Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Rendezvous with Death: Blanche Debar Booth, Enid, and the Mystery Surrounding John Wilkes Booth's Death

I have written extensively on what seems to be growing evidence that John Wilkes Booth did not die in the early morning hours of April 26, 1865 as stated in the official record. Booth, according to the accepted historical narrative, was shot by a soldier from the Union's 16th Cavalry named Boston Corbett while hiding in a Virginia farmer's tobacco barn. John Wilkes Booth's family members do not believe this version of their forefather's death, and they say someone else died at Garrett's farm and that their ancestor escaped. Booth's descendants filed suit in 1996 to force the exhumation of the body that the government claims is Booth's. DNA tests could answer definitively whether the body was Booth's, and that is what the Booth family desired--an answer. However, the cemetery's attorneys argued before the judges that if an exhumation of the body took place, the processs would violate what was supposed to be an inviolable written contract between Green Mount Cemetery and Booth's mother (signed in 1869) that her son's remains would never be disturbed. The courts ruled in favor of the cemetery and the body was not exhumed. The family continues to press in their efforts to obtain DNA testing. 
Since that mid-1990's court ruling, trace DNA testing has dramatically improved. In addition,  documents have been uncovered that indicate Booth had assistance from government officials in his escape from Washington, D.C. and that he did not die at Garrett's farm. Respected historians and authors Leonard F. Guttridge (now deceased) and Ray A. Neff wrote a book entitled Dark Union in 2003. In the book, the authors reveal how previously unknown primary source materials, papers deemed authentic by the FBI and Department of Defense examiners, implicate Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in plotting to have the President kidnapped or killed on April 14, 1865.  Dark Union further reveals that the men Stanton sent in pursuit of Booth were loyal to Secretary of War and that they eventually allowed Booth to escape. If true, the question then becomes, "Who was shot at Garrett's farm on April 26, 1865?" There are at least three possible and very plausible answers (other than Booth) from those who are proponents of Booth's escape. However, whom they believe was shot is a subject for another post. I desire in this post to focus on the fact that a few Booth family members swore that they met with John Wilkes Booth after 1865.

One such family member is stage actress Blanche Debar Booth (1844-1930). Blanche was considered "the most beautiful woman on the American stage" in her day, and she was Booth's favorite niece. In March 1922, just eight years before her death,  Blanche swore that she had an encounter with John Wilkes Booth in Enid, Oklahoma (some newspaper accounts say El Reno) in the early 1900's. Again in 1925, Blanche swore that her uncle approached her while she was getting to perform in Enid--35 years after the government said he died. Even when Fred L. Black--the investigator assigned by automobile magnate Henry Ford to look into the matter--attempted to dissuade Blanche Debar Booth from her testimony, she stood firm.

"I exchanged but a word or two with him, letting him know I was too fatigued to see anyone."

According to her sworn testimony, she didn't know the man calling her name on the other side of the dressing room door was her aged uncle. She told the inquirer who wished to see her that she was preparing for her performance and he needed to go away.  Blanche said that her uncle then slid a card under the door of the downtown opera house dressing room with these handwritten words on it, "Wouldn't you like to meet your Johnny?" using the name John Wilkes always used when referring to himself with family members. Blanche did not immediately pick up the card, but continued getting ready. When she saw the card and read the words printed on it, she flung open her door, looking frantically for her uncle. Booth was gone. She swore that the distinctive handwriting and signature was that of her uncle's. She wouldn't budge from her views--particularly because she had heard from her other uncles and her own grandmother of personal meetings they had with Booth over the years.

Blanche DeBar Booth was the daughter of Junius (Jr.) Booth, John Wilkes' brother.  After Lincoln was assassinated, Blanche was interviewed by a Missouri state law enforcement officer who described her as "an unmitigated rebel" and "possessed of considerable personal attractions, of a vigorous mind and marked histrionic ability."  After Lincoln's murder, she dropped her last name to dodge her uncle John's infamy. She retained her striking looks.  She created a sensation in Chicago in 1871 when she put on the first play there after the city was all but destroyed by fire.

Blanche Debar Booth is one of just a handful of 19th century stage actors from whom we have a recording of  her talents. In the YouTube audio below, you can hear how Blanche would have dramatically portrayed her craft on stage in the 1800's and early 1900's. The audio is her actual voice quoting a poem appropriate for the mystery surrounding her brother's death. Whether or not Blanche Debar Booth is telling the truth about meeting her uncle in Enid is up for debate, but nobody can question that as the Booth family continues to press for DNA testing of vertebrae from the "body in the barn," until answers are given to them, the mystery of John Wilkes Booth death will continue.

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade...
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair...
I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town...

And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Performed by Blanche DeBar Booth (1844-1930)
Favorite Niece of John Wilkes Booth


Victorious said...

Wade, don't know if this might be of interest to you, but a movie entitled, "The Killing of Lincoln" is premiering on the National Geographic channel on Feb. 17 at 8 pm.

You can read about it here if you like:

Mary Ann

Wade Burleson said...

Thanks, Mary Ann! I am familiar with the movie. What we are working on right now is the DNA tests of the vertebrae held by the government at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. DNA should be able to answer whether or not Booth was killed in Garrett's barn.

Johnny D. said...

Fascinating reading, Wade. Who knows? It might very well be as you said here. I wish they'd do the DNA testing so we'd know for sure.

Will D said...

I just want to clarify something, Wade. You do consider Booth to be one of the most, if not THE most, despicable cowards and traitors in all of U.S. history, right?

I ask only because all of this interest in the possibility that he wasn't executed (as we all agree he should have been, right?), can start to look a little bit like some form of twisted hero worship. But I'm sure that's a misreading on my part.

Always enjoy reading your thoughts here!

Wade Burleson said...

Will D,

Any man who cowardly takes the life of a President by shooting him in the back of the head is descipable. What is possibly even more descipable is a group of individuals who assisted Booth and covered up his escape because they were involved in a plan to kidnap and/or assassinate the President, and were using Booth to accomplish their agenda. DNA will help prove whether or not other people should go down in history as dispicable cowards.

Will D said...

Wade, you're absolutely correct! We should right the wrongs of historical record wherever we find them, and especially when they pertain to the cowardly murder of one of America's greatest citizens and most beloved Presidents.

And I think you meant "group of individuals who MAY HAVE assisted Booth"...

Blessings on the this Tuesday. :)


Rex Ray said...

Would we think of Booth a coward or a hero if he had shot Hitler the same way?

Rex Ray said...

Would we think of Booth a coward or a hero if he had shot Hitler the same way?

Rex Ray said...

Wade, here is that story I promised long ago.

Written by Hez and Rex Ray who met this little girl in1948 when we were 16

In World War II, the American Artillery was about to fire when they saw an American jeep leave the town and drive toward them. It was our dad, David W Ray, who had gotten his usual ‘Chapel Chimes’ printed which soldiers liked to read. He was a Chaplain in Patton’s Forth Armored Division that landed three days after D-day and stayed on the front until the war ended. His friends called him ‘Moss Face” because he was 48. He was first in the ‘obstacle course’ training and never lost in wrestling. His medals, including the Bronze Star, showed he was accustomed to going beyond the call of duty. He told the Artillery the German army had left before he got there.

The walled city of Rothenburg, Germany dates back to the Middle Ages with its castles, moats, and watchtowers. In 1634, war and the Black Death stopped Rothenburg from growing which preserved its 17th-century state. Today there are millions of visitors each year.

In March 1945, Rothenburg had a population of about 9,000. The order not to shell the town was unnecessary because the Germans surrendered without firing a shot. The Forth Armored occupied the town in April, 1945.

As the days pasted, dad made friends by playing soccer with children. The word spread, and other soldiers joined in. It wasn’t long before the town people and soldiers became friends.

One little girl about five, was especially drawn to dad. Her smiling face, blond hair, and good cheer made Monika Beyer everyone’s friend. She was the youngest of her family of several children. But nearly every day she troubled dad by asking, “When is my daddy coming home?”

Her father, John Beyer, was the town’s best doctor, but early in the war he was assigned to an army division to fight in the wasteland of Siberia. The Germans suffered defeat with crushing losses. Due to lack of supplies, about as many died from cold as from guns.

Dad always answered Monika’s question: “Your daddy is coming home real soon. You will see him in the big meadow by the oak tree with the rope swing. He will be calling your name.”

Her face would light up and clapping her hands, she would go home and tell everyone about Chaplain Ray’s good news.

It wasn’t long until Monika’s mother spoke to dad. “I’ve accepted my husband’s death. All my children with the exception of Monika have also. I must ask you, Chaplain, never again tell her that her father is coming home. You’re going to break my little girl’s heart!”

Rex Ray said...

Dad stopped her from leaving by asking her to hear about his mother.
“She had eight young children when her husband died and remained a widow 38 years. One son enlisted in War I, but was reported killed when Germans used deadly mustard gas. She believed God would save him and we would see him walking down the road to our home. That day came as the army lost track of him when Mustard gas put him in a hospital a very long time.”

With tears down her face, Mrs. Beyer asked, “Oh Chaplain Ray, what am I to do? I have never heard a single word from my husband in five years. If he were alive, he would move heaven and earth to find us. I remain here, alone, and without hope.”

“I’ll find your husband.”

Her tears began anew, “I don’t think I can do this. The children will be torn apart, our hopes dashed once more.”

Catching her hands, dad prayed.

“But where will you go? If my husband can’t find us, and he knows where to look, how can you possibly find him?

“Remember it’s our job to go. It’s the Lord’s job to find. I’ll search the four sectors of German prisoners that the Allies have in Berlin.”

“Before you go, I want you to have something.” She returned with a picture of her young husband and a lock of hair in a handkerchief.
“The last night we said our goodbyes our baby Monika was asleep. I cut a lock of her hair and this is half of it. My husband said he would carry the other always. If you find a man that claims to be my husband, ask him for Monika’s hair. The children and I will pray for you everyday.”

Dad had a new engine in his jeep because an 88 shell had destroyed the old one while missing him by inches. The hole in the canvas top was a reminder. It was 340 miles to Berlin. Dad searched the Russian, French, British, and American prison camps that were large open fields with barbwire without success. The American camp was last and as he was driving away, he heard a GI yelling, “Wait!”

A GI was running after him. Thinking he wanted a ride, dad stopped. “No Sir, but I may know something that might help you. I overheard your story to the Captain. I have a friend in the British Sector that knows about a German surgeon that’s extremely talented. He doesn’t know his name but told me the British kidnapped him from the Russians to save a British soldier near death. They’ve kept him secretly ever since.”

Rex Ray said...

With renewed hope, dad returned to the British prison camp. He told the guard he had orders to find Dr. John Beyer. Dad retraced his steps with an interpreter, but no luck. “What’s that small building way over there?”

“That’s what’s left of a destroyed jail. It’s deserted and is going to be torn down.”

“Let’s take a look anyway.”

After entering through a hole in the bombed building, they saw three empty cells, but the last had four men kneeling. The interpreter thought they were gambling, but they were holding hands in a prayer circle. They looked too old to be the doctor, but dad hoped they might know something. “The American chaplain is looking for Dr. John Beyer. He has good news. Do you know where he can be found?”

Slowly, a tall man stood and spoke in perfect English to dad through the cell bars. “I’m John Beyer. My family and village are lost. What possible good news could an American have for a prisoner of five years?”

Since the man looked nothing like the picture, dad thought he was a fake. Showing the lock of hair, he said, “Can you match this?”

Jerking a lock of hair from his shirt pocket, the man grabbed dad through the bars yelling, “Does my family live?”

Four men’s praises drowned dad’s voice because his big smile was their answer. When dad said he had God’s orders to take him home, their contagious praises to God caused two other’s to join in.

The guard at the gate said, “I see you got your man. Nice work sir.”

At Rothenburg, dad stopped at the large meadow. “We will talk again, but now look at that big oak tree. Your Monika comes there ever afternoon to see if this will be the day her daddy comes home”

Not trusting himself to speak, Dr. Beyer shook hands and turned toward the meadow where a little girl was swinging. He ran towards the big oak. “Monika! Monika! I’m your daddy!”

There was inscribable joy when he arrived home with Monika on his shoulders.

Later, Monika’s mother said, “I’m going to kiss the Chaplain”, and her husband said, “If you don’t I am!”

Rex Ray said...

Would anyone disagree if the ‘protection’ of the President at the time of Lincoln was never any better, probably every President thereafter would have been murdered…including the present. :)