Of Mummies and Methodism:
Reverend Clarence True Wilson and the Legend of John Wilkes Booth
C . Wyatt Evans/Drew University
In the early 1920s, the Methodist prohibition advocate Clarence True Wilson examined a carnival mummy. The first examination appears to have occurred while he attended a church conference in San Diego, California. While there may have been something a little risqué in the reverend doctor's mixing church business with carnival entertainment, there was certainly nothing unusual about the popular display of preserved human remains. Mummies, skeletons, and the like had a long tradition in American popular culture, beginning with antebellum dime museums and achieving new vogue with the traveling sideshows of the Gilded Age.(1) But this mummy had a past, as Wilson made clear in his interview with reporters: a deformed thumb, arched right eyebrow, scar on the neck, the lump on the tibia broken leaping to the stage-these marks proved the body was that of Lincoln's assassin. It was the body of actor John Wilkes Booth.(2)
|"The carnival exhibit that featured the Booth mummy displayed a board with the words 'For the Correction of History,' painted on it. This was a quintessential expression of the Lost Cause, but it may have taken on broader significance in the culminating period of early modern America's urban and ethnic transformation"|
The mummy was the prime material artifact in the legend of Booth's escape and Wilson was an ardent legend believer. The Methodist minister's encounter entailed much more than a single visitation, as we will see. The depth of his involvement in fact provides us with insight into the legend's larger meanings, meanings bearing on matters of cultural identity and national destiny. Wilson's foray into the carnivalesque also raises interesting questions regarding the uses of the dead body in popular culture. The following essay borrows from two current scholarly perspectives-that of memory studies, and the lived religion perspective advocated by David Hall and Robert Orsi-to argue that for Wilson and like-minded believers, the legend functioned as a memory of past events resolutely opposed to mainstream historical understanding. As with other cases of social memory, the commemoration of Booth's escape served to address present-day issues. Secondly, while the legend's siting in a carnival sideshow, replete with faux Egyptian columns and the usual promises to astound and amaze, confounds conventional notions of the religious, Wilson's active participation in the legend made it an intrinsic part of his larger religious worldview.(3)
The legend served him in his effort to address the temporal present, and in particular the threat he perceived to America's destiny as the Christian Nation. As a dedicated public Protestant in the first three decades of the twentieth-century, Wilson defies the notion of a "two-party system" in religion. Neither fundamentalist nor modernist in religious matters, the Methodist minister hewed to a postmillennial vision in which moral reform stood as the key to the coming Kingdom on Earth. The son of a Methodist preacher, he came of age in the decades following the Civil War, a time that witnessed both America's transformation into an industrial power and Methodism's greatest period of growth.(4) Despite the anxieties accompanying the gradual dissolution of Protestant small-town culture in the last decades of the nineteenth and opening decades of the twentieth century, mainstream evangelical Protestants like Wilson remained optimistic regarding America's providential destiny. The key to achieving this destiny, they believed, lay in moral reform. And the centerpiece of the Protestant reform movement during this period was the effort to ban the sale and manufacture of alcohol.(5) Through the opening decades of the twentieth century, "dry" sentiment gained ground and by 1917 state prohibition laws were passed in 34 states. With passage of the 18th Amendment establishing national prohibition in 1919, many religious spokespersons anticipated the hour of final victory. However, the Great Experiment floundered in the 1920s, as millions of Americans flouted the law and the eruption of bootlegging and mob warfare made many argue the cure was worse than the disease.
This growing opposition along with the continuing transformation of America
into a modern, urban nation meant that Wilson and like-minded Protestants found
their evangelical optimism increasingly strained. Key to asserting a linkage
between his legend practice and this larger religious outlook was the correspondence
in time between his efforts on behalf of the cause and his involvement with
the story of Booth's escape. And by virtue of his position as a church leader,
who spoke and wrote tirelessly on behalf of prohibition and related matters,
I believe the meanings he invested in Booth's body were representative for a
larger number of culturally-conservative Americans.
Contrary to mainstream historical accounts, the legend held (and continues to hold) that Booth successfully eluded his pursuers in the days following the assassination. He escaped westward and lived on for the next four decades as a fugitive. Over the years accounts placed him in locales ranging from the western United States to the Far East. In 1903, a down-and-out house painter named David George swallowed poison in an Oklahoma hotel. On his deathbed he reportedly "confessed" his true identity thus earning his corpse a free visit to the embalmer. Following World War I, it was George's mummy that appeared on the carnival circuit in the western half of the country, and it was this mummy Wilson viewed on at least two occasions.(6)
Over the years the legend came to serve a variety of ideological and short-term political purposes. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, the traumatized northern public, in its efforts to make sense of the act, imagined Booth as a slippery figure. Newspaper articles emphasized the actor's ability to adopt "detection defying" disguises including dressing as a woman or an African American. The famed correspondent George Alfred Townsend traced Booth's descent from Jewish ancestors. Elsewhere allusions were made to the wandering Jew, Cain, and Brutus. These references worked to demonize the assassin, but they also rendered him indeterminate. Even his physical location was unsure. Newspapers carried reports of sightings in Chicago, Boston, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. The classical and biblical analogies also encouraged an ambiguous interpretation: Cain murdered Abel, but he carried God's mark and was the founder of cities; and Brutus had murdered a tyrant.(7) Adding to these popular imaginings, federal officials enforced strict secrecy in disposing of the assassin's corpse. Fatally shot the morning of April 26, 1865, on the Garrett farmstead in northern Virginia, Booth's body was sewn-up in a blanket and quickly transported back to Washington. After a brief inquest aboard a U.S. Navy monitor, the corpse was taken away in a rowboat, apparently to be dumped in the Potomac river. Journalist Townsend evoked Booth's symbolic end with the following widely-read (and oft-repeated,) lines: "In the darkness, like his great crime, may it remain forever, impalpable, invisible, nondescript, condemned to that worse than damnation, annihilation . . ."(8) In fact, Booth's body had been secreted under the floor of an Army storehouse where it would remain until turned over to his family in 1869. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton testified in 1867 his sole reason for forbidding any public viewing of the corpse or knowledge of its burial place was to prevent southern sympathizers from gathering relics and paying homage to the fallen murderer. It is important to recognize that from the moment of his death, Booth's body was considered symbolically potent, and northern political leaders worked to suppress its symbolic power even as they organized the ritual display of Lincoln's embalmed remains in northern cities. In Booth's case, the ultimate effect of the government effort at secrecy was to abet the existing popular rumors, thus adding to the killer's displacement in the cultural weal.(9)
Once the shock had passed, political actors intent on their own ends quickly appropriated the rumors of Booth's escape. In July 1866, questions regarding the assassin's fate were raised in the Senate in the course of debating the distribution of reward money to his captors. In 1867, in the midst of the growing dispute between Andrew Johnson and Congress, the discovery of Booth's "missing" diary prompted the former political general and recently elected congressman Benjamin Butler, to raise questions regarding the assassination. He insinuated Johnson's complicity in Lincoln's murder, and demanded an investigation into the missing pages and certain passages in the diary.(10) During Reconstruction, the legend took on overt southern overtones. Newspapers carried accounts of Booth sightings in foreign lands including China, Ceylon, Mexico, and England. Many of these venues paralleled the locations of the actual Confederate exodus. The legend during this period may have formed part of what Gaines Foster describes as the imaginary exile white southerners engaged in as a psychological remedy to defeat.(11) The accounts usually stressed the actor's bearing, physical beauty, honor, respectability, and superior intellect. He rose above those around him. No evidence of remorse appeared on his countenance. He was the irreconcilable southern gentleman. By century's end this southern version was subtly modified to reflect the ongoing reunion between white North and South. In the most famous of the legend narratives for this period, the book-length account by a Tennessee lawyer entitled Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, the fugitive actor retains his exceptional bearing but becomes remorseful. In a moment of unburdening he confesses: "I walk in the companionship of crime, sleep within the folds of sin and dream the dreams of the damned. . . "(12)
It was in the 1920s and '30s, however, that the legend achieved its greatest exposure in American popular culture. The mummy's travels were publicized in mass periodicals including Life and the Saturday Evening Post, thereby boosting the story to national prominence. Several popular literary works either defended or debunked belief in Booth's escape.(13) Significantly, the interwar years also witnessed the apotheosis of Booth's victim in American collective memory. The dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 and publication of Carl Sandburg's massive biography beginning in 1936 were among the highpoints of Lincoln's commemoration. The period also witnessed the full-flowering of the revisionist interpretation of the Civil War, which denied the conflict had been "irrepressible," that slavery was the prime cause, and blamed the failure of Reconstruction on the Radical Republicans. The revisionist thesis received its most extreme (and popular) expression in Otto Eisenschiml's Why Was Lincoln Murdered? which insinuated that Lincoln's own secretary of war, the Radical Edwin Stanton, had masterminded his murder.(14) Thus, a multiplicity of meanings characterized the legend at its zenith and here it is that Wilson's encounter helps to illuminate one such set.
From the evidence of his personal papers and the popular press, the minister's involvement with the legend also peaked during this time. In addition to viewing the body on at least two occasions, Wilson produced three drafts of a book-length manuscript titled Trailing Lincoln's Assassin. On his frequent speaking tours he lectured on the "Mystery of John Wilkes Booth's Escape." He hobnobbed with other legend cognoscenti, including the widow of the Memphis lawyer largely responsible for David George's posthumous fame, and may have brokered the sale of the mummy to a carnival entrepreneur. His associations with the cadaver were known to journalists, who used the information in articles critical of the minister's cultural politics. Christian Century, the leading liberal, modernist, nondenominational religious journal of its day, even alleged he owned the body.(15) By his own account Wilson spent $ 12,000 of personal money over fifty years investigating Booth's escape, collecting sworn affidavits and other "evidence." (14) Most significantly, for present purposes, is that at the same time he pursued the assassin's trail, Wilson also headed one of Protestant America's most influential lobbying organizations.
|"Wilson's crowning achievement came in 1924 with the dedication of a $750,000 headquarters on Capitol Hill.|
As general-secretary for the Methodist Episcopal (North) Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals, he was among those leading the charge in what religious historians describe as Protestant America's final attempt to reform America.(16) Ostensibly engaged in Christian education, the board was in fact a lobby, devoted to grassroots mobilization and close political persuasion. From meager beginnings in 1910, Wilson built the organization up through his boundless energy, effectiveness as a public speaker, and organizational talent. By the 1920s it had come to assume second place only to the Anti-Saloon League among politically influential Protestant organizations. The New Republic considered it "the most up-to-date of the new church lobbies," brazenly engaged in influencing public opinion to achieve political ends.(17) Its activities included the publication of tracts and a monthly journal. A weekly "clipsheet," sent out to the nation's press and twenty thousand ministers kept them abreast of legislative developments in Washington pertinent to the board's moral agenda. This agenda included not only prohibition, but also the whole rubric of causes normally associated with the Protestant anti-modernist crusade of the period. Smoking, dancing, heavy petting, unassimilated immigrants, Catholics, and New York City all came under the fire of Wilson and his staff. Although still drawing from evangelical Protestantism's earlier commitment to abolition and other humanitarian reforms, by the early 1900s the Methodist leader's vision of America's destiny was heavily compromised by nativist leanings. Politics aside, the tension between his commitment to a traditional postmillennial eschatology and the dire predictions of threatening peril-in the mold of Josiah Strong's earlier witness-created a ready climate for his legend belief.
Wilson's crowning achievement came in 1924 with the dedication of a $750,000 headquarters on Capitol Hill. The Methodist Building, directly across First Street from the Capitol grounds, and a stone's throw from the future Supreme Court complex, drew fire from secularists who accused Wilson and the Board of violating the separation of church and state.(18) Even more irritating to the secular modernists and liberal churchmen was Wilson's penchant for inflammatory rhetoric. The Board's monthly publication, The Voice, often cut loose with statements designed more to arouse the faithful than further reasoned dialogue. In 1925, for instance, the statement "the only good bootlegger is a dead bootlegger," a paraphrase of General Philip Sheridan's opinion regarding Native Americans, enraged moderates on both sides of the liquor divide. A year later Wilson reportedly declared before a Methodist annual conference that prohibition was the reason for America's unprecedented prosperity. Before prohibition, he was quoted, "the rum element was in control of Congress," and the body's sergeant-at-arms had confided to him that in the bad old days his chief duty had been to "walk members up and down and get the drunks to their homes." Printed in the New York Times, these accusations reached the ears of congressmen, one of who accused the minister on the floor of the House of speaking a "dastardly canard" sprung from his "intemperate brain where it was concocted without an atom of foundation!"(19)
Wilson's public persona was indeed a mixture of respectable churchly mien and
obstreperous discourse. The dapper, pince-nez'd, goateed, minister circulated
among the nation's political and religious leaders. Yet at the same time, he
was a veteran street campaigner who laced his oratory with folksy aphorisms
and quotes from Mr. Dooley. He hearkened back to an evangelical tradition that
frequently challenged social conventions and logical proof in its quest for
personal holiness and social perfection.(20) Peter Cartwright
and the earlier divines eloquently described by Christine Heyrman were the spiritual
predecessors Wilson indirectly acknowledged in his appeal to the days "when
pulpits thundered the things that are to be."(21) And although
he would have distanced himself from barnstorming evangelists such as Billy
Sunday, despite his mainstream theology and denominational allegiance, and his
pouring on of statistics to prove a point, Wilson held to a model of public
discourse emphasizing conviction over factual truth and moral suasion over rational
deliberation. He also believed firmly in the public authority of the pulpit,
arguing incessantly for the right of religion to intervene in politics. One
reviewer called him the "most sensational moral and political reformer in the
United States," whose outbursts and habit of dissembling could be traced to
his days as an itinerant speaker, "when he campaigned among rude folk who looked
for edification as well as amusement to circus side-shows and itinerant medicine
men."(22) This comment reveals a modernist bias against small-town,
rural culture, but it also recognizes Wilson's mixed rhetorical performance,
a crucial point to understanding how this church leader could mix the carnivalesque
with orthodoxy in order to affirm his moral vision. Although skilled at dispensing
scientific rationales when needed, and although he maintained a public posture
emphasizing commitment to the facts and logic, Wilson was beholden to rhetorical
and epistemological models increasingly discredited in modernist culture: the
spiritual took precedence over the material; moral suasion was just as authoritative
as scientific reason, and a speaker's authority flowed from this moral fount.
History, in this scheme of things, remained a moral enterprise, with individual
events always subordinate to the unfolding of God's larger plan.(23)
Under the terms outlined above, the tale of Booth's escape worked to support the Methodist leader's interpretation of America's moral progress at the same time it helped conceal the conflicts in this vision. On a first plan, the assassin survived in order to suffer more fully. Contrary to the southern version of events, where Booth's survival stood as an expression of vengeance, vindication, and southern "unreconstructedness," Wilson made the assassin live on in order to exact moral retribution. History demanded as much. Booth killed the immortal and good Lincoln, thus thwarting destiny, and imposed on the country "that drunken maliprop, Andrew Johnson, who made of our period of reconstruction, which should have been a love-feast, a scene of more bitter memories and more unforgettable outrages than the entire four years of Civil War." While some may have thought that surviving under any circumstances was better than to be shot like a dog as Booth was, they did not grasp the full weight of his agony: "[t]his ambitious and proud aristocrat, . . wandered for thirty-eight years concealing his identity, hiding his shame, seeking surcease from sorrow but in vain. He became a suicide without a glimpse of hope for any better world." Even his dead corpse has been deprived of a resting place, and has wandered about "to be exhibited in the various places where he lived . . . as if the soil itself that gave the immortal Lincoln birth had refused to be polluted by the interment of Lincoln's assassin."(24) Thus Booth remained in limbo, unburied and unreconciled. The desire to punish the actor more fully sprang from the initial trauma of the event, and lived on in a moral interpretation of history wherein wrongs must be ultimately righted. There was a complication in Wilson's fervent condemnations, however, despite his undoubted sincerity in lamenting Lincoln's murder. At the same time he rendered Booth's corpse indeterminate, as had the northern public before him, he grafted a revisionist account of the Civil War onto his narrative. In this account, Lincoln stood as a racial moderate who would have curtailed the excesses of the Radicals had he lived. Booth's act therefore thwarted the "love feast" of reconstruction, a love feast entailing the reconciliation of white North and South, in which the atrocities of war and racial conflict would be forgotten.(25) Wilson was by no means the first person to formulate matters in this fashion. Several generations of white southerners had rued Lincoln's death as the worst calamity to befall the South. The interesting point in Wilson's case is that despite his evangelical heritage and frequent appeals to Methodism's fight for abolition, he sided with revisionism. The question is to what extent did he share in revisionism's racist project?
The answer leads to considering how Booth's body also served to express the minister's conflicted view of history. One the one hand, it stood as evidence of a bad past and better present; on the other, it remained among the last physical remnants of the age of heroes. Following the lead of previous writers, Wilson believed Booth had escaped as a result of a conspiracy originating in the highest levels of government. The cover-up was carried out by secret service head Lafayette C. Baker, in order to protect his share of the reward money, and to prevent "a further outcropping of Civil War . . ." which would have resulted if the people had known of the vice-president's involvement. Johnson, "who acceded to his position through the perpetration of a plot that robbed the country of its greatest character and most noble son," was, according to Wilson, also a drunkard.(26) Johnson's inebriated state at his vice-presidential swearing-in is historical fact. Wilson, however, took matters further, and elaborated an alcoholic tête-à-tête between Johnson and Booth on the afternoon of the assassination. The general -secretary remained firmly committed to the Andrew-Johnson-did-it thesis with one significant shift: Johnson's original accusers came from the Radical Republican camp, and their conspiracy theory was allied to their attacks over his Reconstruction policy. In Wilson's interpretation, Johnson assumed the role of the Radicals, who were accused in revisionist Civil War historiography of turning Reconstruction into a nightmare by promoting black suffrage. Once again, the political element returns, despite Wilson's frequent appeals to Methodism's role in the abolitionist cause. His "bad past," therefore consisted of an amalgam of corrupt politics, alcohol in high places, and a transposed revisionism in which Johnson replaced the Radicals he so vehemently opposed.
This bad past stood contrasted to the goodness of the present and arguably this was its greater use in Wilson's scheme. In this way the mummy confirmed the minister's postmillennial conviction of humankind's progress under the aegis of the Christian Nation. He blended the mid-century evangelical quest for social perfection with the doctrine of America's providential destiny. As his heirs noted in the foreword to the final draft, "Dr. Wilson's religion . . . was vitally related to his desire to serve the nation. To him any form of treachery, past or present, was something to be exposed to the public good and the development of a national conscience."(27) And Wilson elsewhere argued that the prophet Isaiah "was given a vision of America as existing and playing a conspicuous part in the providence of God among the nations of the earth." The United States became, he continued, the greatest theater for reform in the history of the world.(28) Prohibition, he argued, was the root cause for America's unprecedented prosperity, as proven by the numbers from the 1932 Statistical Abstract which the wet press attempted to suppress: more cars, more milk and fresh vegetables, more high school graduates, fewer lynchings, fewer deaths by automobile, and . . . cleaner politics. Trailing Lincoln's Assassin concluded: "We are living in better days. We have better men in public life. . . The world grows with the process of the suns and our children will have a better world to live in than we have had. They will never see piracy on the high seas, an African slave trade, duelling, slavery, polygamy cannibalism, the lottery system, legalized gambling, and the legalized liquor traffic in their generation. These will be the nightmares of a horrid dream but forgotten in the brightness of an awakening new day." (29)
|"Several journals pointedly referred to the Board's insistence on regulating personal conduct while it neglected the more serious issue of Methodism's involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. "|
Thus Booth's suffering and the legend as evidence of a corrupt past served to confirm an optimistic interpretation of history despite the challenges offered by modern conditions. Booth suffered as he should and conspiratorial politics had given way to good government. But there is a textual blip here that points to a very different take on matters. The concluding phrase "legalized liquor traffic" was crossed out in the typescript and written over in pen with the words "opium trade, or dope and narcotics legalized." Between the time Wilson composed his original conclusion and the manuscript's final edits, prohibition was revoked and the ending modified to reflect this change. He did not choose to alter his optimistic assessment of the future, at least not here. Other writings, however, reveal unease and anxiety over the quest for moral reform and national destiny. The pages of the Voice were filled with dire incantations. Not only prohibition's repeal, but cigarettes, motion pictures, and wild dancing threatened to unravel America's promise. As noted earlier, responsibility for these threats fell on unassimilated immigrants, Catholics, and "centers of congestion" such as New York City. (Wilson's use of a medical metaphor is interesting given the 1920s obsession with cleansing the digestive tract, and his own reported digestive ailment.) Here, the notion that Booth "thwarted destiny" in killing Lincoln suggests another interpretation for the legend's meaning and the power of its corpse. The past was not bad, despite the Methodist's rhetorical demonstrations and postmillennial convictions. While the past may have witnessed corrupt politics abetted by alcohol, it was also the Age of Father Abraham, and Wilson worshipped diligently at the altar of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was "good and immortal," his is "the noblest name of any statesman in human history," his name is "the moral magnet for all the other millions of the civilized world." Wilson's Christian Nationism had its roots in Anglo-Israelism and his own colorful interpretation of Isaiah's prophecy. But its avatar was Abraham Lincoln, and beyond Lincoln the entire generation of Civil War heroes including his own father and Methodist bishop Matthew Simpson. These were the men who had thundered from the pulpits and Wilson's vision of the past affirmed their role and that of the pulpit in assuring "heroic, ethical leadership, that the future may be just as progressive and glorious."(30) This past and their presence also stood for larger social and cultural values including a homogenous "Americanism," the undisputed rule of native-born white males in the public sphere, and the public power of the clergy. The destiny Booth thwarted was not only the near-term of Reconstruction, but the future of a certain America centered on evangelical Protestantism, moral valor, ethnic homogeneity, and a masculine priesthood.
Even as Wilson launched his building campaign and fought ceaselessly to defend the Noble Experiment, the pages of the Voice revealed the board secretary's conviction that sinister forces were afoot. Not only immigration and the social evils begat by the Lost Generation, but conspiracy threatened to unravel America's promise. In the same year he first visited the corpse, an editorial proclaimed "[o]ne of the most colossal conspiracies against the Government of the United States that has ever been faced in our history . . . is that deliberate plan of the liquor men, the American Tobacco trusts, the anti-Sabbath leagues, and the moving-picture producers to make odious the enforcement of the Volstead Act, . . . (31) Further, as the campaign against prohibition mounted in the 1920s, Wilson came under increasing criticism for his meddling in politics and his reactionary cultural viewpoints. Several journals pointedly referred to the Board's insistence on regulating personal conduct while it neglected the more serious issue of Methodism's involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately, there was little in Wilson's public statements to discourage this view. In his testimony before the Senate during the prohibition hearings in early 1926, he repeated the postmillennial message regarding prohibition's moral and material benefits before moving on to accuse immigrants of derailing the effort. He accused the liquor industry of "importing" European immigrants to the United States for the sole purpose of engaging in bootlegging.(32) Likewise, the pages of the Voice during this period included articles on "Americanism," Romanist plots, immigration, and the political fight for prohibition. And in the midst of all this appeared advertisements for legend literature. Alongside titles from the Methodist and Cokesbury presses, the Voice announced, The Methodist Building's bookstore carried titles such as Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, The Suppressed Truth About the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and Alien Rome.(33)
What emerges from this picture is that the legend served as a backdrop to Wilson's growing disillusion as the 1920s wore on. Despite Booth's arch-villainy, and his evident demonization, his body served as a tangible link to the heroic past. The conspiracy, which allegedly allowed his escape, was also echoed in the present. Hence the mummy stood for contradictory meanings, standing at once for the "bad" past of moral turpitude, and the "good" past of the heroic fathers. Further, its liminality as a sideshow exhibit did not preclude its central function in Wilson's own culture work. Its position on the cultural margins in fact mimicked the minister's own situation, as evangelical Protestantism's public authority continued to erode in the 1920s.
The carnival exhibit that featured the Booth mummy displayed a board with the
words "For the Correction of History," painted on it. This was a quintessential
expression of the Lost Cause, but it may have taken on broader significance
in the culminating period of early modern America's urban and ethnic transformation.
Much as the blend of moral justice and historical revisionism formed the basis
of Wilson's legend belief, the desire to correct history-through the medium
of the mummy-moved beyond its originally southern focus to incorporate broader
cultural anxieties. As was the case earlier in the century with plantation school
literature, the mummy and its claim to fix the past migrated beyond an original
southern base to reflect the concerns of a national subgroup. In the immediate
context of the mummy's display, the statement ostensibly referred to rectifying
the "incorrect" accounts of Lincoln's assassination, which in turn carried strong
political implications including charges that government leaders had committed
treason and then covered their tracks. In itself, this was a disturbing vision,
but one whose conspiratorial dimensions were common enough in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. But in the context of Wilson's own conspiratorial
imagination, directed at fathoming the forces intent on undoing prohibition
and moral progress, the "correction of history" could also refer to re-directing,
in the imagination at least, the progress of American history since the end
of the Civil War. Here is the key, I believe, to resolving Wilson's involvement
with historical revisionism and his own moral agenda. The correction of history
in his scheme entailed the reinsertion of a defeated narrative in which the
autonomous self, evangelical moral hegemony, and ethnic "homogeneity," continued
to hold sway. The mummy, by "proving" the falsity of mainstream historical narrative,
helped solve the felt tension between evangelical Protestantism's traditional
postmillennial optimism and emerging premillenialist strains. By localizing
the forces of conspiracy, the body and its accompanying narrative provided an
explanation for events in terms that affirmed the moral interpretation of history
at the same time they served as a memory of ethnic, religious, and moral purity
in a world viewed as increasingly gone awry.
|A previous version of this article was presented at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Denver, Colorado, November 2001. My thanks to Gary Laderman and Louis Ruprecht for their insights and encouragement.|
1. On carnival mummies, and the Booth mummy in particular, see Christine Quigley, Modern Mummies: The Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century, (Jefferson, N. Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1998, 59-102; on antebellum mummies see Mermaids, Mummies, and Mastodons: The Emergence of the American Museum, ed. William T. Alderson, (Washington DC: American Association of Museums, 1992), 46-7; on the Occidental fascination with mummification dating back to the Middle Ages, see The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity, Sahma Ikram and Aidan Dodson, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998), 64-74. Wilson was not the first American religious personality fascinated with the preserved dead. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith owned four mummies including, he asserted, that of the Pharaoh Necho. The hieroglyphic texts accompanying the bodies were the basis of Smith's translation of the Book of Abraham. See John A. Larson, "Joseph Smith and Egyptology: An Early Episode in the History of American Speculation About Ancient Egypt, 1835-1844, in For His Ka: Essays Offered in Memory of Klaus Baer, David P. Silverman ed., Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization No. 55, (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1994), 159-78.
2. "Dr. Clarence True Wilson Saw Booth's Body Lately," International News Service, 4/21/25.
3. Historical studies of what is generally termed collective memory have abounded over the past twenty years. Studies of how the Civil War has been remembered in American culture, and of the ideological or political purposes these memories have served, include Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920, (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1980); Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913, (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, (New York: Basic Books, 1991); Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993); Jim Cullen, The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past, (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995); The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, ed. Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000); David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press, 2001). On lived religion, see Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, ed. David D. Hall, (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1997).
4. Robert Dean McNeil, Valiant for Truth: Clarence True Wilson and Prohibition, (Portland, Ore.: Oregonians Concerned About Addiction Problems, 1992).
5. My summary of Protestant America's reactions to the social, economic, and cultural developments in America during the period draws from Robert T. Handy, Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971); George Mardsen, Religion and American Culture, (San Diego, Cal.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990); Mark A. Knoll, History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdman's, 1992).
6. Although critical of the legend, George S. Bryan's Great American Myth, (New York: Carrick & Evans, 1940) provides the single best overview of the story's development.
7. Booth sightings and articles alleging his escape appeared frequently in northern newspapers in the days following the assassination. For the villain's figuration as the elusive Other, see World (New York), and National Intelligencer, for the period 4/22 to 5/1, 1865.
8. George A. Townsend in World, April 29, 1865, p. 1.
9. Bryan, Great American Myth, 291.
10. Congressional Globe, 1866. 39th Cong., 1st sess., 4291-2; U.S. House Journal, 1867. 40th Cong., 1st sess., 8 July; On the relationship between Lincoln conspiracy theories and national politics see William Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983).
11. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy, 17. On Confederate emigration see also Andrew Rolle, The Lost Cause: The Confederate Exodus to Mexico, (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965); The Confederados: Old South Immigrants in Brazil, ed. Cyrus B. Dawsey and James M. Dawsey, (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1995).
12. Finis L. Bates, Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, (Memphis, Tenn: Pilcher Printing Company, 1907; reprint, nd.), 71.
13. Life, Jul. 11, 1938, 4-5; Alva Johnston, ""John Wilkes Booth"-On Tour", Saturday Evening Post, Feb. 19, 1938; W.P. Campbell, Escape and Wanderings of John Wilkes Booth (1922); Bernie Babcock, Booth and the Spirit of Lincoln (1925); Francis Wilson, John Wilkes Booth (1929); Lloyd Lewis, Myths After Lincoln (1929); Izola Forrester, This One Mad Act (1937); George S. Bryan, The Great American Myth (1940).
14. Merrill Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 285, 302; Otto Eisenschiml, Why Was Lincoln Murdered?, (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1937).
15. The evidence of Wilson's legend involvement can be found in the Clarence True Wilson Collection, Methodist Archives, Drew University, Madison, NJ. The pertinent material includes draft manuscripts, correspondence, typescript copies of sworn affidavits and oral accounts. Information on the collection available on-line at http://www.gcah.org . Henceforth cited as the Wilson Collection; "The Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals," Christian Century, Dec. 24, 1930, 1582-85. Tms of Wilson's rebuttal in Folder 2129-5-6, Wilson Collection.
16. Trailing Lincoln's Assassin (copy 3), TMs, Wilson Collection.
17. Marsden, Religion and American Culture, 172-3. For a secular perspective on prohibition's significance as among the last attempts to supplement personal self-control with formal, legal, public constraints, see Peter N. Stearns, Battleground of Desire: The Struggle for Self Control in Modern America, (New York and London: New York University Press, 1999), 22.
18. New Republic, Oct. 13, 1926, 213.
19. James D. Bernard, "The Methodists," American Mercury, Apr. 1926, 430; Washington Pezet, "The Temporal Power of Evangelism: The Methodists in National Politics," Forum, Oct. 1926, 482-91. See Wilson's reply in Forum, Nov. 1926, 668-81; Charles Merz, "The Methodist Lobby," New Republic, Oct. 13, 1926, 213-15; "Are the Methodists Seeking Temporal Power?" Literary Digest, Nov. 13, 1926, 33-4; Ray T. Tucker, "Prophet of Prohibition," North American Review, Aug. 1930.
20. Voice, Jan. 1925; New York Times, Mar. 22, 1926, 2 ; Congressional Record- House, 69th Cong., 1st sess., Mar. 24, 1926, 6178. Wilson was not unique in his intemperate approach to the cause. For the Methodist penchant of justifying the means by the ends during this period see Robert Moats Miller, "Methodism and American Society, 1900-1939," in The History of American Methodism, ed. Emory Stevens Bucke, (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964), 328-406. Miller quotes the words of William "Pussyfoot" Johnson, "I had to lie, bribe, and drink to put over prohibition in America."
21. Clarence T. Wilson, The Things That Are To Be: or, Pulpit Discussion in Eschatology, (Cleona, Penn.: G. Holzapfel, 1898): "It was in the days that our pulpits thundered the things that are to be, that definite results attended our preaching and far-reaching revivals blessed the church." 150.
22. North American Review, op. cit.
23. Wilson's moral vision of history was not uncommon, even among secular-minded laity. See Dorothy Ross, "Historical Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century America," American Historical Review, vol. 89, no. 4 (Oct. 1984), 909-28. Ross argues that historicism appeared with the progressives. For Wilson and many others, the vision of America's providential destiny led them to continue to favor a moral interpretation of history well into the new century.
24. Trailing Lincoln's Assassin (copy 3).
25. Silber, Romance of Reunion. Silber's thesis that Gilded Age northerners gendered the South as feminine, and found in its literature and vacation resorts a refuge from the anxieties of northern industrial existence, has helped me in formulating my own viewpoint.
26. Trailing Lincoln's Assassin (copy 3), 6, 72.
27. Trailing Lincoln's Assassin (copy 3).
28. Clarence T. Wilson, "The United States in Prophecy: Isaiah's Vision of Our Country," Christian Faith & Life, Oct. 1934.
29. Wilson Collection, 2129-5-6:01, Lectures, untitled. Wilson catalogued Prohibition's virtues repeatedly, in the pages of the Voice and elsewhere; Trailing Lincoln's Assassin (copy 3), 210.
30. Clarence T. Wilson, Dry or Die: The Anglo-Saxon Dilemma, (Topeka, Kans.: The Temperance Society, 1913), 166-7.
31. Voice, Feb. 1922, 1-2.
32. New York Times, Apr. 21, 1926, 18. The full text of Wilson's testimony is in National Prohibition Law, Hearings Before the Subcommittee of the Committee of the Judiciary, U.S. Senate, 69th Cong., 1st sess., vol. 2, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1926).
33. Voice, Apr. 1922, 4; Jan. 1925, 3. The highpoint of the Voice's attack on unassimilated immigrants and their role in derailing prohibition came when the Board interviewed Henry Ford on the Jews and Prohibition. See Voice, Sept. 1923.
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