Thursday, March 9, 2017

An Assassin's Grave in Atlanta?

Is President Lincoln’s murderer buried in Atlanta’s Westview Cemetery? Almost certainly not but it was a story that held some credibility over a century ago. Conspiracies are not a new pastime. 

Baltimore Place is considered by many to be Atlanta’s first apartment block. Only a few of the original red-brick units survive, albeit they are almost inaccessible between the Connector and West Peachtree. It was at 11 Baltimore Place, on February 23, 1891, that James G. Armstrong D.D. died suddenly of a stroke. Dr. Armstrong, though in Atlanta for less than a decade, is arguably one of the most controversial preachers in the city’s ecclesiastical history. He had formerly been the pastor of the fashionable St. Philip’s Episcopal church, then downtown. His death reopened the wounds of a most tumultuous decade. 

Armstrong was born in Ireland in 1836, educated in Belfast, but came to America in the 1850’s. He was first ordained as a Presbyterian in Ohio but then entered the Episcopal Church. In 1878, he was rector of the famous Monumental Church in Richmond. It was there, in the old capitol of the Confederacy, that Armstrong was first dogged by the rumors that he was actually John Wilkes Booth. 

In Richmond, a man stood in the pews one Sunday and cried out, “It is he! It is Wilkes Booth!” The available photographs of each man do show a passing resemblance. The true believers also noted Armstrong’s “lame foot and a scar on his arm.” Adding to the plausibility of it all, was that Armstrong, like the assassin, was devoted to Shakespeare and could quote the Bard as easily as the Bible. Reams of newspaper articles  were written on the subject [1] however much Armstrong discouraged any such talk. But, of course, he would. 

In 1884, Armstrong came to Atlanta to be rector at the striking new home of St. Philip’s church at Washington and Hunter Streets. The new state capitol was going up across the street. St. Philip’s has been described as “a High Victorian Gothic pile of polychromatic brick and stone trim.” [2] The architect was John Moser and the church was built for the then impressive cost of $35,000. Dr. Armstrong became immediately popular with his congregation which included many leading members of Atlanta society. The pastor’s only daughter, Miriam, was a strikingly beautiful young lady and a musical prodigy, and she was a society favorite and her gentleman suitors were numerous. 

In this detail from the famous "bird's eye view" of Atlanta 1892, St. Philip's is right of the capital dome.

Armstrong’s first difficulty arose when he had the nerve to suggest that he was not opposed to dancing. Several Atlanta churchmen had condemned the plans for a charity ball in April 1884 to benefit the “local poor.” Dr. Hawthorne of the First Baptist church was typical, he denounced the “sensuality” of dancing and called it “incompatible with feminine modesty.” But Armstrong took the position that “humanity needs amusements.” If properly overseen and chaperoned, he saw nothing wrong with such a gala: “I should shrink back with horror from regarding it as, in itself, sensual or tending to sensuality...I should like to see religion entering more thoroughly into the everyday life of humanity, and this including its amusements.” Thus, Armstrong got an early reputation for “toleration” of worldly pleasures.

Having survived the dancing debate, Armstrong’s fall can be dated from 1885. Atlantans were shocked to read a report reprinted from an Ohio newspaper.[3] While in Cincinnati for a religious meeting, the Rev. Dr. Armstrong had been seen intoxicated and chatting up some prostitutes in a brothel. Reportedly, he had fallen victim to “the Seductive Wine Cup” and gone off on a boozy spree in “Porkoplis,” as the Ohio River city was sometimes called. The shock in Atlanta can be imagined and when Armstrong got off the train at the Union Depot he was met by several members of the vestry at St. Philip’s. Private meetings were held. Armstrong would forever insist that he wasn’t drunk – he’d had no more than two bottles of beer. He admitted being at the brothel – an infamous dive run by one Maggie Melville - but he went there solely on a “rescue” mission for a friend whose daughter had fallen into “the life.” Of course, he could not reveal the daughter or the friend. A majority of St. Philip’s vestry, having reviewed the charges, declared that “the facts do not demand the withdrawal of confidence in our esteemed rector.”

In 1885, the Episcopal or Anglican Bishop of Georgia was the Most Rev. John Watrous Beckwith. [4] Based in Savannah, the Bishop long had a fractious relationship with the influential vestrymen in Atlanta. The vestry at St. Philip’s had actually sued their bishop over the real estate deal for the land on which the new church was built. Thus, many suspected that score-settling was behind Beckwith's decision to overrule the local vestry. “His Eminence” suspended Dr. Armstrong pending a trial under section 7 of Canon XL of the canons of the diocese. The Constitution accurately predicted that “this will likely cause a rupture in the fashionable church.” 

The trial was held in the old chapel, adjoining the new church. Instead of urban vestrymen he knew well, Dr. Armstrong was to be tried by five church elders from places like Albany, Brunswick, Columbus, Savannah and Cave Spring. The trial lasted for several days but no reporters were permitted to attend. The “judges” found Armstrong guilty of “being intoxicated and going to houses of ill fame, wherein lewd women reside.” After a month to consider his punishment, Beckwith suspended the pastor of St. Philip’s for five years. Newspapers across the country had been following this drama. The New York Times declared, “Public sentiment is entirely with Armstrong. The opinion is freely expressed that Dr. Armstrong is the victim of men who felt that his light outshone theirs.”

“Atlanta’s High-Toned House of God” reeled. Armstrong's supporters talked of a schism and building a new church. Female parishioners offered to redecorate his home. The rector, meanwhile, appealed for a new trial. The bishop said there were could be no appeal. Armstrong demanded all the evidence be published and Beckwith used church funds to publish an over-300 page book which quickly became a best seller in Atlanta. 

The annual meeting of the Episcopal Church that summer was as stormy as any political convention but Armstrong's suspension stood. A new pastor, the Rev. Byron Holley from Darien, in Beckwith’s neck of the woods, was installed in Atlanta.

Without his church salary to support his family, Armstrong - of all things - became an insurance salesman for Equitable. “That he will make a marked success in the profession of life assurance is not for a moment questioned by those who are acquainted with the doctor and his splendid abilities.” But while attending a business dinner in Augusta in early 1887, Armstrong was again accused of being drunk. Observers reported that he stood on his chair to deliver a rambling response to a toast. In damage control mode, Armstrong again insisted that he hadn’t been over-served. He had not been prepared to speak, hence his stammering, and he explained that, in Augusta, apparently, all the speakers stand on chairs. The harassed gentleman bridled at living under such a constant threat of “unfriendly espionage.” 

But the erstwhile rector of St. Philip’s had become an embarrassment - even to many of his supporters. On March 1, 1887, the Bishop issued the coup de grace: “I have deposed the Rev. J. G. Armstrong, D.D., from the ministry of the Church of God.” 

His clerical career over, Dr. Armstrong exchanged the pulpit for the lectern. He became something of a speaker for hire, known for delivering a “rich intellectual and spiritual treat.” A favorite subject was “How to make manly men of the sturdy boys of the sunny South.” He also returned to his first love, Shakespeare. Armstrong’s one-man readings “gave the most powerful dramatic play to his genius.” The man's obvious talent for the stage resurrected the persistent belief that he was indeed John Wilkes Booth. “Many who paid no attention to the rumor identifying him as Booth after witnessing his powers became believers.” Of course, Armstrong’s problem with alcohol adds another clue to the Booth suspicions. Edwin Booth, the actor and patriarch of the family, was a notorious drunk. John Wilkes – historians believe – shared his father’s weakness for the bottle. 

On February 21 1891, while preparing for a public reading from Hamlet that night, Armstrong suffered a fatal stroke. He was just 55. His death prompted an outpouring of grief and memories. The Constitution said Armstrong’s Atlanta years were star-crossed by “misfortune, adverse circumstances and ill-health.” It was politely mentioned that he had been “unfrocked sometime in the eighties for alleged offences in regard to which there has always been a diversity of opinion.” His funeral packed St. Philip’s church once again and he was laid to rest at Laurel Hill, the highest point in Westview Cemetery. [5] Originally unmarked, there is now a family stone. [6]

In 1933, most parishioners having left downtown, St. Philip’s church was relocated to the Buckhead site where the now landmark cathedral opened in 1947. The old “High Victorian pile” was pulled down and replaced, eventually, by the building housing the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

Dr. Armstrong has long since been forgotten. If remembered at all, it’s for his resemblance to John Wilkes Booth. 11 Baltimore Place, where Armstrong died, was his daughter’s home. Miriam Armstrong Glenn was married to a prominent attorney. Renamed “the Baltimore Block,” the area is a designated historic district. For several years, #11 was home to the Atlanta Historical Preservation Society. 


Tom Hughes was a radio news host for thirty years in Atlanta on WGST and is a member of the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame. He has published two books on Atlanta history: Rich Georgian Strangely Shot – Eugene Grace, Daisy of the Leopard Spots and the Great Atlanta Shooting of 1912 (McFarland, 2012) and Hanging the Peachtree Bandit – The True and Tragic Tale of Atlanta’s Frank Dupre (The History Press, 2014).

[1] The photo shown here: The St. Louis Republic. (St. Louis, Mo.), 03 May 1903. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <>

[2] Craig, Robert Michael, The Architecture of Francis Palmer Smith, Atlanta's Scholar-architect (UGA Press, 2012) 209.
[3]  The report first appeared in the Cincinnati Evening Post on August 27, 1885.
[4]  For more about Beckwith see
[5]  Section 1, Lot 104, Grave 4 (courtesy of Lisa Day, Westview Cemetery.)
[6]  (