Later this month, Heritage Auctions will be auctioning off a unique relic: a cross section piece from the crutch of John Wilkes Booth.
This piece of crutch is one among several lots in this auction that come from the family of noted Civil War photographer, Alexander Gardner. Gardner was responsible for photographing mugshots of the arrested conspirators and, later, documenting the execution of four of them. Accompanying this crutch piece is a handwritten note, likely written by Gardner’s daughter, Eliza, which states the history of the crutch piece.
“A piece of the crutch made from a broom handle for J. Wilkes Booth. Sawed up and given to the persons who were present at the Post-Mortem of Booth’s body on board the Monitor “Montauk”
My father Alexander Gardner and my brother Lawrence Gardner were both on board the Montior and saw Booths body taken away in small boat”
We know that Alexander Gardner and “an assistant” were brought on board the USS Montauk after John Wilkes Booth’s body had been brought back up to Washington. The long held story was that Gardner, assisted by another photographer named Timothy O’Sullivan, photographed the autopsy of John Wilkes Booth. According to the story, a single print of the autopsy photo was made, given to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and then lost to history. The allure of discovering this long missing Booth autopsy photograph (akin to the discovery of only known image of a visible Lincoln lying in his coffin) has been a goal of many researchers over the years. However, in 2013, impeccable research from John Elliott and Barry Cauchon for their “Inside the Walls” project on the imprisonment of the Lincoln conspirators helped explain why all efforts up to that point to locate the Booth autopsy photo had failed: it likely never existed. While all the evidence is nicely laid out in the duo’s third “A Peek Inside the Walls” supplement titled, “The Mystery of John Wilkes Booth’s Autopsy Photo“, the big discovery by John was an article that was published in 1891 from Lawrence Gardner. In the article, Lawrence Gardner decries the erroneous claims that John Wilkes Booth had not been killed. He then related his attendance as his father’s assistant on board the Montauk after Booth’s body had been placed upon it.
“The object of my father’s visit to the monitor was photography and the body in question was to be the subject. Did we take a picture? No! After everything had been prepared Gen. Eckert concluded that inasmuch as there was so little likeness in the remains to the photograph in existence of Booth perhaps it would be best not to make the picture and the plan was abandoned for that reason.”
Lawrence Gardner relates the same facts as practically everyone who viewed the deceased John Wilkes Booth’s remains – that his body underwent so much trauma and decay during his escape, death, and transport to Washington, that it looked very much unlike the living actor. This idea is often seized upon by conspiracy theorists as evidence of a patsy doppelganger who was killed in Booth’s place but Gardner, like the others who mentioned the poor condition of Booth’s body, is adamant that the body was properly identified. Asked by the reporter is it was actually Booth’s body, Gardner responded, “Of course it was. There could be no question about it,” and then proceeded to recount the different ways the remains were identified. With the decision being made not to photograph the decaying corpse of Booth, Lawrence and his father made three images of conspirator David Herold, who had been captured alongside Booth, before departing.
Included in the lot with the piece of Booth’s crutch is a Harper’s Weekly drawing of the autopsy scene. Affixed onto a page, a notation, likely from Eliza Gardner, identifies her father, Alexander Gardner, among the men present. It is joined by a short affidavit that (in my mind) gives further credence to Lawrence Gardner’s claims in his newspaper article.
“This is a copy of a pen & ink sketch made by my father Alexander Gardner and sent to Harper’s Weekly.
The Govt would not allow a photograph of this to get out, so the pen and ink sketch was made.”
Admittedly, Eliza Gardner’s phrasing that the government would not allow an autopsy photo, “to get out” is a bit ambiguous and open to interpretation. My own interpretation, however, reads this as a validation of Lawrence Gardner’s claim that no photograph was allowed to be taken at all. Instead, Alexander Gardner sketched the scene and inserted himself into it. This would also explain why the label for the drawing in Harper’s Weekly lacks the “from a photograph” tag that accompanies all the other engravings made from corresponding photographs.
I believe this auction lot supports the case against an autopsy photo being taken, and feel that there is more evidence on that side. And, yet, I can’t help but look at the Booth autopsy photograph like Santa Claus. Logically and factually I can admit that it most likely doesn’t exist, but that isn’t going to stop me from hoping that it might turn up someday.
Leaving the mythical autopsy photograph behind, let’s return to the crutch piece. Circular in nature, this cross section seems to support Eliza Gardner’s claim that it was once part of a “broom handle” or something like it. And yet, from Dr. Mudd’s statement to investigators, it appears that John Wilkes Booth’s crutches were even less sophisticated than that. In his April 21st statement to detectives in Bryantown, Dr. Mudd stated:
“The young man [Herold] asked me if I could fix up clumsily some crutches for his friend to hobble along with and I went down to the old Englishman [John Best] I had there who had a saw and auger, and he and I made a rude pair of crutches out of a piece of plank and sent them to him.”
Now John Best and Dr. Mudd may have been talented carpenters, but it would seem impossible that the two men could have transformed a rectangular plank of wood into two round crutches with circular grain patterns. The Gardner piece of crutch up for auction shows a tree’s circular growth rings and was clearly made from a tree branch or sapling. This is inconsistent with having been made from a wood plank.
Faced with this contradiction, one could easily make the assumption that the crutch piece up for auction was a fake, thus casting doubt on everything for sale from the Gardner family including this signed pass to the trial of the conspirators and a lock of Lincoln’s hair. However, there is a very reasonable explanation as to why this piece of crutch does not match Dr. Mudd’s description: John Wilkes Booth had two pairs of crutches.
John Wilkes Booth’s first pair of crutches, and the ones that everyone thinks of, are the crude ones made for him at Dr. Mudd’s farm. While some sources place their creation solely on the part of John Best, the Mudds’ English handyman, Dr. Mudd, as demonstrated above, claimed he assisted in making them. These initial crutches were rough to say the least, and yet Booth managed with them during most of his escape. He and Herold managed to carry them on horseback from the Mudd farm to Rich Hill and thence to the Pine Thicket. When Thomas Jones put the two fugitives across the Potomac, the crutches came with them in their rowboat. In Virginia, Booth had the crutches when he evicted William Lucas from his cabin after being rebuffed by Dr. Stuart. And Booth still had these crutches when he first appeared at the Garrett farm on the afternoon of April 24, 1865.
Jack Garrett, the eldest son of Richard Henry Garrett, had been a Confederate soldier and had been wounded in the thigh at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff in May of 1864. He had been sent home to the family farm to recuperate and during that time he acquired a good set of crutches. The crutches remained at the Garrett farm when Jack reported back for duty and were still there when he was discharged from service and returned home for good. When John Wilkes Booth (known only as James W. Boyd to the Garretts) was invited to stay with the unsuspecting Garrett family on April 24, they noticed his poorly made and worn crutches. “He had a very rude pair of crutches,” Kate Garrett recalled years later, “but my brother had a good pair which he had used when wounded during the war, and he gave them to Booth.”
Booth was likely extremely glad to get an actual set of crutches and not have to suffer from Dr. Mudd’s makeshift ones any longer. The Garrett children were also happy that their guest made the upgrade as Richard Baynham Garrett, then a boy of ten, remembered:
“…The [crutches] he brought with him were so rough that my brother gave him a pair which he had used while a wounded Confederate soldier, and it was on these he was leaning when shot in the burning barn. The writer then a boy, took the old crutches and sawed them off and used them in play with the other children.”
As noted by Richard Baynham Garrett, John Wilkes Booth did not get to use his new crutches for very long. About 36 hours after receiving them, Booth was shot in the Garretts’ burning tobacco barn and dragged to the porch of their farmhouse where he died. From the existence of the Gardner relic, it appears that when the soldiers went into the barn to drag out Booth and attempt to extinguish the flames, they also took the time to pull out some of Booth’s possessions. We know this to be likely as the carbine Booth was holding when he was shot was retrieved from the barn. According to witnesses, Booth had been using the crutches given to him by the Garretts right up to the point when he was about to come out the barn shooting. It seems possible that the soldiers of the 16th NY Cavalry retrieved at least one of the crutches from the barn and brought it back with them to Washington. The crutch (or crutches) was then sawed into pieces and given as souvenirs to those assembled at John Wilkes Booth’s identification and autopsy. This could explain why the piece offered for sale by Heritage Auctions doesn’t match Dr. Mudd’s description of how it was made. If genuine, the piece offered for sale must be from the nicer crutches given to Booth at the Garrett farm.
Appropriately, it’s important to relate that this is not the only piece of John Wilkes Booth’s crutch that exists. At least one other crutch piece is still in private hands today.
Many who study the Lincoln assassination are familiar with the name of Ms. Maude Motley. In the early days of the John Wilkes Booth escape route bus tour, rather than concluding at the Garrett farm and travelling no further south, the bus would go all the way down to Bowling Green, Virginia before heading back. While Booth never made it to Bowling Green, that is the location of where Willie Jett spent the nights of April 24th and 25th, before he was rudely awakened at gunpoint by the Union cavalry and forced to give up Booth’s location. David Herold spent the night of April 24th south of Bowling Green at a private home before rejoining Booth on the 25th. In the early days of the tour, Ms. Motley, a Caroline County native, would meet the bus tour at their stop in Bowling Green.
In Bowling Green, Ms. Motley would tell the tour participants some of the local lore regarding the end of Booth’s life. For a time Ms. Motley’s mother boarded with Lucinda Holloway, Mrs. Garrett’s sister who was acting as a live in teacher when Booth was killed at her farm. Lucinda Holloway’s version of Booth’s death had been passed down to Ms. Motley through her mother and she enjoyed telling it. But more than anything else, however, Ms. Motley regularly met the bus in Bowling Green in order to show off her unique relic: a piece of John Wilkes Booth’s crutch.
Ms. Motley’s story regarding how she got the piece of crutch is really best told in her own words. Luckily we have a recording of her speaking about the death of Booth and her crutch piece from a talk she gave in 1979. Below is an excerpt from that recording which covers how she acquired the crutch piece.
As Ms. Motley related it, one of the charred crutches from the barn was chopped up and shared among the Garretts’ neighbors after the Union troops left on April 26th. One of the recipients of a piece of crutch was the father of Ms. Motley’s neighbor and it was that neighbor who gifted the piece to her. On one side of the crutch piece, which Ms. Motley had set with a metal tag, some charring can be seen, ostensibly from the fire that consumed the Garrett barn.
Ms. Motley’s provenance is pretty good with only one slight problem with the timeline of her story. The elderly neighbor who gave the piece to Ms. Motley was Ms. Reeta Gray. Her father, the one who was said to have received the piece at the Garretts’, was William Edward Gray. William Gray was about the same age as Jack Garrett and was also a Confederate soldier. Unlike Jack, however, William Gray had been captured near the end of the war when the Union took Richmond. Gray was being held as a prisoner of war in Ashland, Virginia on the morning of Booth’s death. He could not have, in Ms. Motley’s words, “rushed over” to the Garrett farm on account of the barn being on fire. William Gray signed his oath of allegiance and was released from custody the next day April 27th and was allowed to return home to Caroline County. Now despite this small discrepancy, it is still very possible that William Gray acquired a piece of crutch some time after his return, passing it down to his daughter who gave it to Ms. Motley.
Though impossible to prove or know for certain, I’d like to think that the two known pieces of crutch, Ms. Motley’s and the Gardner one, come from the two different sets of crutches Booth used. The Gardner piece looks like it came from a legitimate crutch as opposed to a piece of plank, which, assumedly, would make it part of the set given to Booth by the Garretts. Ms. Motley’s piece which looks a little more plank like (though the small size makes it impossible to truly tell) could have come from the set made by Dr. Mudd. “But wait,” you might be saying, “if Ms. Motley’s piece of crutch was from the set made by Dr. Mudd and then traded for a better pair, why would it show evidence of burning?” Well, the answer to that is simple: Booth’s original pair of crutches got burned (at least a little bit).
As we have established, after trading Dr. Mudd’s crutches for a better pair, the Garrett children took the homemade crutches and altered them for play. Ten year old Richard Baynham Garrett cut them to size and likely chased his younger brother and sisters around the farm with them. After the events of April 26th, however, the family feared anything associated with their visitors. According to a later account by Richard Baynham Garrett, “The morning after the killing, not knowing what might happen, he took them [the crutches] and burned them in the open fireplace of the kitchen.”
But here’s the thing, like many other claims of priceless relics being destroyed, Richard Baynham Garrett didn’t go through with burning the entirety of Booth’s crutches. In fact, as a 25 year-old seminary student in 1880, Richard B. Garrett wrote a letter to then Judge Advocate General William McKee Dunn offering him some of the relics still in the family’s possession. In the letter he mentions still having a piece of Booth’s crutch.
“I have in my possession some very interesting relics of Jno. Wilkes Booth. It was at my father’s house in Va. that he was killed and I have preserved the relics. Among them are the mattress upon which he died, a piece of the crutch which he used, and a lock of his hair, cut off after his death…”
The Garretts were suffering financially at the time o this letter and Richard B. Garrett, needing money to continue seminary, was likely hoping the government would pay him for the relics. They declined and so the items stayed in the family.
It seems a distinct possibility that, if Richard B. Garrett retained at least one piece of Booth’s original crutches, that he may have saved and gave away other original pieces. Perhaps, rather than neighbors chopping of pieces of the “burned in the barn crutch” on the day of Booth’s death as Ms. Motely claimed, the Garretts, instead, gave away some salvaged pieces of Booth’s original pair of crutches from young Richard Baynham Garrett’s attempt to destroy the evidence. We will never really know for sure. Call it another, Santa Claus if you like, but I’d like to think the two known crutch pieces came from the two different sets of crutches, making both extremely unique.
Like Reeta Gray before her, Ms. Motley never married or had children of her own. When she died in 1989, Ms. Motley left her piece of crutch to her nephew. It may have changed hands a few times after that, but I don’t know that for sure. Today, the Motley piece of crutch is in private hands and is owned by a noted John Wilkes Booth authority.
Proxy bidding (early online bidding) for the Gardner crutch piece from Hertiage Auctions is already open with the actual auction scheduled for August 25th and 26th. For those of you interested in getting me a nice “Back to School” gift, bidding on the Gardner crutch piece starts at a very reasonable $2,500 ($3,125 including the buyer’s premium).
The Mystery of John Wilkes Booth’s Autopsy Photo by John E. Elliott and Barry M. Cauchon
The Assassin’s Doctor: The Life and Letters of Samuel A. Mudd by Robert K. Summers
Garrett, R. (1907, December 29) The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. Macon Telegraph Sunday, p 4.
Burr, F. (1881, December 11) John Wilkes Booth, The Scene of the Assassin’s Death Visited. Interesting Memories of the Garrett Family. A Full Narrative of the Tragic Events. Boston Sunday Herald.
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