Tyler Folk Lore Leads To History Lesson
SISTERSVILLE – Local lore has it that presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth passed through Tyler County during his escape.
Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln 151 years ago on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theater. Booth’s escape route through Maryland and Virginia seems to be an established fact. Federal troops shot and killed Booth on April 26 at Garrett’s Farm in Virginia.
All that said, the facts surrounding Booth’s escape are murky.
Daniel Heintzman, whose family roots run deep in Tyler County, said a story was passed down long ago by his paternal grandmother’s mother’s sister, Effie Holmes Wells, about Booth’s escape. Heintzman said the log cabin seen along Rt. 18 at Pursley was originally located roughly 2 miles away on Long Run. The cabin was owned by Heintzman’s paternal grandmother’s mother and father, Daniel and Lucinda Holmes Wilcox.
Heintzman said an article about his family’s story appeared in the Tyler Star News sometime in 1965.
“On a chilly late April night in 1865, Daniel Wilcox answered a knock on the door,” Heintzman said. “The gentleman who knocked on the door asked Mr. Wilcox if he could spend the night in his barn. He had ridden a long way and had a broken leg. Mr. Wilcox agreed and the gentleman left. Next morning, he was gone.”
Heintzmen said a few days later, federal soldiers rode by and asked Wilcox if he had seen the man.
“Mr. Wilcox said ‘yes’ and the solders confirmed that the man who had spent the night in his barn was John Wilkes Booth who was the assassin of Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “Now, U.S. history says he never left the Potomac River area. But this is Tyler County folklore.”
Speedy travel from Virginia to Tyler County was a rough row to hoe then and now.
Richard Owens, a West Liberty University history professor, doesn’t rule out the possibility that Booth may have traveled through Tyler County, but he is less inclined to believe that Booth made it that far into the interior and away from Garrett’s farm.
“He got to that famous barn – I don’t know much about the route – but it was probably a pretty straight shot to the barn with no side trips,” Owens said.
However, Owens said, documentation of where Booth may have traveled is impossible determine except, perhaps, through newspaper accounts from the time that may have reported that Booth passed through the area. Tyler County newspapers from that time no longer exist within the state archives or at the Sistersville Public Library.
This is where the journey down the rabbit hole begins.
Some history enthusiasts think Booth may not have been killed, but escaped through West Virginia into Kentucky.
According to Finis L. Bates’ book, Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, federal troops killed another man who resembled Booth at Garrett’s farm. Also, the man had Booth’s papers and identification with him, so authorities believed they had shot Booth.
Bates believed Booth lived to a ripe old age before he committed suicide in 1903 at a boarding house in Enid, Oklahoma. The book makes some powerful points much like those that resonate today with the assassination of President John Kennedy. Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Dr. Cyril Wecht, a world renowned forensic pathologist based in Pittsburgh, has written books on the Kennedy assassination, which influenced Oliver Stone’s movie, JFK.
Bates’ book is readily available on the Internet. Like JFK, Bates contends that there was a government conspiracy among top leaders including Vice President Andrew Johnson not only to kill Lincoln, but to aid Booth’s escape and cover-up the crime.
In much the same way, Bates version of Booth’s escape contrasts with official history. If Bates’ theory is considered plausible, then it is possible that Booth passed through Tyler County.
Bates’ book indicates that Booth impersonated a Confederate officer as he traveled an unknown route through West Virginia.
In the early stages of Booth’s escape, he was traveling by horseback not by railroad. His plan may have been to escape south down the Ohio River.
Tyler County Assessor Jack Hayes said, maybe, Booth used the S&S Turnpike from Salem to Sistersville.
“This turnpike existed in the 1800s and was fairly heavily traveled, so you never know – Booth may have used this to travel through Tyler County,” he said.
There were many river ports along the Ohio River on the edge of a new state – West Virginia – that Booth may have considered. Without knowing what Booth was thinking, Wheeling was out of the question as it was most assuredly Union territory and most certainly was a place where he would be recognized. And he needed to avoid Union armies that had overrun Virginia in the war’s final months. A route through Virginia and later southwest through West Virginia’s rural interior would have offered him some degree of protection.
Bates’ book mentions that Booth stopped at farm houses along the way and describes conditions that could apply to anywhere, perhaps Tyler County.
The question then becomes was it possible for Booth to travel by horseback in 1865 into the Pursley area en route to perhaps Sistersville. Remember, Sistersville offered ferry that crossed the Ohio River. Since 1817, the ferry has provided passage across the Ohio River. Incidentally, the ferry opens for its season in May – 199 years of continuous operation. Perhaps Booth wanted to put as much distance between him and pursuing federal authorities by crossing the river into Ohio’s wilderness. Maybe he was planning to find river transport too.
But the question remains – was it possible for Booth to travel by horseback through Tyler County in 1865. The Tyler County Courthouse, which is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1854. The courthouse has many maps, old and new, that trace the county’s development.
County Appraiser Barry Harter and Jessie Turner of the county Assessor’s office were able to piece together the past through the maps. Truly, these maps are fascinating because one can see the location of school houses and family farms, which were attached to names that still resonate in the county.
Sabrina Kyle, director of the Sistersville Public Library, also found a 5-foot long ancient map of the county.
While maps in the county were limited in 1865, using later maps from the 1880s and more precise versions from later years indicates there was an established road through Middlebourne which led through the Pursely area into Sistersville.
Bates’ book said after Booth touched down in Wayne County, he crossed the Big Sandy River into Eastern Kentucky.
The fastest way to get to Wayne County was by boat via the Ohio River. Maps then were hard to come by and limited in scope in 1865, so a river passage would have offered Booth many benefits. That doesn’t mean Booth didn’t travel through the state’s interior, but one would think he was interested in speed and ease of travel, particularly since he had a broken leg, so as to put as much distance as he could from federal authorities. Bates’ book said Booth thought he would be free if he made it to Indian Territory.
According to Bates’s book, Booth led a colorful life in Texas and Oklahoma before he died nearly 40 years after Lincoln’s assassination. What some considered as Booth’s body also had second life as his mummified remains were on display at carnivals among other places for decades.
According to official history, Booth was buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Md. In recent years, descendants of the Booth family have tried to exhume the body for DNA testing, but were unsuccessful.
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