Sylvester the assassin?

John Wilkes Booth is back in the news. Is he on display in Seattle?

Crosscut archive image.

Sylvester the mummy at home in Ye Olde Curiosity Shop

John Wilkes Booth is back in the news. Is he on display in Seattle?

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War coming up, it shouldn't be a surprise that John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln's assassin, is in the news. Booth's descendants have said they are interested in having the actor's body exhumed to put to rest rumors that he survived the post-assassination manhunt, moved West and lived out his life somewhere on the frontier.

That rumor was rampant at the turn of the century, as were post-assassination conspiracy theories. Birtherism wasn't born with birthers, nor the notion that celebrities (like Elvis) earn a kind of immortality. (Nor was Booth the only outlaw thought to have survived his crimes: Jesse James and Butch Cassidy were also rumored to have survived and lived to ripe old ages, Cassidy in Spokane.)

And the New York Times reports that a San Francisco writer has just written a book, conceived surprisingly by novelist Sinclair Lewis, that imagines what Booth's post-assassination existence was like.

What does any of this have to do with us? I am reminded that one of the theories passed around Seattle years ago that Ye Olde Curiosity Shop's iconic mummy, Sylvester, was in fact the corpse of John Wilkes Booth (see Modern Mummies by Christine Quigley). There have been other rumors that Booth's corpse was mummified, and photos that have circulated purporting to show at least two different "Booth mummies." 

Sylvester was found in the Arizona desert in the late 1890s, and he appeared to be a gunshot victim (confirmed when a bullet was found inside the dried corpse by X-ray and MRI). Many have speculated about Sylvester's identity (cowboy, Spaniard, prospector, outlaw, hoax?), but the Booth rumor always seemed possible mainly, I think, because of the mustache. The shop still sells Sylvester postcards (see image at right) and you can decide for yourself if the resemblance merits further investigation.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.