family history, Wildrick

John Wilkes Booth: Did he really die in 1865?

Today, I want to share a little bit of family lore. After I stumbled into contact with a distant cousin, she emailed me pages of an interview that she had done years before with her grandmother. Her grandmother, Rhoda, was sister to my great-grandfather, Freeman Wildrick. In the interview, Rhoda shares a story about their grandmother’s sister, Fannie Igle. It was rumored among the family, that Fannie had married a man who was believed to have been John Wilkes Booth.


So a little refresher course for those of you who have forgotten their American History: In 1865, John Wilkes Booth was the mastermind behind a plot to take down the government. He was a supporter of the confederacy, and originally had planned to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln. However, that plan soon changed to involve murdering Lincoln, along with other members of the government: Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward in attempts to help the confederacy by bringing the Union government to its knees.

On the evening of April 14, 1865, President Lincoln and his wife were enjoying a night at Ford’s Theater when Booth crept into the President’s box, raised a  .44 caliber Derringer, and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He made a daring escape, jumping from the box onto the stage, and shouted, ” Sic semper tyrannis”, Latin for “Thus always to tyrants”. He ran off into the night with one of his accomplices. His escape turned into a twelve day man-hunt, ending, supposedly, when Union soldiers surrounded a barn that the two men were seeking shelter, set it ablaze, and shot Booth.

There are multiple theories that state Booth’s escape. However, my family story doesn’t include anything so wild.

According to the family legend, Fannie Igle was married to an old soldier of the war who had a badly crippled leg. Booth had such, as a horse fell on his leg during the man-hunt and it was broken by the fall and then set by a doctor while on the run. Because of the nights on the ground, and the constant riding and hiding those twelve days, it would not heal properly.

Because I had the wrong Fannie in mind (I had believed her to be Rhoda and Freeman’s aunt, not their grand aunt) I had a hard time digesting this tale. (In the past, I liked the idea of naming children after ancestors as a way of remembering or honoring them, but I’ve found it creates humongous issues later when trying to decide who is who.) However, after reading and re-reading the interview, I finally realized that Rhoda was speaking of her grandmother, Minnie Igle’s sister, also named Fannie. A sister I knew nothing about, and when I say nothing, I mean I didn’t even know she existed. You can read more of the Igle family here, and you’ll see what I mean. However, a quick search of “Fannie Igle”  brought up a marriage record from June of 1865 in Boston, MA. So I thought here’s as good a place as any to begin.

On 24 Jun 1865, twenty year old Fannie Igle wed 35 year old Nathaniel Sheldon in Boston, MA. Because Nathaniel was living in Illinois at the time, I have to wonder, how did this pair meet? Had they been neighbors? School sweethearts? Or was it something as romantic as a mail-order bride?

Whatever the reason, after their marriage, Nathaniel and Fannie made a home in Chicago. In 1912, Fannie passed away at the home of her sister, Katherine McBride in Long Beach, Los Angeles, California, USA where she was also buried. Nathaniel passed away the following year in Chicago where he was laid to rest. Why was she buried separately from her husband? Was Fannie just visiting her sister when she fell ill? Or was there another reason for the separation? Perhaps his possible sordid past began to haunt her?

In the interview, Rhoda mentions that no one in her immediate family had heard of the rumor about Fannie’s husband. It was only found out after their grandmother Minnie had passed away. Rhoda heard the story from a cousin who claimed to have heard the story from their grand aunt, Katherine, the sister with whom both Fannie and Minnie lived. In the interview, Rhoda says no one really spoke of Fannie, or her husband, because it was a disgrace to be associated with anyone with criminal backgrounds. But was he a criminal?

I tried to dig a little deeper into who Nathaniel Sheldon was. His marriage record to Fannie listed a Crawford B. and Abigail Sheldon as his parents. He was born in Delhi, Delaware, New York in 1830. And that’s all I was able to find. I’ve been unable to locate any records prior to Nathaniel’s marriage to Fannie, or any records involving either one of his parents. While I can’t say for certain nothing exists, it does appear at first glance that Nathaniel could have had a shady background that was quickly covered up with a false name and a false backstory.

Which brings me back to the blog title. Is it possible that Nathaniel Sheldon and John Wilkes Booth are one in the same? Well, anything’s possible. But probable? I doubt it. I have a hard time believing that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton would have allowed Booth to escape and instead create a story that he was killed. I suppose we’ll never know for certain. Until descendants of Edwin Booth, John Wilkes brother, are allowed permission to exhume John Wilkes body to compare DNA, the stories of Booth’s escape will remain legend. But it does make for a great story.

Fannie Sheldon’s gravesite in Long Beach, CA

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