The Legend of John Wilkes Booth
Myth, Memory, and a Mummy
C. Wyatt Evans
Avery O. Craven Award
A deformed thumb, a neck scar from a stage accident, and a broken left leg, the result of a dramatic leap. These were the telltale markings that for decades identified a sideshow attraction as the supposed body of John Wilkes Booth. They persuaded onlookers that Lincoln's assassin was not killed in 1865 but survived the assault on Garrett's barn to live on as a fugitive for thirty years afterwards. As Wyatt Evans shows, some popular stories, no matter how weird and improbable, simply refuse to die.
“ . . . Evans’s descriptive account is rich, informative, and timely.”
—Civil War History
“In this well-argued, well-researched, and thoughtful work, Evans does make a strong case that traditional historians should pay more attention to fringe assassination tales. While academic historians can never lay claim to the truth in the way the legend makers doe, the legend makers can sometimes capture the emotions of an event in a way that factual history cannot. There are alternative windows into the past beyond the written word.”
—American Historical ReviewSee all reviews...
“Evans’s study successfully combines the results of exceptional detective work with a wide-ranging exploration of the Booth legend’s trajectory across the landscape of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American society and culture. . . . Evans completes his investigations by tracking the Booth legend into the postwar era, when revisionist interpretations of the Civil War became orthodox, and he finally asks the reader to consider how and why various groups in American society have been able to harness historically symbolic events, such as Lincoln’s murder, for intolerant ends. His thought-provoking conclusion sets the seal on an admirable study.”
“Meticulously researched, Evans’ book shines new light on the public’s perception of heroes and villains and our need to mythologize tragedies.”
“A fascinating read for both believers and cynics. . . . While Evans’ book is officially a scholarly work, its appeal reaches across a broad spectrum of mainstream public interest in the Civil War, Lincoln’s death, and government conspiracies.”
“Evans’s chronicle reveals a cross-working of culture and its impact on history. This makes a good study that alternates between head-shaking and chuckles.James Robertson in the ”
—Richmond Times Dispatch
“This provocative debut from Evans traces the Booth legend from its beginning in the weeks following Lincoln’s assassination to the appearance of the ‘Booth mummy,’ the remains of an Oklahoma transient embalmed in 1903 that was destined to be showcased in carnival sideshows across the West. . . . As a mind-teaser this study is worth a read.”
“In all the carnival of American culture, surely nothing was more bizarre than the odyssey of the supposed mummy of Lincolns assassin. Booth is in our memories, and Evans ably demonstrates why we refuse to put him out.”
—William C. Davis, author of The Cause Lost
“In the nether world of conspiracy theories the irrational trumps the rational. This book helps us understand why.”
—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom
“No reader of this fascinating and fast-paced narrative will be less than mesmerized.”
—Bertram Wyatt-Brown, author of The Shaping of Southern Culture
“A fresh new perspective on both Booth and American culture.”
—Edward L. Ayers, author of In the Presence of Mine EnemiesSee fewer reviews...
Evans recounts how a mummified corpse came to embody the romantic image of the assassin and the legend of his survival. He traces the legend's development in the weeks following the assassination to the appearance of the "Booth Mummy," the remains of an Oklahoma drifter embalmed in 1903 and displayed in carnival sideshows throughout the West. He assesses the political and ideological motivations in both Southern and Northern cultures that made proliferation of the legend possible as well as profitable. He concludes by examining the legend's persistence in present-day America, the mummy's ironic fate, and the recent efforts to exhume Booth's real remains.
Weaving a "vernacular intellectual history," Evans shows how the legend emerged from a tangle of cultural and historical events including white Americans' quest for a suitable racial pre-history, collective memories of the Civil War, and even incipient suspicions of conspiracy, since belief in Booth's escape automatically implied a government cover-up of Booth's capture and death. More than a sop to Confederate diehards for whom Booth's escape symbolized Southern vindication, the legend exemplified Americans' inability and unwillingness to enact closure over the tragedy of Lincoln's death.
The Legend of John Wilkes Booth is a compelling story of how collective memories and popular histories collide with, clash, and sometimes overcome mainstream accounts of the past. It offers an alternate venue for studying the workings of Civil War memory in American culture and demonstrates how (and why) culture produced at the grassroots level can challenge the official version of events. Through his meticulous account, Evans sheds new light on our complex attitudes toward heroes and villains, our need to mythologize tragedies, and our unwillingness to let go of myths, however absurd.