- Historic Sites
The Booth Obsession
The author joins the thousands who feel compelled to trace the flight of Lincoln’s assassin
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
The first non-children’s book I ever read was Philip Van Doren Stern’s novel The Man Who Killed Lincoln. How it fell into my hands I cannot say. I retain a clear memory of going to my mother to inquire about what appeared on page 16: “A big buck Negro, whose black skin glistened with sweat, held in his arms a young mulatto girl who was hysterical with desire.” Very baffling. What could it mean?
My mother studied the passage. There was a long silence. My mother wore rimless spectacles. It would be unthinkable for her to depart our New York City apartment in anything but a dress or skirt and high heels. She finally presented a reply to my request for an explanation: “ I…don’t…know .”
Apparently this is a familiar type of rite for many children. The editor of this magazine tells me that once he went to an uncle to ask the meaning of a word in a grownup’s book he happened across. The word was rapist . The uncle, as with my mother, studied the matter for a time and then offered the explanation that this term defines: “a guy who bothers women.”
All who knew him wondered why he did it, and some still said decades later that it was impossible to believe.
I finished the book. Some years later my family drove south. I prevailed upon my parents to go down Route 301 in Virginia so that I could see the spot where the man who killed Lincoln died. We pulled off the road at the historical marker, and I rooted about for remnants of the barn set on fire in April of 1865 by the Yankee cavalry or of the house where, shot through the neck, the assassin breathed his last. I found nothing. When we got home, I wrote Philip Van Doren Stern. He replied with a letter dated June 20, 1949, addressing me as “Dear Mr. Smith,” a usage to which I was not much accustomed. I still have the book, and the letter. In the early 1970s, when I was inducted into the Society of American Historians, the first of my fellow members I sought out was Philip Van Doren Stern. I reminded him of our correspondence of a quarter-century earlier. He said he thought he remembered. A kid wrote asking about the exact location of where Lincoln’s assassin died—wasn’t that it?
Yes. That was it. And now, at an age that only with great imprecision can be described as that of a kid, I have returned to the matter that captured me so very long ago. My book on Junius Brutus Booth, the actor father, and Edwin and John, the actor sons, is to be published by Simon & Schuster this month. Today one son, Edwin, stands in bronze in New York City’s Gramercy Park facing the Players Club, which he founded and for which he furnished a building remodeled at his expense by Stanford White and filled with great portraits, busts, playbills, Shakespeare folios, books he contributed. Even now on Founder’s Night he is toasted as the greatest actor and finest gentleman the American theater ever knew.
John? And it is John, or was in life—never John Wilkes Booth, for the name was not used; he was billed in his early stage days as Mr. J. B. Wilkes (he did not want to capitalize on the fame of his father and brother) and later, when he was one of the highest-paid players in the country, as Mr. J. Wilkes Booth. Up to the moment when he put a bullet almost half an inch across into Abraham Lincoln’s brain he was a notably cheerful, generous, modest, good-hearted, and fun-loving man with many friends, very fond of children, close to his mother and sisters, and engaged to the muchsought-after daughter of a former United States senator and ministerdesignate to Spain. He was brilliantly good-looking, “one of the best exponents of vital beauty I ever met,” said the journalist George Alfred Townsend; “very handsome, lovely,” said the famous leading lady Mrs. Anne Hartley Gilbert; “a very handsome man, perhaps the handsomest I ever saw,” said the actress Jennie Goulay, who on April 14, 1865, would look up from the stage of Ford’s Theatre, Washington, and, seeing him in the balcony, note how pale he seemed. As an actor he was “a veritable sensation,” said the New York Herald ; he could be “ the actor of the century,” said the Boston Daily Advertiser . “The hackneyed word talent cannot be used in speaking of this young actor of such wonderful promise,” said the Louisville Democrat . “It is genius.”
Then the shot and his place in history: Booth the madman-fanatic, the deluded crank, traitor, fool, who actorlike thrust himself on a theater stage, and a larger stage, to deprive the United States of the one man who might have brought a true peace and true reunion between Union and Confederacy. All who knew Booth wondered why he did it, and some still said decades later that it remained as impossible to realize then as it would have been to dream before that he would do such a thing, back in the days when he was Johnny Booth, the well-liked and well-regarded actor.
History’s verdict is in. Archvillain. Fiend. Still, something lingers in the air yet. I am not and was not the only person, back then, forty-three years ago, gripped by his act and his flight from the stage of Ford’s Theatre to a burning barn three miles south of Port Royal, Virginia, and to lingering death on the porch of a remote farmhouse standing in great forests. Tell his mother he died for his country, he asked the Yankee horsemen. Then a request that his paralyzed hands be lifted so that he could see them and a gasped-out “Useless, useless,” and he was gone. Generations of newspaper reporters writing of their tours in his footsteps for the Sunday papers, researchers, investigators, and historians have followed his route from Washington. The globe-trotting writer Richard Halliburton—I had his books in the 1940s; lots of kids did—went along the escape trail by horseback and so liked Port Royal that he bought and lived in the town’s nicest house. It overlooks the little Rappahannock River, where a hand-poled ferry took Lincoln’s slayer over, on his way to the barn and the farmhouse.
A minor industry has grown up to deal with Booth’s flight: tour buses that trace him are jammed, and seat reservations have to be made months in advance. The shot, the figure leaping from the President’s box to the bright-lit stage, the bloodied, gleaming, raised dagger, the cry “Sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants), the dash past stunned fellow actors in the wings to his waiting horse outside, Mary Lincoln’s screams, clattering hooves and a dark figure rushing through the night to remain hidden from the world for twelve days, the theatrical death wound delivered in the light of the burning barn—all that is now 127 years gone, but it catches at us yet. Much has changed along the way, but much remains the same. If we go on the roads he traveled, through the fields he saw, past and into the houses he knew, we can feel John Booth yet.
We begin at Go-Lo’s Restaurant, Chinese Cuisine, on Washington’s H Street. Based on The New York Times zero-to-four-stars rating system, I give it a one. General Tso’s Spicy Chicken was a little bland to my taste. Once it was a boardinghouse run by the widowed Mrs. Mary Surratt. For months in late 1864 and early 1865 Booth met there with a little band, planning to abduct Lincoln and take him south as ransom for every Confederate soldier in a Union prison camp. Their numbers would stiffen the failing Rebel ranks and bring Lee victory. The plan was not an impossible one. Lincoln often went riding alone. Once they were close to getting him. What they thought was his carriage came along a deserted road. They surrounded it. They had chloroform to render the President unconscious and had secreted provisions for him, fine foods. But he changed his plans that day, and they rode away to return in foul mood to the Surratt boardinghouse.
Three of his men were hanged after their leader died. So was Mary Surratt. The building in which they were tried still stands; now it offers housing to junior officers at Washington’s Fort Lesley McNair. By the building are tennis courts. Where young men and their wives now call “fifteen-love” a scaffold once stood, with four coffins near. Mrs. Surratt and the three others climbed the traditional thirteen steps. When a hood was placed over her mother’s head and the rope put on, the boardinghouse keeper’s twenty-two-year-old daughter, watching from an upstairs window, fell unconscious to the floor. Revived, she was taken back to what is now Go-Lo’s to find a crowd of hundreds of sightseers waiting. Screaming, she went up the outside stairway. Now the stairs are gone, but when viewed from its right side, the house is instantly recognizable from old photos. A plaque put up by a Chinese-American society tells whose house this once was, and inside you can find a one-page summary of its place in history, placed there by the Surratt Society of Clinton, Maryland, of which more later. Mrs. Surratt’s ghost is said to haunt the Fort Lesley McNair building. She moves through in the black dress she wore when she went up the thirteen steps, and a heavy dark veil masking her features. A few years ago a young officer whose bathroom is where Mrs. Surratt’s seat was for the trial had an exorcism performed to rid his quarters of her presence. Mrs. Surratt lies today in a Washington cemetery. Her daughter has been by her side since the turn of the century.
Mary Surratt’s twenty-two-year-old daughter, watching the execution from an upstairs window, fell unconscious.
Half a dozen blocks from Go-Lo’s is Ford’s Theatre. If Lincoln, and Booth, were to enter it today, nothing would seem different to them from when last they were there. With great precision everything has been made to be as it was on the night of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, when the President went to see Our American Cousin . The chairs are exact replicas, the lights, the box. The sofa is the one that was there that night, and the picture of George Washington. The National Park Service maintains the theater, in which plays are regularly presented. In the spring, when tourists flood Washington, up to eight thousand people visit daily. Downstairs in the basement is a museum. The clothing Lincoln wore on his last night is there, and the derringer that killed him, manacles the conspirators wore in prison, a knife Booth used to slash at an army officer-theater party guest of the Lincolns, and a boot cut from Booth’s leg during his flight so that a doctor could splint it, for when his spur caught in a flag draped across the box railing, he fell unevenly to the stage and broke a bone above the ankle.
Across the street the National Park Service maintains the house where Lincoln died at seven twenty-two the next morning in a little back room occupied a few months earlier by an actor Booth often visited, on the bed where Booth once fell asleep smoking his host’s pipe. His boots were muddy, the actor remembered, and the skirts of his coat. He had been out looking at the roads south along which he hoped to carry the kidnapped Lincoln, and along which he would flee once he had slain him.
One sees the pillow stained with blood, faded now so many years later, the tiny room, the front parlor where the distraught Mary Lincoln sat through the long night and into the rainy morning, waiting for her husband to die. There was never a chance that he would live. (“His wound is mortal; it is impossible for him to recover,” said the first doctor who reached him in the box, an army surgeon who had been watching Our American Cousin .) When at last he was gone—“Now he belongs to the ages,” Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said, looking down at the body—Mary Lincoln was taken back to the White House, pausing before she got into the carriage to look across Tenth Street at Ford’s Theatre. “Oh, that dreadful house! Oh, that dreadful house!” she gasped. All her life she had loved the theater and when single had told a girl friend that all she required in a husband was a willingness to let her go as often as she wished. After that night she never again stepped into one. For her remaining seventeen years she wore mourning attire. Her clouded mind, always unstable, gave way, and her eldest son had her committed.
Horror attended all who had been in the box that night. The presidential couple’s guests, Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancee, Clara Harris, daughter of a United States senator from New York, got married. But Rathbone seemed unhinged by his failure to save the President—a charge no one but he himself leveled against him. On Christmas Day of 1883 he hideously duplicated what had happened back in Ford’s Theatre. He shot his wife to death, as Booth had shot Lincoln, and turned a knife on himself, as Booth had knifed him eighteen years before. He survived six self-inflicted slashes and lived out his life in a madhouse, dying long years later in 1911. He was buried next to the wife he had murdered. Their son, thirteen when his mother died, grew up to be a United States congressman who proposed that the government set up a museum in the theater that had seen the Lincoln tragedy leading to that of his parents.
While the theater and the house are timelessly of the Victorian era, with figured wallpaper, long drapes, heavy furniture, wainscoting, and gaslight fixtures, the street that separates them is quintessentially of America in the 1990s. It has become the T-shirt center of Washington—if not of the country. Stand after stand is jammed with collarless attire honoring God only knows what rock groups and football teams and offering horrible slogans. Q saw none of Booth-Lincoln involvement.) Even the wild shopper Mary Lincoln, capable in her madness of buying three hundred pairs of gloves at a time and dozens of sets of curtains for a nonexistent house, would find satiety here were she seized by a desire for what these purveyors offer. The National Park Service has tried to get rid of the entrepreneurs, but they have peddler’s licenses and are legally able to follow their trade.
Behind the theater, safe from the T-shirt kings, the alley where the assassin began his flight is only marginally changed from the moment he leaped upon a horse held by an unsuspecting Ford’s Theatre employee and raced into the night. Some of the old buildings are gone, but the air of a long-ago time remains, the quietness of the last century lingering on in a silent place in the middle of downtown Washington. In his day people lived in the alley, and hours before he fired his fatal shot, he was taken note of by a woman resident. “I stood at my gate and looked right wishful at him,” she said. He got his horse up the alley’s little hill as Mrs. Lincoln’s screams sounded in the theater behind him and headed toward the unfinished United States Capitol and to the bridge by the Washington Navy Yard to Uniontown across the Potomac—Anacostia now. The streets he traversed, unpaved then, are lost now somewhere under the roaring traffic and No Parking signs, but the yard and new bridge are in the same place they were then, in the spring of 1865.
The war was effectively over, Lee having surrendered five days earlier, and so the bridge guards did not prevent him from heading south. He went up Good Hope Hill—the Bonus Army, fleeing Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur’s troops in 1932, took the same route—and it must have been a hard pull for his little mare, for the grade is steep and very long. At what is now Branch Avenue he turned right and crossed out of the District and into Maryland, meeting up at Soper’s Hill, now buried under cement and houses, with his coconspirator David Herold. A sometime druggist’s clerk, Herold had been stationed that night outside the home of Secretary of State William H. Seward to guide the brutish Lewis Powell to the rendezvous, for getting the escape route straight had proved beyond Powell’s ability to master. But when a servant ran out of the Seward house screaming for protection against a murderous assailant smashing a revolver down on one Seward son’s head before knifing the Secretary, a soldier-nurse in attendance because of a carriage accident Seward was in a few days earlier, another son, and a State Department messenger, Herold clapped his spurs into his horse and ran for it. Powell came out of the Seward house, wandered about, and made his way to what is now Go-Lo’s, to be arrested there with Mrs. Surratt. She had rented a carriage earlier in the day with ten dollars of Booth’s money and driven to her rented-out tavern in Surrattsville, now Clinton, Maryland, thirteen miles out of Washington. She said she had gone to see a man about some money owed her late husband. The debt was more than a decade old. She delivered a package to the tenant of her tavern. He testified that she used the term shooting irons—guns. She swung for that. So did Seward’s assailant, Lewis Powell, tried under his alias Lewis Payne, or Paine, and also Davy Herold, and George Atzerodt, a Booth hanger-on assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson but who lost his nerve, dallied about, and fell into government hands.
Booth and Herold made their way to the Surratt tavern. In their day the area they passed through was remote and thinly settled farmland and fields and woods. Today it is all undistinguished suburbia, with fast-food places and malls and gas stations along Branch Avenue. They arrived at their destination. It looks now precisely as it did then, at least from the outside. Inside, it is a museum with the rooms done up as they would have appeared 127 years ago. Changing exhibits show Victorian mourning costume, children’s clothing of the period, and glasswork. Docents in nineteenth century dress take visitors through. In an adjoining modern building are exhibits pertaining to, and a library collection about, the assassination. The Surratt Society, sponsors of what are called Escape Route Tours, publishes a sprightly little monthly bulletin to which assassination buffs and scholars contribute research papers. Some of the things they dig up are remarkable, indicative of the most detailed work. But did Mrs. Surratt know Booth was going to kill Lincoln? Was she unjustly hanged? No amount of research has determined that.
Yet here he sat his horse, outside, by the historical marker, while Davy Herold got out the proprietor of this crossroads watering spot, who paid Mrs. Surratt five-hundred-dollars-a-year rent, and took from him things secreted earlier, at least some of which were in fact delivered by the tavern’s owner. The docents show where two carbines were. Booth could not shoulder his, for the broken leg made it difficult enough for him to carry on without bearing a heavy weapon. It was left behind to be found by Federal detectives. Herold took the other and also a bottle to be handed up to the mounted assassin. Whatever numbing effect the liquor offered would have to sustain him for a sixteen-mile ride to the residence of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. For he was in agony from his leg.
He knew Mudd. He had spent a night at the doctor’s home a few months earlier while scouting out the proposed abduction route and had met with him in a Washington hotel for several hours’ drink and talk.
The fugitives arrived at Mudd’s at around four in the morning. The house looks today just as it did then, for like the Surratt tavern, it is a museum made up just as it was in 1865. There is, however, a fundamental difference between the two places. For while the Surratt Society people determinedly refuse to speculate on the guilt or innocence of the woman for whom their organization is named, Dr. Mudd’s home is in the hands of his descendants, who ferociously aver that he was an entirely blameless physician railroaded to prison by a South-hating, vengeful government. Louise Mudd Arehart, seventy-five, one of the doctor’s thirty-three grandchildren, is the doyenne of the place. Grandfather cut a boot off the swollen leg of a man who came to him in pain, and splinted the leg, and got the patient upstairs for several hours of rest. Grandmother went up and offered him food, which he declined. He asked for a razor and shaving soap—in the room he occupied can be seen items of this type from the 1860s—and took off his mustache. Grandfather equipped him with crutches. Then he and his companion departed. That’s all. And Grandfather and Grandmother never recognized the man who less than half a year earlier spent a night with them? No. Went to church with the doctor at that time—the church is still there today—spent time with the doctor in Washington, and wasn’t recognized? No. And they didn’t know he’d killed Lincoln? No.
It is a version of events few other than the Mudds believe. But Louise Mudd Arehart is a formidable woman. Once the noted Booth expert Michael W. Kauffman, who has spent fifteen years studying the assassination and who conducts a popular tour of Booth’s escape route, was asked by a man who evidently knew something of the matter if he had anything to say about Mrs. Arehart’s views. This was in her presence. She gazed at Kauffman. “Not on this property, I don’t,” Kauffman said. Another guide, the authority James O. Hall, who has been studying the assassination for almost fifty years, stays in the bus while the people he conducts go into the Mudd house to hear of the doctor’s complete innocence and unjust jail sentence. (He was pardoned at the end of President Andrew Johnson’s term, after fighting a murderous epidemic at the Florida island prison to which he had been sent. The expression “His name is mud” was popularized after him. Some people think the sardonic theatrical goodluck wish “Break a leg” derives from Booth’s last stage appearance, but it’s unprovable.)
The fugitives left the Mudds and entered the vast fifteen-mile-long Zekiah Swamp, an uninhabited damp wasteland of bogs, stagnant ponds, decaying vegetation, and dense growths of dogwood, gum, and beech. It remains today exactly as it was then, the last frontier of Maryland. Michael Kauffman once asked a local personage to guide him through the swamp. The man said he would be happy to do so when winter came, but never in warm weather. Kauffman went in by himself, traveled a short distance, came face-to-face with a copperhead, and reconsidered the project. Herold and Booth both had better luck, finding a man who for ten dollars took them through the morass to the residence of Samuel Cox, a well-known Confederate sympathizer and local grandee.
Less than five miles from the Potomac, Cox’s house still stands, although it is nowhere near as grand as once it was, a victim, perhaps, of the bad days that fell upon all of the South after the Civil War, partially because of Lincoln’s absence from his post. The inevitable historical marker tells briefly of what occurred here around midnight of April 15, 1865, some twenty-six hours after the fatal shot was fired in Washington. Booth identified himself as the man who killed Lincoln. Cox was flabbergasted. He told the fugitives to hide in a ditch while he figured out what to do. When morning came, Cox directed them to thick woods a short distance away and talked with his foster brother, Thomas Jones, a fisherman-farmer who lived nearby. Jones had to get those men across the Potomac and out of both their lives, Cox said.
Jones had spent the war helping Confederate spies and smugglers across the river. Now these men were in his charge. It never occurred to him to turn them over for the reward money, increasing in amount almost hourly as cities and organizations added to the government offers. For six days and five nights he tended to their needs as they lay in a little clearing among sighing pines. Almost thirty years later he described their location in a little book, saying it had been right behind a house which a Mr. Collis had but latterly erected. Today the house stands with an imaginative sign in front, apparently placed there by a recent owner, which describes it as built “circa 1800.” Rather a liberal “circa.” But we all make mistakes, as Jones found out when he went to promote his book at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Word spread that the man who hid Booth was going to deliver a talk, and gangs of graying Yankee veterans gathered with unpleasant designs in mind. Jones was spirited away. That concluded his publicity tour for the book, which is quite rare in its original form. The Surratt Tavern gift shop offers a facsimile edition.
Hiding in their woods, now near a historical marker, the fugitives ate the food Jones bore them and read the newspapers the assassin insistently demanded to see. Uniformly they gave his last stage performance damning reviews; to his horror he read that the world, including the South, regarded him as a demented murderer. Jefferson Davis denounced his act; Robert E. Lee refused even to hear the details. Alone with Herold, afraid to light a fire for fear of attracting attention, huddied under a blanket to shield himself from the cold and steady mists, his broken leg putrefying, feverish, Booth lay waiting for Jones to find an opportunity to get him across the Potomac into Virginia. In the little crossroads hamlet of Allen’s Fresh, a few miles away, Jones met up with a Washington detective who thought he saw something suggestive in Jones’s face. One hundred thousand dollars was waiting for the man who turned Booth in, the detective said pointedly. That was a lot of money, Jones replied. The detective had been a friend of Booth and an hour or so before he killed Lincoln, seeing him in front of Ford’s Theatre, had asked him to go out for a drink.
Zekiah Swamp remains today exactly what it was in 1865, the last frontier of Maryland.
All this area was until recently quite remote from Washington. Three or four years ago not one District person in ten could tell you where Charles County was. Now developers , describe it as within Greater Washington when they try to sell building lots. Yet it is much as it was in the last century, gently rolling slopes and slight rises and few habitations, with tiny settlements built at five-mile intervals during the stagecoach era for watering the horses and affording the driver and passengers a place to get a bite and a drink. It is quite bleak. In April of 1865 the Yankee cavalry ranged about, and, once, the fugitives heard the clanking sabers and neighing horses of a passing patrol. If they could hear the soldiers’ horses, they reasoned, the soldiers might hear theirs, should they neigh back. Herold swam them into a stream, put a bullet through each of their heads, and watched them sink, never to be seen again. A good thing, Samuel Cox told his son. If vultures circled the horses’ bodies, and Yankees found them, and realized they were Booth and Herold’s, and found their prey, he would swing, and Jones with him. (A local legend has it the horses were never shot but lived out their lives pulling plows and carriages. I don’t think so. In a horse-knowledgeable world and area they would have attracted too much notice, like a new Lincoln—to pick a car—bought by your neighbor down the block. And they were Lincoln Town Car-class horses, or at least Booth’s was. On the afternoon of the assassination he showed a friend his mare’s paces and remarked that she could run like a cat.)
At length Jones decided the moment had come to chance the Potomac. A rumor had spread that the fugitives had been spotted in St. Marys County to the south, and the Yankees headed that way. Jones and Herold got Booth up on a horse and made for the Potomac some three miles distant. Between it and them lay three houses, the one nearest the river being Jones’s. They would have to risk that no one in the other two saw them, that no dog barked. They went slowly down the road, Jones advancing and whistling back when the way seemed clear. They got safely past the two homes. One is long gone; the other burned down just a few years ago. It had become a dump by then. They got to Jones’s house, and Booth begged to be allowed in for a cup of hot coffee. But that was impossible, Jones said. Ex-slaves who worked around his place might realize who the stranger was, and then they all were lost. Jones brought out food, and the fugitives ate it in the dark, Booth on the horse.
The house still stands, but it is vastly changed. A mile away is the Potomac, reachable, Jones wrote, over a path through rough ravines and steep hills. Now the paved road leads to a Catholic retreat with a parking lot and benches. John F. Kennedy used to visit before he was President, a priest told Michael Kauffman. They went past where the retreat stands on the great bluff overlooking the river and to a meadow leading to the water. In front of them was the Potomac, vast, shimmering, lonely, two miles across. Looking at this great expanse, one can sense what must have been their fear and quail with them. Jones put an oilcloth over all their heads like a tent and by a candle’s light showed them on a compass the route they must follow. Wax dripped down as he spoke. You can see the drops on the compass in the basement at Ford’s Theatre.
In the dark they got Booth into Jones’s rowboat, Herold taking the oars. “God bless you, my dear friend, for all you have done for me,” Booth said. “Good-bye, old fellow.” They went out on the great dark river and all night blundered about, seeking the Virginia shore. At daylight they had not reached it. They put in at a creek on the Maryland side, fearful that a Federal gunboat might spot them on the open water. In what has come to be called his diary, but what was actually a little daybook, the assassin wrote of his horror at what the newspapers said of him, of how he was being denounced for doing what made Brutus a hero and William Tell a great patriot. The daybook is in Ford’s.
When night came, they went out and made the Virginia shore. They got a man to take them on his wagon to the home of Dr. Richard H. Stuart, the richest occupant of King George County. His house looks just as it did then, although now it is surrounded by newly built high-priced residences, each sitting on an expensive plot of ground. A relative of Robert E. Lee, his wife a bridesmaid at the Confederate leader’s wedding decades earlier, Stuart wanted no part of the two callers. He declined to attend to the swollen and blackened leg. When asked for food, he directed them to the kitchen, where they ate in the fashion of tramps given a handout, and then had their driver take them to a black man’s cabin nearby. There they spent the night. In the morning they gave the black man’s son $20 to drive them to Port Conway on the Rappahannock, a couple of hours away. A note was also handed over for delivery to the ice-hearted Dr. Stuart. Signing himself “Stranger,” Booth wrote that he himself would not have turned a dog away from his door if presented with the situation Stuart had faced. But the doctor having given them food, he felt obligated to offer payment. He enclosed $2.50.
At Port Conway they learned that the little ferry that plied between the town and Port Royal, a few hundred yards away, could not come until the tide rose. Today nothing at all is left of Port Conway, the birthplace in 1751 of President James Madison, and the ferry has been replaced by a bridge named for the town’s most famous son, its construction totally obliterating all that was there in 1865. As they waited for the tide, three young Confederate soldiers, local boys, rode up. Herold chatted with them briefly and then identified himself and his lame companion: “We are the assassinators of the President.” Booth’s composure was impressive, the three remembered. He showed no braggadocio, no fear or nervousness. They agreed to help him. One asked for his autograph.
Together the five crossed the little river, Booth on one of the soldiers’ horses. They landed at Port Royal’s little ferry slip at the base of a hill leading up into town. People launch pleasure boats lifted from trailers there now. It is seventyeight miles to Washington. The town looks much as it did, very Victorian Age save for a few modern businesses. But it looks frayed. It does not appear prosperous. At the suggestion of one of the soldiers, the travelers were conveyed to the still-impressive house of a Port Royal lawyer, whose sisters were asked if these two gentlemen, ex-soldiers, the ladies were told, might stay for a while. At first the sisters consented. Booth and Herold came in and sat down. Then the ladies reconsidered. Their brother was away, and it would not be proper to have gentlemen guests. Many years later the house’s rather elaborate front parlor was dismantled and made an exhibition in a Kansas City museum. The museum people had no inkling that the walls put on display once heard two sisters suggest that John Wilkes Booth move on, that three miles south was the farm of Richard Garrett, who might take them in.
So they went on, the three soldiers and the two fugitives making do with three horses. In their time the route they followed was a sandy, twisting, thin Virginia country road, and it remained that way all through Reconstruction and after, and well into the twentieth century. When I was there in 1949, it was a two-lane highway with traffic going north and south. As with all similar roads of that era—and most roads were similar to it—you had to be careful when you pulled out to pass someone. Now Route 301 is a high-speed major road divided by a thickly wooded median strip with cars whizzing by at seventy miles per hour. It has been that way since the mid-1960s. All around is government land forming Fort A. P. Hill, named for Lee’s corps commander, killed when Grant broke the lines at Petersburg in the last days of the war.
They rode along. The dismal weather of the long stay in the thicket back near Thomas Jones’s had given way to sun and warmth. They came to the Garrett place. One of their three soldier companions knew the family. He introduced the travelers as ex-soldiers, one wounded in the leg. Booth was made welcome, given refreshments, the opportunity to play with the household children, to whom he told funny stories and showed his wax-splattered compass—he laughed at their puzzled faces when he made the needle move by holding a knife point over it—and a lazy few hours lying under an apple tree in the yard. They noticed how he seemed to like the springtime blossoms drifting down on him. At dinner the subject of the assassination came up. Father Garrett said he didn’t believe the story, but a son just back from Appomattox knew all about it from a Richmond paper. One hundred thousand dollars reward! “That man had better not come this way, for I would like to make $100,000 just now.”
“Would you do such a thing? Betray him?”
He slept, one of the little boys of the family taking note of the two long-barrel revolvers hanging from the bedstead and the whiteness of the visitor’s skin. Behind him the Yankee cavalry was on the way.
Through the night the 16th New York had ranged about the countryside, knocking on doors and asking people if they’d seen these two men. The pictures were looked at. No. Then the cavalrymen came to Port Conway and to a couple who fished and farmed there, Mr. and Mrs. William Rollins. Crossing the James Madison Bridge, one can look out the car window and visualize what happened at the little ferry pier that was just below and down the river. The bluecoats rode up. Had the Rollinses seen these faces? Yes. They had crossed with three local boys the other day. Where could these local boys be found? Well, one of them was sweet on the daughter of the family that owned the Star Hotel in Bowling Green, fifteen miles south. Likely he was there. The ferry was put in service to get the horses and troopers across, and also William Rollins. His family is still in these parts, a descendant with his name running a gas station-cum-convenience store.
The cavalry pounded south for Bowling Green. When they came to and passed the Garrett farm, the family was alarmed by their guests’ reaction. For they seized their weapons, Herold his carbine and Booth his revolvers, and hurried off to hide in the woods, Booth going as fast as his leg would permit him. When the horsemen had gone on and the travelers returned to the house, they were asked for an explanation. Mr. Garrett surmised they must have done something wrong, and he didn’t want his family getting into trouble. The excuses offered by the fugitives for their behavior sounded fishy, and the son from Appomattox told them they’d have to move on. But it was hard simply to throw them out with night coming on. The matter was compromised. They could sleep in the tobacco-drying barn, not the house. And they must be off in the morning. The Garretts had a neighbor with a wagon who might be prevailed upon to take them south.
They lay down in the tobacco barn. As they slept, the mounted soldiers arrived at the Star Hotel in Bowling Green. It is gone now, a real estate office occupying the spot where it stood. Across the street on his tall column stands a Confederate soldier in stone, the town’s memorial to the Virginia cavalry of 1861–65. The soldiers came into the room where the young ex-Confederate who had gotten Booth’s autograph was sleeping. He denied knowing anything. A revolver was pressed against his head. “Tell us where he is or prepare to die.” He talked.
The cavalry took him and rode to the Garrett farmhouse, yanked old Mr. Garrett out into the yard, put a rope around his neck, and demanded information. It was given by one of the sons, fearful for his father’s life. The soldiers surrounded the barn. There followed prolonged shouted-out negotiations, Booth asking to fight for his life. Let them draw back a distance, and he would take on the command with his revolvers, he called out, one crippled actor versus two dozen men of the victorious army of the world’s greatest war. “Give a lame man a chance.” They replied they had come not to fight but to take him. Let him come out or the barn would be set on fire.
Herold came out. Booth did not. They fired the barn. Through the wide gaps in the walls that permitted air to come in and dry the tobacco, the soldiers beheld him balanced on a crutch in the brilliant firelight so like the brightness of the stages upon which he had made his career and his mark. The blaze shot up to where the proscenium arch of a theater would be. To one of his pursuers he seemed an Apollo in a frame of fire. To Sgt. Boston Corbett, a self-castrated religious fanatic, he was a figure the voice of God directed him to shoot.
Booth fell, an instant paraplegic, the tour leader James O. Hall tells people. The soldiers dragged him out. For long hours he lay dying on the porch of the Garrett house as the flaming barn lighted up the great forests. The Garrett wormen sponged his forehead. Then “Useless, useless,” and he was gone. The body was taken back to Washington and in the dead of night secretly interred below the building where his co-conspirators would be tried and which they would leave for the scaffold on what is now the tennis court. Years later the remains were released to the family and put in an unmarked grave in the Booth family plot of a Baltimore cemetery.
Year by year in the impoverished South of after-the-war, the Garrett farmhouse declined, turning streaked from lack of paint. The empty subsidiary buildings, the mill, the slave quarters, became covered with vines and collapsed upon themselves. By the 1920s the house was abandoned. In 1937 Philip Van Doren Stern took pictures of a sagging and desolate wreck about to be torn down by local people who would use what they could for scrap lumber or firewood. What foundations there were vanished. Then the bulldozers of the 1960s expanding the highway put up hillocks in the median strip dividing the north and south lanes of Route 301, and on the top of one of those hillocks there is a little informal marker showing where once was the corner of the porch of the house upon which Lincoln’s assassin died. A retired Army colonel working with surveys and compasses and photographs taken from the air marked the precise spot in 1973. For miles on either side of the highway are empty forests with countless places utterly indistinguishable from this, save for the little marker, and yet when the tour buses pull off the road, the people get out and make their way up to the place.
There they stand, and Kauffman or Hall tells yet again of what occurred here, on this very spot. The people gaze down at the ground where it all took place. Many know a part of the story, some almost nothing. A number have heard the long-lived and fanciful legends that indeed, Booth never gave up the ghost here, that he escaped, that the government covered it up, that he lived on for years. Some of the older people as children may have seen one of the skulls—or bodies—in carnival sideshows guaranteed to be that of John Wilkes Booth. In the 1920s there were five such touring about. There are those who last fall saw the National Broadcasting Company “Unsolved Mysteries” program that explained how Booth lived on into the twentieth century. Kauf fman and I watched together. If someone gave us ten dollars for every documentable error we noted, we would be far better off than we are. The Surratt Society bulletin seethed.
Across the southbound lanes of the highway is the location of the burned barn where Lincoln’s slayer made his last stand, asking for a chance to die like the heroes he portrayed. It is dangerous to cross over to there, for the cars come roaring along one after the other. And what is there to see? Once Michael Kauffman spent a long day rummaging about with shovels and a compass and found a dark thin line of what had been the sill of the building gone this century and a quarter. He worked away and found it went on for some forty feet, the burned material mineralized into the earth. Then he found two small pieces of charred wood and bore them away. He has another trophy. Once, on a tour, Mary Patten of Fort Washington, Maryland, took note of the tour leader. He took note of her. They were married at a Capitol Hill church, the site of which their matchmaker is thought to have raced by on his way from Ford’s Theatre to the Navy Yard Bridge; his exact route can only be speculated upon, but it is likely he went past where the church is now.
Sometimes in the spring one sees light purple wisteria that some long-gone Garrett planted, survivor of the years and the bulldozers. Otherwise there is nothing, as I have said. Yet people by the thousands over the years have looked at this featureless bit of Virginia soil. (During one short period last year Kauffman took five busloads down from Washington, four Saturdays straight and one weekday.) They come to see where was played the final act of a great tragedy for the country and for all the individuals involved, where what has been called the last shot of the Civil War was fired, and where cheerful and handsome Johnny Booth ended the twelve-day flight from Ford’s Theatre, when of an instant he became John Wilkes Booth the assassin, the Judas, papers of the time said, who slew the American Christ.
I suppose something of the lost era of the last century comes through to the people, and the legends, and a sense of being in touch with great and terrible and sad events now long passed but possessing still much power. One goes over roads largely tracing those of 1865, sees all that is left, comes here to the hill, gets a feel of what possessed me in 1949, and others before that, and still haunts others yet. The cars whiz past.