Tuesday, December 10, 2019

"Oh, I Heard That One, Too"

Vanquishing those persistent family legends may become one of my goals as I work my way through my many family lines leading back to Virginia. The Booth surname, in particular, presents a family story which not only refuses to die, but has become so widespread that it may never be snuffed out.

Just thinking of the surname Booth may prompt you to recall one southern sympathizer of infamy who possessed that very name: John Wilkes Booth. Yes, the man at the center of the biggest man-hunt to date in 1865 Washington, D.C., may have been reported shot and killed, but the story still lives that the man who died at the hands of a Union sharpshooter may not have been John Wilkes Booth, after all. And in that bait and switch, in the conflagration of the moment, the real John Wilkes Booth supposedly escaped to the South and lived out his days at a horse ranch in Texas.

That horse ranch, supposedly, was none other than the property of Quinton Boothe, eldest son of William Alexander Boothe, my second great-grandfather. While it is true that Quinton Boothe moved to Texas after the Civil War, and while he did end up with a fair amount of property there, when I first heard that story as a child, I chalked it up to my maternal grandfather telling one of his fabulous, unbelievable stories. One could never be sure, with him, whether he was pulling the leg of his listeners for fun, or actually detailing a factual—though incredible—report.

Fast-forward to the age of the Internet and the birth of a new kind of family history research: online genealogy forums. I'd run into people on these forums who also were researching the Boothe/Booth line and, eventually, someone I never met would recount that very story of the incredible escape of John Wilkes Booth. We'd get into a group conversation about the tale, and the typical response would be, "Oh, I heard that one, too."

But...everyone hearing it? That's quite the persistent family legend for people so distantly related to have all heard the same thing.

The messiest part of the story, however, was one added detail: that the reason the assassin escaped to that particular location was that William Alexander Boothe's family was related to him.

Try as I might, I have not been able to find documentation demonstrating any such connection. Of course, you might already have assumed that outcome, and I wouldn't blame you—but you can't fault me for trying to demonstrate by evidence whether the vote is yay or nay about that claim. After all, the story is so persistent that I even got a phone call, a few years ago, from someone who was considering attempting legal procedures to exhume the supposed burial location for purposes of DNA testing.

That attempt has been tried before—even the nameless author of the blurb attached to John Wilkes Booth's Find A Grave memorial noted that "modern day legal efforts to exhume the remains for DNA testing and identification were eventually rejected."

Whether that question will ever be tested and put to rest is beyond the scope of my own family history—despite having actually found someone who contorted William Alexander Boothe's family tree on one online service to place him as brother of John Wilkes Booth and son of Junius Brutus Booth. What I can move towards, though, is to encourage male descendants of my William Alexander Boothe to participate in Y-DNA testing, especially joining the Booth DNA project at Family Tree DNA.

Though I don't yet know who my Alexander's father might have been, it turns out that, despite the loss of many early records in his native Nansemond County, Virginia, the very 1840 census enumeration in which I found his record puts his name only a few entries away from another man of the same surname. It is quite possible that, tracing a descendancy chart for the other Boothe families in Nansemond County, we could put together a project to test descendants of the various Boothe lines in that county to see which ones, if any, belong to the same line.

The big "if" in that case all depends on who that other Boothe man in Nansemond was—and if he had any sons...who had sons...who had sons...


  1. That is an interesting story. I know I have disproved most of my family stories. The rest are a work in progress. It is amazing how fast misinformation spreads.

    1. Misinformation can be a powerful thing, Miss Merry. I suppose it is a function of how much people want to believe the story!

  2. Very interesting post! DNA disproved the family history that a maternal great-great-grandfather was Native American. But none of my generation has any Native American DNA showing up.

    1. It's interesting that you bring up DNA in connection with Native American heritage, Sara. I have people bring up such questions in my classes often. I tell them "it depends" when they question the lack of genetic verification--and even in your case, testing the right person with the right type of test may tell a different story, as you likely already know. And it likely has something to do with how fully Native American your second great grandfather actually was. DNA is an amazing tool for genealogy, but even when the right tool is used with the right person, it can't tell everything we'd like to learn about our ancestors.


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