over the walls, feces and urine staining the floor and bed, no lights and only a small window that let an outside street lamp light shine through. I was not offered a pillow or a blanket, nor was I given any water. I would not eat or drink for the next 24 hours. In short, I moved from cruise luxury to prison hell in six hours. My son would later tell me that the image of me being handcuffed to this imposing Mexican man and led away to an unknown place was indelibly burned into his mind. I know the last thing I heard entering the car were Boe´s loud protests to the police.

After a few minutes orienting myself, I couldn´t help but thank God that my family lives in America. If there is an accident in our country, insurance verification is exchanged, and people move on, with cash settlements coming weeks later. I felt like a murderer, had no clue where my son was, and knew my family on the cruise ship would be worried sick about me. I breathed a silent prayer and asked God to turn the situation I was in into a Paul and Silas moment, later finding out this is exactly the prayer being prayed by my own family at home in the states and on the ship. I then turned my attention to my cell mate. I struck up a conversation with him and learned a few facts.

His name is Alan H______.  I will not disclose the details of his alleged crime for his own safety. He is from Mexico and works as a personal trainer. The day he and I sat in the cell was his 26th birthday. He could speak English fairly well and he asked me what I did. I told him I was a pastor. He asked, "Christian?" and I said yes. He said that his mother was a Christian, but he was not. When I asked him details of his alleged crime, he was very honest and transparent. I felt the opportunity had arisen for me to explain to Alan the gospel, and for the next couple of hours I shared with him the good news of Jesus Christ. It would be difficult even in this long narrative for me to articulate all that was said, but it is sufficient for you to know that before Alan´s 26th birthday had ended, he had been born again. The unbelievable sensation of kneeling in that filthy, insect infested jail cell in Cozumel beside this huge man that I had been handcuffed to only hours before as he prayed to receive Christ into his life is beyond description. I am not much of a singer, but after tears of joy were streaming down this young man´s face as he realized for the first time that God loved sinners like him enough to give him His Son to pay for the penalty of his sins, and that the blessings of God are all his through Christ, I felt led to sing Amazing Grace. Either the reverberation of the walls or the empowerment of the Spirit caused the song to be sung with a beauty that was outside of me. It was a moment I shall never forget, nor will Alan. He was saved from hell in a jail cell at Cozumel.

Alan´s crime story is all over the newspapers, radio and television in Cozumel. Reporters came to interview Alan in the jail cell and snapped a few pictures with me sitting behind him on the one concrete bed. I don´t understand Spanish but Alan later told me that he told the reporters that he now knows why he is in jail. The allegations against him are devastating to him and his family, but God intended for him to be in jail in order to be saved. He said that 26 years ago he was born to his mother, but he told the reporters that yesterday he was born again by God. God had sent him an angel to tell him the good news of how his life could be transformed. I figured if it took me feeling like a lowly criminal for Alan to consider me a heavenly angel, it was worth it. Before Alan was transferred to another jail late in the afternoon, we knelt and prayed for his future. A life long friendship has been formed. Boe had the privilege of meeting Alan with the Consulate representative before Alan was released from jail and he marveled that the man that caused him to fear for his father was probably the very reason why the Lord had me sent to jail. God works in mysterious ways.


After 30 LONG, sleepless hours, I was finally released after the cash arrived from the United States. I´ve never tried to keep time without a watch, but I can assure you that being in the jail cell made me very grateful for reading the book Unbroken and watching shows like Survivor. It also gave me a knew appreciation for people in jails and what it is like to feel like you are all alone in the world. I would like to thank a host of extraordinary individuals who were energetic and tireless in getting me out of a Mexican jail. Faye K. and her husband Willie were relentless in sending me some cash when I had no access to no money. Tony V. and his son Seth, who miraculously made it from Enid, Oklahoma to Cozumel in 12 short hours, provided support and translation services for my son Boe in his efforts to get me out. To the American Consulate and the extraordinary efforts of agent Ann, I owe more than I could ever repay. To my friends Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb, Representative James Langford, and Senator Jim Inhoffe who have been very influential in helping get me and my son out of Mexico tomorrow and back into the United States without passports, I give a heartfelt thanks. The staff of the Royal Caribbean ship Voyager of the Seas went the extra mile to ensure my wife was kept informed while at sea. Dan Heath back in Enid kept my parents informed of events and provided great encouragement with a private plane if needed.

To my children, Charis, Kade, Boe, and Logan, I owe the deepest gratitude. I feel like I´ve ruined our family vacation, but you have expressed your love for me in ways I will never forget. Boe, to you my 21 year old, just an added word of appreciation. The Port Authority in Cozumel told me you are the most extraordinary person they´ve ever met. You were on your own in a strange city, no vehicle, no Spanish speaking ability, and not knowing where your dad was, yet you somehow coordinated all the efforts to get me out of jail, and you did the impossible in record time. We have long talked about being on the Amazing Race, and by golly, I think I´d win it with you on my team. Most of all, to my wife, Rachelle, thanks sweetheart for your unconditional love. I promise, I will never again rent a vehicle in Mexico.

Before Alan left me in the jail cell I told him that my wife and I were out thousands of dollars for a family cruise that was messed up by a tragic accident. We were also out thousands of more dollars through fines and payment to the families of injured victims for lost wages because of the accident. But I told him that there was no amount of money that comes even close to reaching the price of his soul. I believe God had a divine appointment for me in that jail cell at Cozumel.

To my family at Emmanuel, Boe and I couldn´t catch up with the family cruise. There were no flight connections from Cozumel. Boe and I are flying back to Houston tomorrow with Tony V. and Seth where Boe and I will wait until we meet our family as they dock at Galveston on Sunday. We missed five of the seven cruise days. I would ask you to pray that Rachelle and the three Burleson kids will at least be able to enjoy Jamaica tomorrow and the cruise home to Galveston. That would make their dad very happy. I look forward to giving them all the biggest hug they´ve ever received this Sunday.

I don´t normally blog about such personal stuff, but I felt this the best way to get information out to people who love the Burlesons.

God bless you all.