- Historic Sites
End Of A Manhunt
Who was the dark-haired stranger with the limp?
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
The exact circumstances of the capture find death of John Wilkes Booth in the early morning hours of April 26, 1865, after his flight from Washington, D.C., into Virginia have been obscured by a haze of conflicting reports and lost evidence. The account that follows, although written by an eyewitness, is not likely to settle any arguments conclusively: its author was only eleven years old on that April morning. He was Richard Baynham Garrett, youngest son of the Virginia farmer on whose property Booth was caught. The hoy grew up to become a Baptist minister; about 1882 he wrote his version of Booth’s last hours and thereafter often delivered il as a popular lecture. One motive for this was to clear his family name of opprobrium from both North and South: on the one hand the Garrett were accused of having sheltered Lincoln’s assassin, and on the other of having betrayed Booth to his pursuers. Dr. Garrett’s daughter, Mrs. Felix B. Wilson, kept the old copy book in which her father had written down the lecture, and recently allowed Miss Betsy Fleet, a writer and editor who lives in St. Stephens Church, Virginia, to prepare tin excerpt for publication in AMERICAN HERITAGE. Despite the youth of the narrator at the time of Booth’s capture, his account has an absorbing I-was-there quality. It begins with the unexpected arrival of three men at his home, two of them in Confederate uniforms.
About three o’clock on Monday afternoon, April 24.th, 1865, I first saw the men who were destined to bring so much trouble upon us. When they rode up to the yard gate I went out with my father to meet them. The one dressed in the uniform of a Confederate captain said, “Mr. Garrett, I suppose you hardly remember me.” “No sir, I believe not,” said my father. “My name is Jett, I am the son of your old friend of Westmoreland County.” Then turning to the other two men he introduced Lient. Ruggles and then said, “This is my friend Mr. James W. Boyd, a Confederate soldier, who was wounded at the battle of Petersburg. He is trying to get to his home in Maryland. Can you take care of him for a day or two until his wound will permit him to travel?”
You who know anything of Virginia as it used to be, will know that there could be but one response to such a request. My father cordially invited his guests to alight but Jett and Ruggles replied that they were on their way to Bowling Green and did not have time to stop. They helped the wounded man from his horse and handed him his crutches. After a few moments of conversation they rode away leading the horse Boyd had been riding, while he, following my father, hobbled painfully into the yard and took a seat upon the verandah. He seemed wearied and when I brought him a drink of water, I asked if his wound pained him. “Yes,” he said, “it has not been properly cared for and riding has jarred it so it gives me great pain.” As he did not seem inclined to talk my father brought him a pillow and excused himself. The wounded man was thus left alone for some hours which he spent dozing in his chair.
In the evening about sunset my two older brothers, who but a few days before had returned from Appomattox and were wearing their faded, torn uniforms, came in from a visit to a neighbor. Soon supper was announced. At the table our guest seemed much refreshed after his rest and joined freely in the conversation which became quite lively as my brothers told of some of the stirring scenes they had witnessed during the war. All the family were impressed with the culture and charm of their guest.
After supper the whole family sat upon the long gallery and the conversation continued. Mr. Boyd turned to my younger brother and offered to trade his neat dark suit of citizens’ clothing for his old Confederate suit. My brother thought at first that he was jesting but when he pressed the matter, asked his object. Boyd then said, “I will tell you, I have changed my mind about going home. I am going to make my way to North Carolina and join Johnston’s army. Now as I am still to be a soldier and your battles are over I will need a uniform, while you will need a suit.”
“No” said my brother, “I will not part with my old uniform, I will keep it for the good that it has done.” In the light of future events it was well for him that he did.
We retired early that night. The next morning when I arose I noticed for the first time hanging upon the post of the bed in which Mr. Boyd slept, a belt which held two large revolvers and a pearl handled dirk or dagger, while lying on the mantel was a leather case containing a pair of opera glasses. The stranger was still sleeping and as I dressed myself his face was turned toward me. I remember vividly the impression made upon me at that time. I had never seen such a face before. Jet black curls clustered about a brow as white as marble and a heavy dark mustache shaded a mouth as beautiful as a babe’s. One hand was thrown above the head of the sleeper, and it was as white and soft as a child’s. I was but a boy but the thought came to me then that he was different from all the soldiers I had seen for they were rough and tanned from exposure.
All the forenoon our visitor lounged upon the grass under the apple trees and talked or played with the children. I remember he had a pocket compass which he took pains to explain to the children and laughed at their puzzled faces when he made the needle move by holding the point of his knife above it.