Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Man in the Barn (MGM, 1937)


Early conspiracy theory


Old men who claimed to be notable figures of history, in spite of the fact that history records the earlier deaths of those characters, abound. We know about Brushy Bill Roberts, who in 1934 said he was Billy the Kid, who did not in fact perish under Pat Garrett’s gun in Fort Sumner, and white-bearded J Frank Dalton, who as late as 1948 claimed to be Jesse James, who was not killed by the Ford brothers after all. Butch and Sundance lived to rob another day. And so on. Some Western movies took up these theories and ran with them. The Man in the Barn, aka The Booth Mystery, tells of a certain David E George, who, on his deathbed in 1903, said he was Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth.


Booth in 1865, shortly before his death (or not)


The 1937 picture was a short, though it crammed a lot into its meager 10-minute runtime. Scripted by, we are told, “MGM historians” (the credited writer was Morgan Cox, best known for the Republic South Seas/volcano/spy serial Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island), it tells of the demise of George and flashes back to 1865, recounting the convincing (if you are to believe the script) tale of how Booth escaped the fire in Garrett’s tobacco barn and survived to die in his bed in the twentieth century.


He survived, apparently


This idea was not new. In 1907, Finis L Bates wrote Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, suggesting that a Booth look-alike was mistakenly killed on the Garrett farm while Booth himself escaped, thenceforward calling himself John St Helen. After St Helen’s suicide (in 1903 in fact), Bates ghoulishly exhibited the mummified body in carnival sideshows. By 1913, more than 70,000 copies of Bates’s book had been sold.


Bates and his book




Later, in 1977, we’d get The Lincoln Conspiracy, by David Balsiger and Charles E Sellier Jr, which sold over a million copies. It was published by the same Salt Lake City, UT outfit that made the film we reviewed the other day, Guardian of the Wilderness. The same year it was made into a movie with a nice cast which included John Anderson as Abe, John Dehner (also in Guardian) as Colonel Lafayette Baker, Robert Middleton as Edwin Stanton and Whit Bissell as Senator John Conness.



So the 1937 Metro picture is in popular company. The short is actually very well done, with crisp editing and nice black & white photography by an uncredited cinematographer, and the quality was certainly largely due to its director, who was none other than Jacques Tourneur. He had come to the US in 1934 and won a contract with MGM. He acted as second unit director on A Tale of Two Cities in 1935 and before directing his first feature in 1939 (and moving on to some fine Westerns), he worked on shorts.


Jacques the lad


According to Mike Grost, “This is an early example of the medical mysteries that run through Tourneur. Like other such mysteries, it is filled with ambiguity. The doctor [played by Douglas Wood], like so many later doctors in Tourneur, is confronted with a seemingly unsolvable puzzle. Evidence points both ways, and coming to any conclusion is very difficult.”


The tale was narrated by writer/producer/actor Carey Wilson, and in fact the narration is key. Though we never see Wilson, he has the biggest part.


Carey narrated


In fact the actor who played Booth/George wasn’t even credited (admittedly, he had almost nothing to do but lie in bed and die).


The dying ‘Booth’


The picture is available on YouTube and is worth ten minutes of your time, I’d say. Though the ‘facts’ recounted have been satisfactorily disproved, it makes an interesting watch, even for those who are not gullible obsessives.



4 Responses

  1. Just read that a new TV mini serie (7 episodes) is coming from next March 15 adapted from James L. Swanson’s book “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer”. English actor Tobias Menzies (The Crown, Outlander, Game of Thrones) plays Edwin Stanton chasing Irish Anthony Boyle (The Plot Against America, Masters of the Air)
    playing John Wilkes Booth. The showrunner and producer is Monica Beletsky (Fargo season 3, The Leftovers).

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