Not much is known about the John Byron Wilkes who died near Gauhati, India, on October 12, 1883. It is known that he had left the United States in the late 1860s, having applied through the British Consulate in San Francisco to be allowed to enter India. Wilkes claimed that he had been born in Sheffield, England, on December 15, 1822 to Samuel and Olivia Wilkes. The claim was checked and found to be accurate, so he was allowed to travel to India as a British subject, by way of Ceylon.
The only problem with this is that there was a John Byron Wilkes with the same birthplace, date, and parentage then living in Terre Haute, Indiana, having arrived there in 1850. He worked as a machinist at the Eagle Iron Works and raised his family without incident. This was the real Wilkes, and he lived in Terre Haute until his death in 1916, having never left the country in the interim.
So who was the John B. Wilkes who died in India in 1883? There is no absolute proof, though certain evidences, as you will see, point to the strong possibility that the Wilkes from India was actually John Wilkes Booth, infamous assassin of Abraham Lincoln.Official history tells us that Booth, who escaped Ford’s Theatre following the assassination, eluded capture for 12 days, and was shot and killed by Boston Corbett, a Union soldier on April 26, 1865 at Garret’s Barn near Port Royal, Virginia.
After his death, his body was sent back to Washington where it arrived early in the morning of the next day. The body was taken on board the ship, Montauk anchored in the Anacostia River and kept in a sown up blanket until approximately 11:00 a.m. when a party arrived on board. It was then that Surgeon General Joseph Barnes cut the blanket open to reveal the body. Prior to that time no one who had seen the body knew Booth with the exception of David E. Herold, and he did not give a statement until later that day. The final identification of the body was not completed until mid-afternoon. Yet, at 9:20 a.m. that morning, the Secretary of War had already dispatched the following telegram:
War Department )
Washington. April 27, 1865‚ 9:20 A. M. )
Maj.- Gen. John A. Dix, New York:
J. Wilkes Booth and Harrold [sic] were chased from the swamp in
St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to Garrett’s farm, near Port Royal on
the Rappahannock, by Col. Baker’s force.
The barn in which they took refuge was fired.
Booth, in making his escape, was shot through the head and killed,
lingering about three hours, and Harrold was captured. Booth’s body
and Harrold [sic] are now here.
Edwin M. Stanton,
Secretary of War
It seems strange that Stanton, a normally careful and circumspect man, would issue a notice of Booth’s death before any identification had been made on the body.
Another interesting chapter of this story comes from the diary of George W. Julian. He served as a Congressman from Indiana between 1861 and 1871. The April 24, 1865 entry in Julian’s diary tells of a meeting on that day in Stanton’s office. In addition to Stanton and Julian, present were also Zachariah Chandler and John Conness, both United States Senators. Stanton seemed upset that John Wilkes Booth’s diary had been found, and particularly at some of its contents. It was shown to both Chandler and Conness who read the passages concerning them and announced that if the diary got out they would be ruined. After removing six photographs from the diary, Stanton give the diary to his aide, instructing him to lock it up and not to disturb it unless ordered to do so by Stanton.The red diary had been discovered the day before, April 23rd, along with other Booth artifacts on the banks of Gambo Creek, in Virginia. This is not too far from the shore of Maryland at Popes Creek from where Booth crossed the Potomac earlier that weekend.
It is important to realize that on the crucial dates of April 23rd and 24th, Booth was still on the loose. The shot that rang out at Garrett’s barn didn’t occur until the early morning of April 26th. Another diary, a black one, was found on the body identified as Booth. Neither diary was publicly produced until the John Surratt trial in the summer of 1867 and only then, the red one with many pages removed.
The chain of possession of the photographs which were found in the red diary is also of some interest. At the time there was a young physician, Dr. Edward Curtis, at the Microscopical Department of the Army Medical Museum. Stanton gave him five photos and asked that glass negatives be made from them. These negatives, of five women, survive in the Neff-Guttridge Collection at Indiana State University.
As to the identity of the women in the photographs, three were then correctly identified as Alice Grey, Lucy Hale, and Effie Garmon. Misidentified as Fanny Brown was a photo of Izola Booth, and misidentified as Helen Western was a photograph of Kate Scott. The original photographs are housed among the artifacts of the Ford Theatre Museum.
While the photos themselves are to a great degree interesting, it is the marks of Dr. Curtis which are most instructive. Written on at least three of them are the initials‚ “N. D. P.” which stand for National Detective Police. Additionally, Dr. Curtis wrote the date he made the plates‚ “4-24-65″. He also placed his own initials‚ “E. C.” on the plates. The date matches with the diary of George Julian. And, the fact that the photos came from the red diary and that another diary was found on the body from Garrett’s barn raises the question that it was not John Wilkes Booth who was shot in that barn.
Now to the interesting part which I think adds a lot of proof to the assertion that Booth died as John Wilkes in India in 1883. Prior to his death the man known as Wilkes living in India had a will drawn up. In that document he left a $25,000 bequest to Sarah Katherine Scott. Sarah was born on December 8, 1865, in Indianapolis. She was the daughter of Mary Katherine (Kate M.) Scott of Brookville, Pennsylvania.
Kate, whose photo was one of those found in Booth’s red diary, had been sent to Washington D.C. in early March 1865 by her father. He was the publisher of the Brookville Republican newspaper and he had sent Kate to cover Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural. There she met someone with whom she had become acquainted in the early years of the Civil War when she was an army nurse. That acquaintance was John Wilkes Booth.
Nine months later, in Indianapolis, Kate delivered Sarah Katherine Scott with the help of another Sarah for whom the new daughter was named. The midwife, Sarah, shortly thereafter married Samuel Baysinger and she and her new husband raised baby Sarah in southern Parke and Clay Counties in Indiana.
The clause of the Wilkes’ will which gave Sarah her inheritance reads: “Fourthly, to Sarah Katherine Scott, natural heir of my body, I bequeath the sum of Twenty Five Thousand Dollars in United States currency and appoint Andrew Potter as her trustee until she shall have reached the age of thirty years or shall have married, whichever shall have occurred first.”
If Kate became pregnant by John Wilkes Booth, to which she admitted in 1910, and, if her daughter, Sarah, was the “natural heir of the body” of the man who died in India as Wilkes, then that man and John Wilkes Booth had to be one and the same.
The will also gave $15,000 to Sarah’s mother, Kate Scott. Kate, after the proceeds were received, set up a trust for Samuel and Sarah Baysinger with that money.
Sarah and Katherine were not the only persons specifically named as beneficiaries in the so-called Wilkes will. The first person mentioned is Ogarita Rosalie Wilkes, also‚ “natural heir of my body”. She was born in 1859 to Izola Mills D’Arcy Booth, who was allegedly married to John Wilkes Booth on January 9, 1859.
At the time of the assassination, Izola was living with her daughter and maid, Sarah Johnson, at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Izola, Sarah Johnson and her son Henry, who had been Booth’s theater valet, are all beneficiaries named in the Wilkes will.
Also named as beneficiary is Mary Louise Turner as “natural heir of my body”, daughter of Ella Turner who is likewise named in the will. Ella, while carrying Mary Louise, tried to commit suicide when she heard that Mary Louise’s father had assassinated President Lincoln.
Finally, John Wilkes’ wife at the time of his death in 1883, Elizabeth Marshall [Burnley] Wilkes got the remainder of the estate. It is interesting that all persons specifically named, except Elizabeth, figured so prominently in the life of John Wilkes Booth.
How would John Wilkes Booth have known of a John Wilkes living in Terre Haute, Indiana from whom he might steal an identity? The answer lies with Lola Alexander from South Bend, Indiana. We know that Lola had an interesting relationship with John Wilkes Booth; a photograph and letters from her were found in Booth’s room at the National Hotel in Washington shortly after the assassination. We also know that Lola had a relationship with the Terre Haute Wilkes family. It is believed that this connection provided Booth with not only a place to stay when he was on tour in the Midwest, but also the necessary information to allow him to commit an early version of identity theft.
We’ll never know if the John Byron Wilkes who died in India in 1883 was really John Wilkes Booth, but there are certainly intriguing indicators that this could well be the case. To prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt would be to rewrite history, and would give us pause to ponder whether we know the truth as it’s been officially recorded.