Dr. Armstrong and the Assassin

Dr.Armstrong and the Assassin The Rev. James G. Armstrong, D.D.

The Rev. James G. Armstrong, D.D.

Dr. Armstrong and the Assassin John Wilkes Booth in 1865, Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

John Wilkes Booth in 1865, Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

DR. ARMSTRONG AND THE ASSASSIN

The Reverend Doctor James Glasgow Armstrong died unexpectedly at his Atlanta residence in 1891, age 55. His career, recounted in various obituaries, seemed to follow a relatively unimpeachable ecclesiastical trajectory: born in Ireland to a Presbyterian family, Queens College, Belfast, ordination from a theological seminary in Ohio, then various Presbyterian parishes until he left the Presbyterians for ordination in the Protestant Episcopal Church, several Episcopalian parishes, noted for his unusually forceful oratory, survived by his wife and a daughter, &c. &c. &c.

However, this divine’s otherwise unremarkable obituaries contain one incredible detail: Many people, in many parishes, over the course of many years thought that Dr. Armstrong was John Wilkes Booth.

In 1865 Sgt. Boston Corbett shot John Wilkes Booth in the back of the head as Booth stood at bay in the Garrett family’s burning barn. Corbett claimed self-defense, saying that Booth had raised his gun and would have shot him. Just how a man taking aim could have been shot in the back of the head is not explained. Eyewitnesses, including Garrett family members and Union officers, said that Booth had not threatened the soldier or that Corbett had not really fired. The fatal gun was never examined and was later “lost.” Corbett, who suffered from mercury poisoning, religious mania, and an anti-prostitute self-castration, was perhaps not the most reliable witness.

Such inconsistencies have led to the legend of Booth’s escape and subsequent reinvention of himself as multiple individuals in many locations, notably John St. Helen and David E. George, as well as John Wilkes, who escaped via a British ship to Liverpool and thence to India, where he died.

Many of us are familiar with the post-mortem theatrical career of the celebrated actor as a showman’s mummy attraction, carted around to county fairs across the country, particularly by the memorably named Finis L. Bates.

But, as we find repeatedly suggested in the nineteenth-century press, Booth may have adopted a persona where he could put his elocution talents to good use, a pious afterlife with a new identity as an Episcopalian priest, the Reverend Doctor James Glasgow Armstrong.

The first significant mention of Armstrong and his secret identity appears in 1874.

As the website of St. Matthew’s Church, Wheeling, West Virginia says:

On June 6, 1874, The Reverend J. G. Armstrong, of Hannibal, Mo., was called to the rectorship of the parish. Rev. Mr. Armstrong, who was said to have been both handsome and popular, was plagued with a rumor that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln. According to his barber, Armstrong wore his hair long to conceal a scar on the back of his neck where Booth, too, was said to be scarred. Rumors were so rampant in the community that the senior warden, Dr. E. A. Hildreth, found it necessary to question the rector on the matter. “Has that story followed me here?” Rev. Mr. Armstrong responded. He produced proof of his presence at college in Toronto, Ontario, at the time of the assassination. [Probably untrue—other sources say that he was in St. Louis at the time of the assassination.]

Nonetheless, that story haunted him in his next parish, Monumental Church in Richmond, Virginia.

Monumental Church in Richmond was created as a monument to the many people who died on the site in the December 26, 1811 Richmond Theatre fire. Poe’s foster parents were members. It was a prestigious pulpit and the eloquent Dr. Armstrong was well-received, but rumors about his identity continued to plague him. This article was written long after his departure:

Let us go into the vestry room. There, in that dark corner, hangs upon the wall a picture of John Wilkes Booth, in long clerical garments. The sexton says that it is a picture of Rev. John G. Armstrong, who was pastor of Monumental church from 1878 to 1884.

The photograph plainly shows in every line and curve, the broad high forehead and long straight hair the handsome chin and exquisite profile of John Wilkes Booth. The man is in the prime of life, standing beside a table, with a serious mien. He is undoubtedly a clergyman, but that is the face of John Wilkes Booth. Every picture extant shows the semblance, and people who saw Booth on the stage, when he was a well-known actor, say that the photograph of Rev. John G. Armstrong [sic] is a perfect picture of Booth.

There is the mystery, but there is romance also connected with the story, for nobody ever knew where the reverend gentleman came from. It was said that he had been ordained in Ireland. An investigation of his past did not produce satisfactory results. He came to Richmond a comparative stranger. Everybody wondered that the likeness of the man to John Wilkes Booth, and some accused him of being that man. Finally the clergyman was accused of irregularities in his habits, and this started afresh the story that he was not what he claimed to be. At last, in despair, he left the ministry, lived in private and died in obscurity. The doubt of his identity hung over him like a pall. On his deathbed, his last words were a denial, an earnest, tearful denial, that he was John Wilkes Booth. [Unlikely, as we shall see below.]

There were many men in Richmond who had heard Booth on the stage, and who heard Dr. Armstrong in the pulpit, who declared that two men could not be so much alike; in face, form, voice, gesture, everything; for the preacher was a man of such dramatic manners that it would have been almost impossible for any man to have acquired them anywhere except upon the stage. Moreover, it was remarked that he was slightly lame, as Wilkes Booth would undoubtedly have been, after sustaining the injury which befell him as he jumped from the box to the stage of the theater on the night of the commission of his awful crime.

It is well known that there were doubts expressed by many people in Washington, in 1865, as to whether or not the assassin, Booth, had really been killed. These doubts were often expressed in public prints. When Rev. Dr. Armstrong appeared in Richmond, all of those rumors were revived; and there was such a general dissemination of gossip and rumor that the preacher found himself surrounded by mystery. When an attempt was made to investigate his antecedents, he gave no assistance.

It is known that he had a daughter whom he trained in elocution, and she went upon the stage after her father had died. It is said that whatever the secret of his life may have been, before he appeared in Richmond, he told it to his child; for she often said that she alone knew her father, and only her could he trust.

But the mysterious priest of the Monumental church has gone to his grave; and there is no stone to mark his last resting place. Just before he left the ministry, he had two photographs taken; one for his daughter, the other for the church. And there, in that dark corner, in the shadows that surround it, as the shadows of mystery surrounded his life, in the vestry room, the photograph shows the features of John Wilkes Booth. Whoever he was, poor fellow, his was an unhappy life; his was a pathetic death.

Smith D. Fry.

The Repository [Canton, OH] 5 September 1897: p .10

Smith Dunbar Fry [1851-1929] was known for writing “thrilling” historical stories. Much of what he writes here seems to have come from Dr. Armstrong’s later life, supposedly so mysterious. Some details, such as the Rector’s gait and his voice are mentioned by other sources. However, accuracy or even basic research was not necessarily Fry’s strong suit and he makes mysteries out of details that were well-known. It was all over the Alexandria and Atlanta papers and one assumes, those of Richmond, that the Rev. Doctor had accepted a call to Atlanta, Georgia, where he was favored by the Bishop and given social invitations by Georgia ex-Governor Rufus Bullock.

Perhaps in order to distract from the question of Armstrong’s appearance, a Virginia paper, announcing Armstrong’s acceptance of the Atlanta call, said that “in personal appearance [he] resembles Hon. John W. Daniel, of Lynchburg.” The Georgia papers unflinchingly addressed the issue:

From the Savannah Times.

Rev. J.G. Armstrong, of St. Philip’s Church, Atlanta, is just now the victim of an unsought for and undesireable notoriety. Because he somewhat resembles Edwin [sic] Booth in his face and features and is an orator of unusual force and eloquence, some sensationalist has started the report that he is the long since dead and buried J. Wilkes Booth, who killed President Lincoln, and from our dispatches in yesterday’s Times, it seems that there are some people in Wheeling, West Virginia—where Dr. Armstrong officiated as rector of St. Matthew’s church a few years ago—foolish enough to believe it.

…For some years just previous to accepting a call to Atlanta he was rector of the old Monumental church in Richmond, and he from the first assumed high rank in the diocese of Virginia. So high indeed does he stand in the estimation of his church that he is being prominently spoken of in connection with the assistant bishopric of Alabama.

We devote this much space to the gentleman because it is outrageous that he should be made a shining mark for sensationalism. Were he a preacher of the Talmadge or Beecher stripe it might make no difference. As he is, however, a clergyman who simply seeks to do his duty in an unostentatious manner, and, wholly forgetful of self, uses the brilliant talents which God has given him solely to advance the cause of his Master, the notoriety which he is now attracting, through a most thoroughly absurd and senseless story, must subject him to exceeding annoyance. The Atlanta [GA] Constitution 24 December 1884: p. 962

Yet, by the following year, how were the mighty fallen:

A REVEREND RASCAL

Wilkes Booth’s Doubt Creates a Scandal in Cincinnati

Cincinnati, O., August 28. An afternoon paper contains a very sensational story that revives the gossip about the remarkable resemblance of Rev. J.G. Armstrong, of Atlanta, Ga., to Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln. The reverent gentleman, who is rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta, has been in the city for some weeks, and, according to the printed story, has been conducting himself while here very differently from what would be expected of a minister of the gospel. The account is in substance as follows;

Wednesday morning a small crowd gathered in front of Hunt’s Hotel, where the reverend doctor was standing. They were attracted by this strange appearance, and many remarks were passed upon the resemblance to the assassin of 1865. Jumping into a hack he was driven to a number of houses of ill-fame on Longworth street, where he spent the day in drinking and boisterous conduct with the inmates. A reporter of the paper printing the story followed him during this tour, and the account is not lacking in particulars and data. He kissed the girls, drank beer, and inquired by name for particular girls. The story goes on to say the minister has been fully identified by former members of his church now living in this city. The Parsons [KS] Daily Sun 29 August 1885: p. 1

A gentleman from Washington, who had known Booth, was so struck by the resemblance that he said: ‘If I did not know that Booth is dead, I would swear he is sitting at that table.’ Staunton [VA] Spectator 2 September 1885: p. 2

Dr. Armstrong made a clean breast to the vestry of St. Phillip’s:

While in Cincinnati Dr. Armstrong had imbibed a good deal of beer, and had been partially under its influence, not sufficiently intoxicated, however, to lose control of his faculties, and that while in this condition he had visited a number of disreputable houses for the purpose of finding and reclaiming, if possible, a female relative whom he had learned was in one of these resorts. He found her, purchased a ticket and sent her home. The vestry accepted Dr. Armstrong’s statement. The Charlotte [NC] Observer 9 September 1885: p. 3

Despite this, the Standing Committee of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Georgia felt “constrained to present him for trial, and recommend his suspension pending the same.” The Wilmington Morning Star 6 October 1885: p. 3

At his trial he testified that he went with a colleague to the houses of ill-repute “in search of a daughter of a dear friend in Canada, and at his request.” That “dear friend” was apparently his uncle Rainey Armstrong, who, oddly enough, had a son named James Glasgow Armstrong, born in 1843. One wonders if it was he who had been at college in Toronto in 1865. His uncle corroborated his statement and ex-Georgia Governor Rufus Bullock, who supported Dr. Armstrong, traveled to Ontario to take the statement. It was presented to the Bishop with a request for a new trial, which was denied. Dr. Armstrong was found guilty of drinking intoxicating beverages, but not of improper dealings with the ladies.

While there was a great deal of sympathy from the public and colleagues, and lip-service regret from the Bishop, Dr. Armstrong was suspended from the pulpit for ten years. His parishioners spoke of starting a new church with him as rector; they settled on subscribing to a lecture series where he spoke about literature and the theatre. In 1887 he was reported to have “withdrawn from the ministry” of the Episcopalian Church and to be studying for the Catholic Church, neither of which seems to have been true. He occupied his time in giving lecture tours. The scandal in Cincinnati and the trial of Dr. Armstrong temporarily eclipsed the question about whether he was or was not Lincoln’s assassin, but came roaring back after his sudden death in 1891.

WILKES BOOTH’S DOUBLE

The Famous Rev. Armstrong Dies in Atlanta.

Wheeling, W.Va. Feb. 24. A dispatch has been received here announcing the death in Atlanta of Rev. J.G. Armstrong. Mr. Armstrong for years was a pastor of this city, and was remarkable for his resemblance to J. Wilkes Booth. Many people maintain to this day that he was Booth. There certainly was a strong resemblance.

When faced with the stories here he always declined to talk on the subject, and all efforts by his vestrymen to trace his past history were futile. He also refused to talk of Lincoln’s assassination. He was fond of the theatres, and often associated with actors.

His daughter recently went on the stage. She created a sensation a year ago by getting married and leaving her husband the next day. The Pittsburgh [PA] Press 24 February 1891: p. 1

Death of Rev. J.G. Armstrong

This eloquent minister died at Atlanta, Ga., at 3 o’clock last Sunday afternoon. He had not been in the ministry for several years, having been deposed. The end of his somewhat eventful life was entirely unexpected, and came with a shock to his friends.

Dr. Armstrong returned to Atlanta a few days ago from a very successful lecture tour in Ohio and Indiana. He was apparently in the best of health and spirits. Saturday night he wrote upon his Hamlet lecture which he predicted would be his masterpiece, far surpassing his Julius Caesar and Richard III. At a late hour he laid down upon a sofa in his library, and in this position was discovered Sunday morning in an unconscious condition and remained so until his death in the afternoon.

He was born in Belfast Ireland, in 1836 and consequently was fifty-five years old at his death.

He went some years ago from Trinity Church in Hannibal, Mo., to St. Matthews Church at Wheeling, W. Va., and from there to the Monumental Church at Richmond, Va., and from there, about 6 years ago, to St. Philips Church in Atlanta, Ga. He resembled J. Wilkes Booth in a remarkable degree. A special dispatch from Wheeling in Monday’s Washington Post says:

“Rev. J.G. Armstrong was for years a pastor of this city, and was remarkable for his resemblance to J. Wilkes Booth, many people maintaining to this day that he was Booth. There certainly was a strong resemblance, even to a gun-shot wound in the leg and a scar on the neck. When confronted with the stories here he always declined to talk on the subject, and all efforts to trace his past history were futile. He refused to talk of Lincoln’s assassination. Staunton [VA] Spectator 25 February 1891: p.2

Another notice gives additional details, some accurate, some not.

WAS HE J. WILKES BOOTH?

The Late Rev. J.G. Armstrong and His Resemblance to the Assassin.

Chicago, March 5. A morning paper says that it is generally believed by the people of Atlanta, Ga., that the Rev. J.G. Armstrong, who recently died in that city, was J. Wilkes Booth. Two old residents of the Georgia capital are stopping at the Grand Pacific and they declare that the people of Atlanta will not believe otherwise than that the late pastor was the assassin of President Lincoln.

“Armstrong’s resemblance to J.W. Wilkes Booth was remarkable,” said one of the Atlanta men yesterday. “When he was alive the people of Atlanta discussed the suspicion about the man. The last time Edwin Booth visited Atlanta, he, with the leading members of his company, stopped at the Kimball house. All one day Mr. Armstrong is known to have been closeted in a room at the hotel with the actor, and during the week’s engagement of the company made frequent visits to Mr. Booth’s apartments.

“Efforts were made to learn the man’s past history, but they made no progress. He declined to have anything to say in regard to himself and was forced to leave his church. The first time his name was mentioned in the public prints was when his daughter deserted her husband the day after her marriage. The young woman subsequently went on the stage. Mr. Armstrong was fond of attending the theater. I often saw him in public places. His presence always caused comment. His resemblance to the assassin of Lincoln was certainly remarkable, he even having a gunshot wound in his leg and the scar on his neck. These marks were discovered after death.

“It is rumored, since the man’s death, that he committed suicide, and that the coroner will be called upon to hold an inquest. In case of such an event an effort will be made to find some of his private papers.” Kansas City [MO] Star 5 March 1891: p. 3

Since there are so many inaccuracies in this piece–Armstrong died of a stroke, not suicide, for example—can the story about spending time with Edwin Booth be credited?

Dr.Armstrong and the Assassin Edwin Booth as Hamlet

Edwin Booth as Hamlet

So was the Rev. Dr. James G. Armstrong John Wilkes Booth? It seemed possible, especially with various newspapers commenting about his walk—it is easy to alter one’s appearance, not so one’s walk. The injuries, too, were curious and suggestive.

Besides the physical similarities, there were a couple of minor details suggesting an overlap between Booth’s and Armstrong’s lives:

Booth was baptized as a teenager into the Episcopalian church. His sister claimed that he converted to Catholicism before he died. Armstrong affiliated himself with the Episcopalian Church and after leaving that church’s ministry was said to be studying for the Catholic Church. Booth was rumored to have fled to Liverpool; Armstrong had been given a trip to Liverpool by a generous church benefactor. Armstrong lectured on theatrical topics including Julius Caesar, Richard III, and Hamlet—three of Booth’s favorite plays/roles.

My fertile imagination played havoc with this story, inventing scenario after sensational scenario:

Many articles mentioned how fond Dr. Armstrong was of the theatre. Let us imagine that Booth meets his ardent fan, Dr. Armstrong at a performance and notes the resemblance, mentally filing it away for future reference. Then, when he realizes that he will need to disappear, he locates Armstrong in St. Louis, murders him, and assumes his respectable life. There was just one snag: Mrs Alma Hitchcock Armstrong, whom he had married in his first parish at Sidney Ohio, was still married to him at the time of his death and, presumably, could have testified that a switch had taken place.

Still, I thought, there might be a way around the difficulty. Middle-class Victorian couples often did not sleep in the same bedroom. A husband might absent himself during pregnancy or illness. Perhaps Mrs. Armstrong was too ignorant to notice the substitution, was thrilled with the change, or they had ceased to share a bed. Perhaps he claimed illness and excused himself from conjugal relations. They had only two daughters: one who was born in 1872 and died in 1873 at Hannibal, Missouri; the second, born in St. Louis 10 April, 1865.

But all too soon my hopes for such a thrilling theory were dashed. At first I could not trace him further back than his post in West Virginia in 1874. But then I found this matter-of-fact correspondent who claimed to know some details of Armstrong’s history.

Not the Assassin.

To the Editors of the Commercial Gazette.

The “Armstrong” described in a dispatch from Wheeling (thought by “Smyth,” in Frank Leslie’s Weekly, to be J. Wilkes Booth) as preaching in an Episcopal Church, is evidently Rev. J.G. Armstrong, formerly of the United Presbyterian Church, a graduate of the Xenia U.P. Theological Seminary about 1861 [inaccurate], and pastor first at Sidney, O., then in St. Louis, Mo. After leaving the U.P. Church he joined the Episcopal Church and was pastor for some years in Wheeling, but is said recently to have removed to Richmond, Va. He has, or had, very dark hair, keen, dark eyes, a short limb, an easy, graceful address, &c. These points of resemblance, and his being about the same age, no doubt, raised the suspicion that he was J. Wilkes Booth.

Pittsburgh, December 24, 1884. S.C.

Pittburgh [PA] Post-Gazette 25 December 1884: p. 2

On the strength of this, I went to the Shelby [Ohio] County and Sidney church histories. There I found records that Reverend J.G. Armstrong was, indeed, ordained in the Presbyterian ministry in November of 1859 and during his 4-year tenure at Sidney married Alma Hitchcock, the daughter of a rich farmer.

I had to confess myself beaten. Booth was playing theatres in Richmond, Virginia in 1859 as “J.B. Wilkes” while Dr. Armstrong was preaching to his flock in Ohio. Dr. Armstrong was not Booth unless (ooh, intriguing fortean possibility) he could bilocate or time-travel.

Still, it is suggestive that these rumors persisted over many decades and through multiple parishes. There were so many witnesses. How could all of them have been deceived by a superficial resemblance?

John Wilkes Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth was famous for his fertile infidelities. Could Armstrong have been one of his byblows? Armstrong was said to have been born in 1836 in Ireland; Booth was born 10 May 1838 in Maryland.

From the scanty details available online about Junius Booth’s travels, it appears that he may have had a very narrow window of opportunity during a trip to England, but as to whether he ever knew Dr. Armstrong’s mother or if Armstrong’s birth year is correct, the record is silent.

And it is there that we leave the Reverend Doctor. I fear that the story suffers from that plethora of details and overthinking common to many conspiracy theories.

As for Armstrong’s grave being unmarked, the Armstrong family is buried at Westview Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia. Their plot is marked by a single stone with no dates and no details: James Armstrong, Alma Armstrong, daughter Miriam Armstrong Glenn and her husband William, and their daughter Alma Glenn Ezell.

Does anyone have any early photographs of Dr. Armstrong, perhaps from Ohio or St. Louis? Or–fantasizing here–an Irish baptismal record showing his father as Junius Booth?  chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.