The Bootleg Files: The Man in the Barn

BOOTLEG FILES 665: “The Man in the Barn” (1937 short film directed by Jacques Tourneur).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No commercial home entertainment release.


On the evening of January 13, 1903, an elderly house painter in Enid, Oklahoma, named David E. George laid dying in a hotel room from an attempted suicide. Before he passed away, George told the few people gathered at his bedside, “I killed the best man that ever lived.” The man who was killed, according to George, was Abraham Lincoln – and George insisted that he was John Wilkes Booth, the president’s assassin. Before he could explain how he could be someone who had been killed 38 years earlier, George slipped into a coma before dying.

George’s story was mostly unknown to the American public until the 1907 publication of the book “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth” by Finis L. Bates. Although the overwhelming majority of historians believed that Booth was killed in an attempt to apprehend him following the Lincoln assassination, there were enough people who kept Bates’ conspiracy theory alive. Incredibly, those believers included the producers of “An Historical Mystery,” a series of short docudrama films produced by Hollywood’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio. In 1937, MGM put forth the one-reel “The Man in the Barn,” which recalled George’s deathbed confession and wondered whether there was any truth in his bold confession.

“The Man in the Barn” opens with narrator Carey Wilson, a writer/producer with a somewhat harsh voice, telling the audience, “When I went to school back in Rutherford, New Jersey, they taught me that the assassin of Abraham Lincoln – John Wilkes Booth – was killed in a barn by United States soldiers. And, no doubt, that’s true.”

But then, the film switches to George’s deathbed confession. The film offers no explanation on why George attempted to kill himself, but there is an unidentified woman at George’s bedside who recalled how the dying man was able to recite Shakespeare with professional theatricality. Then, the film travels back to the end of the Civil War, culminating with the fatal violence at Ford’s Theatre and Booth’s escape from the crime scene.

“Twelve days after the assassination, according to my history book, John Wilkes Booth was trapped in Garrett’s Barn near Bowling Green, Virginia,” Wilson narrates. The viewer watches the burning barn and the badly injured Booth shooting at the soldiers surrounding him. A shot is fired while Booth is standing behind a pillar – Wilson’s narration wonders if Booth was targeted by a soldier’s rifle or if he killed himself.

From that incident, Booth’s body is taken for identification. The film offers one physician who treated Booth and claims that the corpse is not the actor-turned-assassin, even though it carries a scar from a surgery that the doctor performed some time before. Wilson’s narration tells us other people were brought in to affirmatively identify the body.

Wilson then begins to raise questions on some curious circumstances surrounding Booth’s escape from the scene of the assassination, including how Booth was able to take the one unguarded road leading out of Washington, but gives no answers. Wilson praises Booth the actor as “the Clark Gable of his day,” although we learn nothing about his career. The film offers a quick rewind back to the search for Booth by the Army, and then goes back to George’s deathbed, where his resemblance to Booth is noted right down to the “same satanic-type ears.” But if George was Booth, Wilson wonders, then who was the man in the barn killed in 1865?

Well, we never get a satisfactory answer to the questions raised in the film. Nor do we get the remarkable story of what happened to George’s body after his death: it was initially put on display in a mummified state at a local funeral home – no one claimed George’s remains for burial and the establishment made money showing off the body to curious onlookers. Finis L. Bates later claimed the body – he said that he knew George from years earlier, when he went by the pseudonym John St. Helen – and displayed the mummified body in fairs and carnivals around the country. After Bates’ death in 1923, the body was bought and sold a few times and continued to be displayed into the 1970s. Today, its whereabouts are unknown. Of course, there is just so much that can be squeezed into a 10-minute film, and the 1977 Sunn Classics feature “The Lincoln Conspiracy” gives more time to exploring the notion of Booth’s escape.

One aspect of “The Man in the Barn” that deserves serious attention is the expert direction by Jacques Tourneur, the French-born filmmaker who worked as a director for short subjects at MGM in the 1930s. For what would have been considered as a toss-away filler on a film program, Tourneur’s work was unusually accomplished, with smart editing and an intelligent use of extras that make the low-budget effort seem extravagant. MGM did not appreciate Tourneur’s gifts, but his one-time studio colleague Val Lewton was a fan – and when Lewton set up shop at RKO, Tourneur joined him to helm the classic films “Cat People,” “I Walked with a Zombie” and “The Leopard Man.” Tourneur also directed the 1947 RKO masterpiece “Out of the Past,” which might be the greatest film noir of all time.

“The Man in the Barn,” like most of MGM’s live-action short subjects, has not been made available for home entertainment release. It has played on TCM and one viewer videotaped it – literally, with a wobbly hand-held video camera – and uploaded it to YouTube, complete with the TCM logo. Fans of conspiracy theories and movie curios may appreciate it, but anyone with a serious passion for Civil War history should give this a pass.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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