Frederick L. Black papers
Scope and Contents
The Frederick L. Black papers contain the documents Black collected during his investigation and research into claims that John Wilkes Booth had avoided capture, especially his thorough investigation of the book "The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth" by Finis Bates (1907). Black assembled these materials in the 1920s and 1930s although some are more recent and may have been added later by William Springer, who took over Black's papers.
The original order in which the collection was organized has been preserved as much as possible. The collection came to Oakland University already organized in labeled folders, most of which were probably created by Fred Black. However, there is evidence that William Springer, to whom Black transferred his papers, added some materials and made some changes. The original labels of the folders have been kept. The order in which the folders were originally grouped has only been slightly modified to make things easier to find. A few files were clearly added by Springer after receiving the collection and have been placed at the end in a clearly identified series. This includes a container inventory that documents the original arrangement of the collection at the time it was acquired by Oakland University.
The Frederick L. Black papers are organized in 8 series: Correspondence; Field notes; Subject files; Books and periodicals; Other research materials; Publications; William Springer additional files; and Graphic materials.
The correspondence series includes letters by or to Black about his investigation and readers’ reactions to his Dearborn Independent articles, but it also contains copies of selected Bates’ correspondence.
The field notes series contains Black’s notes, usually on pencil, which he made in notebooks and on loose leafs. These notes were made during his travels and include addresses, names, book titles, ideas, to do lists….
The subject files correspond to topics identified by Black in the course of his research. Some are about Finis Bates and the “Mummy of Booth”, which consist of correspondence between Black and Mr. and Mrs. Bates, and other documents Black gathered about the mummy story, including copies of Bates’ own archive. Other topics correspond to the titles of the chapters in Black’s book manuscript. These folders contain both secondary and primary sources (mostly copies, although some originals are also present). There are numerous newspaper clippings, and magazine articles. Originals include additional correspondence by Black, pre-Civil War playbills, and a photo of Booth.
The books and periodicals series correspond to the files Black assembled from his research at the Library of Congress and other libraries. These files were left exactly as Black prepared them. They are organized by format (magazines, newspapers, and books) and by magazine title. However, William Springer added some items and folders (those folders originally labeled in Springer's handwriting are marked with an asterisk).
Other research materials are compiled in a fifth series that includes original affidavits and copies obtained by Black. Original affidavits are from Blanche Booth (1922), W. D. Kenzie (1922), and O. H. Oldroyd (1925). Photostatic copies of affidavits and other signed statements deal with two presumed Boothes, John St Helen and David E. George. Black organized them in a binder with a table of contents that describes the identity of each witness and the kind of information they could contribute. A copy of David George’s will is even included. Black compared these statements to Bates’ assertions to point out discrepancies. There are also typescripts of statements from witnesses of the events of 1865, copied from newspapers and other sources. Finally, some folders hold the contents of two scrapbooks entitled “Lincoln scrapbook - typed” and “Bates scrapbook”.
The publications series consists of originals and copies of the Dearborn Independent articles written by Black (1925-1926) and the typed manuscript of his book with penciled corrections.
William Springer's additional files contain some documents added by him in the 1950s after Black donated his papers to him. This includes the text of a speech Black gave that details his research, and a container list that documents the original order in which the papers were given to Springer.
Graphic materials include images documenting Lincoln’s assassination and the ensuing capture and trial of the conspirators, which were originally in a scrapbook, and a set of photographs taken by Black on the sites of Booth’s escape route and of Black’s own investigation into the fake Boothes.
- 1865 - 1959
Access and Use note
The Frederick L. Black papers are open for research.
Copyright held by Oakland University. The collection includes occasional materials produced by outside parties. Copyright to these items may be held by the original creators.
Frederick Lee Black (1891-1970) became the business manager of the Dearborn Independent, a magazine newly owned by Henry Ford, in January 1919. A few months later, Ford came across Finis Bates’ 1907 book "The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, Assassin of President Lincoln", in which Bates made the extraordinary claim that Booth had escaped and become a saloon keeper in Texas under the name of John St Helen. Ford asked Black to look into the story - the beginning of a multi-year investigation testing Ford’s assertion that “History is bunk”.
Black located Bates, who was then living in Memphis, Tennessee, and brought him to Dearborn, seat of Ford Motor Company. Bates claimed he had the embalmed body of John Wilkes Booth and a treasure trove of “evidence” to prove the identity of the dead man. The body was that of a man known as David George who had committed suicide at Enid, Oklahoma in 1903, but whom Bates recognized as John St Helen - alias Booth.
Black conducted a thorough and meticulous investigation in 1920 and 1921. He gathered a large amount of primary and secondary sources. He started in Washington, DC, retraced the steps taken by Booth in his flight away from the capital, and went to the scene of his capture and killing. He spent a long time at the Library of Congress, where he says he found the trace of many John Wilkes Boothes. He also traveled to Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Tennessee, following leads about John St Helen and David George. In the process, he interrogated numerous eye-witnesses and unearthed a lot of information. But he soon determined that the so-called “proofs” Bates claimed to have were mostly letters from people who had read Bates’ book – rumors, assumptions, and lies from people hoping to capitalize on the story. In his book, Bates had altered or misquoted the sworn statements he did possess. The statements Black himself gathered from eye-witnesses did not match the claims in the book. Bates also relied on newspaper articles… which Black discovered were all interviews of Bates himself. Convinced that the mummy was not that of Booth, Black laid the matter to rest.
In late 1924, however, Harper’s and Collier’s published articles on the question, rekindling Black’s interest. He used the archive he had amassed to publish a series of articles in the Dearborn Independent in 1925 and 1926. This led him to acquire even more documentation, as readers sent him tips, articles — and also more rumors and conspiracy theories. Black continued to research the topic of the fake Booths and drafted a 22-chapter book manuscript.
Finis Bates died in 1926. His widow attempted to sell the mummy, which had stayed in their garage from 1920 to 1926 except for times it went on display at street shows in the southwest. Black states that she sold David George to a Chicago lady, who had the body dissected.
When the Deaborn Independent was discontinued in 1927, Black became the head of Ford’s Advertising Department. Later, Black led the Ford exhibit at the Chicago World Fair of 1933 and at the onset of World War II, headed Ford’s Public Relations. In 1943, he took up a position as head of American Motors Advertising and stayed there until his retirement in 1955.
In 1955, shortly before his retirement, Black donated his “Lincoln Assassination Papers” to his friend and fellow Lincoln historian, William Springer. His book manuscript was never published, despite intense publisher interest.
Note: An account of this story is given by Black and Springer in “Henry Ford and the Corpse of J. Wilkes Booth,” Lincolnnook Memories #17, New Center News, May 25, 1959, p. 7-8) and in the manuscript of a speech given by Fred Black on April 14, 1953 at a meeting of the Abraham Lincoln Civil War Roundtable of Michigan (Black Papers, box 10).
5.4 Linear Feet (10 Hollinger boxes & 2 flat boxes.)
Language of Materials
A collection of materials regarding the death of John Wilkes Booth and rumors about his escape and survival. Fred L. Black was a lawyer and assistant to Henry Ford, who at Ford's request spent the years 1920-1921 researching the conspiracy to kill President Lincoln and the death of John Wilkes Booth, as well as assertions by Finis Bates that Booth had escaped and lived in hiding. The collection includes documents and images Black gathered over the two years of his investigation, manuscripts of articles he published in the Dearborn Independent (the magazine he was editor of), correspondence, and an unpublished book-length manuscript about his findings.
The Frederick L. Black papers were acquired by William Springer, a collector of Lincolniana and friend of Mr. Black. Springer sold his entire collection, including the Black papers, to Oakland University in 1969.
Some books from Black's personal library were acquired by William Springer and can be found in the William Springer Civil War collection. These are: Fred L. Black, "Lincoln assassination scrap book, 1865 : original photostats from National Archives" - Springer E457.5 .L7 Poore, Benjamin Perley, ed., "The conspiracy trial for the murder of the president, and the attempt to overthrow the government by the assassination of its principal officers" (Boston: J.E. Tilton and Company, 1865-1866) - Springer E 457.5 .H44; Jones, Thomas A., "J. Wilkes Booth; an account of his sojourn in southern Maryland after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, his passage across the Potomac, and his death in Virginia" (Chicago: Laird & Lee, 1893) - Springer E 457.5 .J79
- “Henry Ford and the Corpse of J. Wilkes Booth,” Lincolnnook Memories #17, New Center News, May 25, 1959, p. 7-8.
- Ford R. Bryan, Henry's Lieutenants (Detroit, Mich. : Wayne State University Press, 1993), p. 37-43.
Issues of the Dearnborn Independent have been separated from this collection and cataloged. Photographs and scrapbooks were separated.
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Part of the Oakland University Archives and Special Collections Repository
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