By Edgar V. Epperly
J.N. Wilkerson, 1914. Fourth Wall Films.
James Newton Wilkerson struck southwest Iowa like a Texas tornado. He was a Burns Detective Agency operative and arrived in Villisca early in April, 1914. Burns had been hired to reopen the 1912 Villisca axe murder investigation and Wilkerson was their man on the scene.* During the next four years he organized the hundreds of rumors swirling around the event into a sensational tale that laid the murder at the door of local banker and state senator, Frank F. Jones.
These lurid accusations resulted in a slander suit, followed by a massive grand jury investigation that returned an indictment against Lyn George Jacklin Kelly rather than F. F. Jones. Wilkerson led the fight to exonerate the preacher and gloated when Kelly was acquitted of the brutal axe murders of the Josiah B. Moore family of six and two overnight guests, Lena and Ina Stillinger.
In 1918 Wilkerson tried to parley his local popularity into a political career by running for Montgomery County Attorney. Easily winning the Republican nomination, his ambitions were blocked by Iowa Attorney General Horace Havner. When Wilkerson saw the load of dirty laundry Havner dropped on the Supreme Court bench, he withdrew his application for admission to the Iowa Bar. Deciding discretion was the better part of valor, Wilkerson returned to Kansas City.
Iowa and the world would have heard nothing more of this colorful character if he hadn’t pursued his long standing interest in the Lincoln assassination. Never hesitant to use literary license to improve a good story, Wilkerson claimed that when walking down a street in Des Moines, Iowa in 1923 he casually noticed a set of volumes titled Modern Eloquence, in a Salvation Army store window.** He bought the set for $1.50 and while browsing found a speech about the Lincoln assassination by John A. Bingham, special judge advocate at the time. Judge Bingham asserted that Jefferson Davis was involved, a position that Wilkerson vehemently rejected.
Wilkerson claimed his obsession with the assassination and the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, grew from this modest beginning. It is a quaint tale, but cut from whole cloth. Certainly Wilkerson was an important figure in the conspiracy theory that claimed Secretary of War Stanton organized the Lincoln assassination, but Wilkerson was immersed in that effort long before he walked by a Salvation Army bookstore in Des Moines.
James Newton Wilkerson was born in Alabama in 1866. Like many in the post-Civil War South, his parents moved West, settling in Hood County, Texas in 1871. James grew to manhood in Granbury, Texas and remained in the Fort Worth area until 1910. Consequently, he knew firsthand the rumors that John Wilkes Booth had escaped, later to reenter the United States and live out his life in Texas and Oklahoma. Wilkerson never met the fellow, but as a boy knew several old settlers in Granbury who were convinced the dark, sophisticated tavern owner, John St. Helen, was actually John Wilkes Booth.
Most convinced of St. Helen’s authenticity was Finis L. Bates, a young lawyer who had moved from Memphis, Tennessee to Granbury. In 1872 Bates represented St. Helen in court, and they became friends. Shortly thereafter St. Helen fell ill and, thinking he was on his death bed, confessed to Bates he was really John Wilkes Booth. In the perverse manner of death that sustains Christian Science, St. Helen recovered. With the cat out of the bag many people in the area became convinced St. Helen was really Booth.
St. Helen had occasion to change his name from time to time and in 1903 was living in Enid, Oklahoma under the name David E. George. There the burdens of life overcame him as he took a fatal dose of arsenic. George or St. Helen or Booth had preceded this final successful death with yet another confession. So on speculation, an enterprising undertaker mummified the body using an arsenic process. St. Helen’s old friend Bates re-entered the story by acquiring the mummy and taking it to Memphis. In 1908 he published a book, The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth: Written for the Correction of History. Since Mr. Bates badly jumbled his considerable research into the Lincoln assassination with his faded memories of St. Helen’s Texas life thirty years before, it proved a very bad book both in terms of fact and style.
By the early twentieth century there was a luxurious growth of southern apologist, amateur historians, and shirt-tail relatives of John Wilkes Booth publishing tracts and broadsides asserting Stanton’s quilt and Booth’s escape. Bates’ mummy was one element in this conspiracy theory, and when the government failed to express an interest in buying “John” Bates hired him out to the show world as a carnival exhibit.
Always the actor, “John” knocked around the carnival circuit until 1928 when Detective Wilkerson re-entered the scene. Throughout the 1920’s Wilkerson had steeped himself in the Lincoln assassination literature. He had gathered affidavits pertaining to St. Helen (aka George, aka Booth) from several old settlers in the Granbury Texas area, including one from Ashley V. Crockett, Davey’s grandson. In addition, he had corresponded with Finis Bates’ widow regarding the mummified body of St. Helen.
In 1928 Wilkerson claimed to have been on a motor trip to California when in Declo, Idaho, he fortunately drove by a house with a sign, “see the man who murdered Lincoln.” Since he had known about St. Helen since his youth and had corresponded with the widow Bates about the mummy as late as 1924, one suspects Wilkerson was again blowing smoke. Whether by design or fortunate accident Wilkerson pulled into the yard and told the mummy’s current owner, longtime carnival showman William Evans, that he was an expert on the Lincoln assassination, and would like to examine the mummy.
Wilkerson’s examination convinced him that the St. Helen mummy was undoubtedly John Wilkes Booth. He based this conclusion on six points: (1) a scar on the neck; (2) an injured right thumb; (3) a cut over the left eyebrow; (4) the left leg being shorter than the right; (5) exact age (it is not clear how Wilkerson identified the mummy’s age); and (6) the proper height. Showman Evans was so impressed by this stranger’s intimate knowledge of Booth’s physical characteristics that he formed a partnership on the spot, with Wilkerson acting as an “expert” and barker on a southwestern tour.
Sideshow World has an extensive website devoted to the mystery of the Booth mummy.
Evans, Wilkerson and “John” soon left on an interesting but troubled exhibition tour. They opened in Salt Lake City only to be ordered out of town for “teaching false history.” Undaunted, they toured Arizona and Texas, but problems seemed to dog their every step. In Big Springs, Texas they were fined $50 for transporting a corpse without a license. In Temple they were run out of town for allegedly pressing high schoolers for donations. Perhaps in response to these incidents, Wilkerson incorporated the operation in Austin, Texas under the corporate title, American Historical Research Society. This title was used in future advertising campaigns and seemed designed to give the operation a certain patina. The tour, which lasted from October1928 through May1929, ended in Aberdeen, Washington. Caught in a local power struggle between mayor and license commissioner, Wilkerson pleaded guilty to a license violation and paid a fine rather than go to jail. With this final legal scrape he decided to dissolve his partnership with Evans and so bid “John” goodbye.
Wilkerson did not abandon his interest in the Lincoln assassination. During the 1930s he was acknowledged as a leading proponent of the Booth escape theory and an expert on the St. Helen mummy. In 1932 he corresponded with Mrs. Agnes Black of Chicago, Illinois, who then owned the cadaver. She and her husband, who was a circus and carnival man, had purchased the exhibit from Evans, including the trunk of affidavits that had been collect over the years attesting to the mummy’s authenticity. Wilkerson offered to help the Blacks mount an exhibit and again take the mummy on tour, but nothing came of the idea.
The Blacks did add to the mummy’s credentials by having an autopsy performed. That procedure turned up a ring in the mummy’s stomach. Badly the worst for wear, the Blacks thought the ring bore the initial “B”in old English scrip. They also suspected it might be an emblem from a secret order. They nominated the “Knights of the Golden Circle,” a secret organization of northern confederate sympathizers, as their candidate. An alternative explanation they proposed was that it was the ring Booth was known to wear on his little finger.
Whether authentic or not, the mummy continued on the carnival circuit throughout the 1930s. In 1937 ownership had passed for $5,000 to John Harkin, a carnival attraction in his own right as he was for years the chief tattooed man of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. During these same years, Wilkerson rose to fame among the Lincoln assassination conspiracy theorist. He became a confidant of Otto Eisenschiml, the acknowledged leader of the movement. Wilkerson announced, and fellow theorists eagerly awaited, the eminent publication of his book on the assassination. It was to indict Stanton and prove the authenticity of the St. Helen mummy.
Wilkerson was a dynamic and compelling public speaker. In 1917 when he was locked in mortal combat with Iowa Attorney General Havner over the guilt of Preacher Kelly, his speeches “inflamed the mob.” On the stump Wilkerson would label Havner “that bull-necked, banty-legged Dutchmen,” then provoke peals of laughter by dismissing Havner’s charges against Kelly by saying he had as much chance of convicting the little minister as a “celluloid dog had of catching a asbestos cat in hell.” He may have been a stem winding speaker, but he was a middling writer at best. As illustration, consider this excerpt from the preface of Wilkerson’s proposed book.
“Every angle of the plot, if plot there really was that culminated in the shot at Ford’s Theatre that stunned the nation and re-echoed throughout the world, has been dramatically presented in histories, in memories, even in romantic fiction.”
Though not an accomplished writer, Wilkerson could, during his declining years bask in the knowledge that he was a recognized leader in the Lincoln conspiracy field. He was a personal friend of Eisenschiml, who acknowledged him in both of his major works on the Lincoln assassination. They corresponded intimately about the dangers to Otto’s family, trapped in Nazi Germany. Wilkerson also corresponded about the Lincoln assassination with such national figures as Nicholas Murray Butler, Paul Angle and Lloyd Lewis. A final acknowledgement of his importance in this backwater of American history was the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company’s eagerness to receive his papers for their Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum collection.
Eisenschiml and the dozens of individuals who attested to the St.Helen/George/Booth mummy’s authenticity are all gone now. James N. Wilkerson, who died in 1944, is just well settled into a small cemetery outside of Kansas City. In 1950 his widow transferred his papers to the Lincoln Library in Fort Wayne Indiana, where they remain available for anyone to study. As to “John” this author has not traced his whereabouts since 1937 but remains confident he rests comfortably in some showman’s attic or makes the season each year, touring the south with a battered carnival.
*On Sunday night, June 9, 1912, Joe Moore, his wife Sara, their four children, and two neighbor girls staying overnight were bludgeoned to death as they slept. This was easily the most sensational murder in Iowa history. By 1914 disinterested observers doubted the killer or killers would ever be caught, but the victims’ relatives were not willing to close the case. In 1914 their pressure caused state and Montgomery county officials to reopen the investigation by quietly hiring the Burns Agency.
** This tale was first recorded in a Kansas City Journal-Post article that appeared on February 7, 1932. That article wasupdated as “John Wilkes Booth on Tour,” which was published in the Saturday Evening Post, February 19, 1938.
Dr. Edgar V. Epperly has researched the 1912 Villisca, Iowa axe murders of the six-member Joe Moore family and two overnight guests, Lena and Ina Stillinger, for over 60 years. He is considered the authority on the unsolved murder mystery. He was the primary historical consultant on Kelly and Tammy Rundle's award-winning documentary VILLISCA: LIVING WITH A MYSTERY, and is currently finishing a book on the case.