ENID — One hundred and ten years ago, an itinerant, penniless house painter committed suicide in the former Grand Avenue Hotel, current site of Garfield Furniture.
This would have been an unremarkable episode in Enid’s history had the man not claimed on his deathbed to be John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.
David E. George’s dying claim to the assassin’s identity sparked controversy, launched an alternative to the officially recognized history of Booth’s demise and fueled a bit of local lore that survives to this day.
History tells us John Wilkes Booth died at Garrett Farm in northern Virginia on April 26, 1865, 12 days after he shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.
Elements of the 16th New York Cavalry tracked Booth and an accomplice to a barn at Garrett Farm, where Sgt. Boston Corbett shot Booth in the back of the head through a crack in the wall, in violation of orders to take Booth alive.
It did not take long after the death of Booth, or “the man in the barn,” for conflicting accounts to arise and for speculation to circulate that Booth had not died in the barn and that another man had died in his place while Booth escaped.
Some accounts posit the man killed was a Garrett farm hand by the name of Ruddy, who had been sent by Booth to collect some of his papers and personal belongings. Conflicting eyewitness accounts either positively identify the body taken from the barn as being John Wilkes Booth or stated the body looked nothing like Booth.
The body was identified as Booth during an autopsy performed on the monitor Montauk at the Washington Navy Yard and subsequently was held in federal custody until 1869. A family dentist identified the corpse as Booth’s based on dental records.
Meanwhile, a man who bore a resemblance to Booth was making his way to central Texas. The man, who went by the name John St. Helen, settled in Granbury, Texas, in the early 1870s and befriended local attorney Finis L. Bates.
According to Finis Bates, the man he knew as John St. Helen became ill in 1878 and revealed to Bates his identity as Booth and asked him to notify Booth’s brother, Edwin Booth.
Bates detailed the account, and the ensuing legend of David George, in his 1907 book “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth.”
St. Helen recovered from his illness and soon after disappeared from Granbury.
Twenty-five years later, David E. George appeared in Enid and rented a room at Grand Avenue Hotel.
Enid contractor and historian Henry Bass was 6 when George showed up in Enid. Bass later interviewed many of the people who had met George, and been party to the events surrounding his death.
Bass later transcribed their accounts in his monthly newsletter “Dear Everybody,” an account of history, politics, economics and social affairs in Enid between 1947 and 1975.
In a February 1959 edition of “Dear Everybody,” Bass related from his interviews of eyewitnesses the events leading up to George’s death in Enid. According to the account, George went on Jan. 13, 1903, to a local pharmacy and purchased two doses of strychnine, under the pretext of using the poison to kill a dog and a cat.
“A few minutes later,” Bass wrote, “agonized screams from Booth’s (George’s) room caused doctors and druggists to rush to his assistance. But all to no avail. Between convulsions he gasped out ‘I am John Wilkes Booth’ and then expired.”
A suicide note reportedly requested Finis Bates be summoned after George’s death. According to legend, and Bates’ own account in his book, Bates recognized George as the man he had known as John St. Helen.