Finis Langdon Bates

Elmwood Cemetery

2014 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 . . . (read more)