The Professor Who Insists John Wilkes Booth Got Away

Roundup: Talking About History

Bill McCleery, in the Indiannapolis Star (Feb. 16, 2004):

Twelve days after killing President Abraham Lincoln, assassin John Wilkes Booth was gunned down inside a Virginia barn.

Or was he?

Inspired by a coded message written in the late 1860s, a retired Indiana State University professor has spent decades searching for information about Lincoln's assassination. For Ray Neff, that odyssey culminated in the publication last year of his book,"Dark Union."

Neff's most sensational claim: that Booth escaped his pursuers and lived almost 20 more years after killing Lincoln. The dead man purported by authorities to be Booth was someone else, the book claims.

Booth, Neff maintains, fled overseas to India and assumed the identity of John Byron Wilkes, a man who lived in Terre Haute and whose personal information Booth supposedly purchased. Among the evidence cited by the book is a copy of Wilkes' will that names friends and relatives of Booth as beneficiaries.

"Dark Union," written with co-author Leonard Guttridge, suggests that conspirators -- who originally plotted to kidnap Lincoln -- extended beyond Confederates embittered by the Civil War. It also included northerners enriching themselves through a food-for-cotton trade scheme, the authors claim. And, they add, it included radicals from Lincoln's Republican Party opposed to the president's hints of a lenient reconstruction of the South.

"We don't have all the answers," said Neff, 80."But we do have a lot of answers to a lot of things."

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