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.
Some time toward noon he went into the house and soon afterwards as I passed through the room he asked me if I could take down a large map that hung on the wall. I climbed up on a chair and taking the map down, spread it out on the floor at his direction. He then placed his crutches against the wall and by leaning heavily upon a chair got down upon the map. After carefully studying it for a long time he took a pencil and notebook from his pocket and wrote something in it. He then traced with his pencil on the map a line to Norfolk, Virginia. Then running the pencil around he made a mark at Charleston, South Carolina, and another at Savannah. By this time my boyish curiosity was excited and I began to ask questions and to show off my knowledge of geography. I asked him where he wanted to go. He said, “To Mexico.” “Why,” I said, “I thought last night you were going to join Johnston’s army in North Carolina.” He looked up quickly and after looking at me a moment he turned away and went on with his work. I said no more but stood and watched as he traced a line from Charleston around through the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston and from there he seemed to be uncertain as to his route into Mexico.
Early the next morning, my brother Jack went to Port Conway to fish; returning in time tor dinner he told of the rumor he had heard of the assassination of President Lincoln. My father said at once, “I do not believe it, it is some idle report started by stragglers.” Boyd enquired the amount of reward offered for the capture of the assassin. When young Garrett told him $100,000, Boyd said, “That is not as much as I expected them to offer.” The question was then asked who the man was who killed the President. The reply was that the name had not been given. My brother laughingly remarked, “That man had better not come this way for I would like to make a hundred thousand dollars just now.” Mr. Boyd turned to the speaker and asked, “Would you betray him for that?” “He had better not tempt me,” was the reply, “for I haven’t a dollar in the world.” The conversation then turned upon the effect on the South if the news were true and Mr. Boyd joined in the conversation as calmly as any of the rest agreeing with my father in the belief that the report was false. As they left the table Mrs. Garrett asked if she could dress his wound for him, to which he replied, “No, Madam. I thank you, though it does give me pain, yet there are other things I think of more than my wounds.”
About 4 o’clock in the afternoon Messrs. Jett and Ruggles and a third horseman with a man behind him rode tip to the house and Mr. Boyd went up to the gate to meet them. After a moment the man behind the third horseman dismounted and the others rode off. At this time my father and brothers were not at the house but they soon returned and Mr. Boyd introduced his companion as Mr. Harris. [The new arrival was actually David Herold, one of Booth’s co-conspirators.] In speaking to him he called him Dave. In a short time a man rode rapidly up to the gate and said, “The Yankees are crossing the river at Port Royal.” Then wheeling he rode off at once. Our two visitors became very much excited and Mr. Boyd sent me up to his room tor his pistols. They then walked off back of the house into some woods nearby, Boyd giving as his reason lor his alarm that he was afraid they would make him take the oath. Soon after they left we saw a cloud of dust, and a detachment of cavalry rode past in the direction of Bowling Green. Our two guests soon returned and taking my brother to one side, offered him ten dollars to take them to Guinea station. This my brother refused to do as the horses had been working all day. Then Boyd proposed to buy the horses for one hundred and fifty dollars, but the offer was refused as they were all we had, but he told them that there was a Negro man living near who had a conveyance which could be hired for the purpose. One of my brothers went with the younger man and succeeded in hiring the wagon which was to come at daylight to take them away. In the meantime, Jack expressed his fears to my father and they arrived at the conclusion that something must be wrong with these men judging from their suspicious actions. My father’s idea was that they were guerrillas who had done something to cause them to fear arrest. When Herold [“Harris”] returned, my brother asked him the direct question, “Why are you so tmeasy about these soldiers if yoti are what you say you are?” Herold then said, “I will tell you the truth, over there in Maryland the other night we got on a spree and had a row with some soldiers and as we ran away we shot at them and I suppose must have hurt somebody.” This reply my brother repeated to father who then said, “I am afraid these men will get us into trouble, you had better watcli them tonight.” As he was quite unwell he then went into the house and retired leaving my brothers with their guests. Herold seemed to have recovered his spirits and told a number of absurd anecdotes. The other was the picture of dejection and said little. At last he turned to my brother and asked if they might sleep in a large tobacco barn as they expected to leave so early in the morning. About nine o’clock, Jack got the key to the barn and took them out there to spend the night. Double doors were on all four sides of the barn and in the upper story were large windows. Sticks of tobacco hung from the rafters, hay was piled up in places and furniture was strewn about. They moved the furniture, piled up some hay for a bed and the [brothers] locked them in for the night. [It is not clear whether Booth and Herold realized they had been locked in.] My two brothers becoming Uneasy for fear their horses might be stolen in the night, agreed to sleep in another barn between the large one and the stables where the horses were.
About two o’clock that night my father was awakened by a knock at the door. Thinking that some of the servants were sick, he went to the door in his night clothes and when he opened it a detective named Baker [Luther B. Baker, a Secret Service officer] thrust a pistol into his face and told him to open his month at his peril. The yard was filled with men who, with drawn swords or pistols, crowded around the door. “Where are the men who were here today?” asked the officer. “I do not know” said my father. “They said they were going away and did not sleep in the house.” The man angrily interrupted and said, “Lies will do no good now, we know they are here and we mean to have them if we have to burn the house to get them.” My lather again tried to explain that he had retired early and did not know where they were but someone shouted, “Bring a rope, hang the damned old rebel and we will find the men afterwards.”
A rope was brought and thrown over the head of the feeble old man and he was dragged in the yard in his nightclothes where the men were about to put their threat into execution, when my brother, having heard the noise, came vip to see what was wrong. The men immediately turned to him and repeated their question. “What do you want with the men and what have they done?” he asked. “That is none of your business,” was the reply. “We know they are here, we have Jett out there and he says he left them here. If you don’t tell us instantly we will hang you and the old man and burn this house.”
At this time some of the men came up and said, “Captain, there is someone in the barn.” My brother, alarmed for the safety of his brother whom he had left sleeping in the old corn crib, said at once, “The men you seek are over there.” My father was left under the guard of two brutes who would not allow us to bring him his clothes or even a wrap to protect him from the tool night air.
Arriving at the barn, about fifty yards from the house, it was found that some of the soldiers had already discovered the presence of the men within and were parleying with them. The barn, erected for the purpose of curing tobacco, had wide cracks between the boards forming the walls. Some valuable furniture was stored within, the property of refugees from the neighboring village of Port Royal.
The soldiers made fires of brush and rails at some little distance from the building and gathered about these fires to warm themselves while the officers parleyed with the men inside. This gave the men in the barn an immense advantage had they wished to defend themselves as they could plainly see the soldiers’ every movement, while they themselves could not be seen.
When the officer in charge called upon them to surrender, the man we knew only as Boyd replied, “We don’t know who you are, whether friends or foes. Perhaps you are our friends and if so there is no need for us to surrender.” The reply was, “We won’t stop to argue that, come out and see who we are.” Again the appeal was made, “Tell us whether you are Confederate or Federal soldiers.” But no satisfaction was received on this point. At last Boyd said, “Captain, there is a man in here who wants to surrender, but I never will.” “Let him hand out his arms then,” was the reply. “He has no arms, they are all mine,” said Boyd.
Herold [had] brought with him a Henry repeating carbine which carried sixteen shots. He had also a navy revolver which gave Booth three pistols and the carbine when Herold surrendered.
“Let him put his hands through the door,” said the Captain. The door was opened about six inches, a file of men stood behind it with cocked revolvers and when Herold thrust out his hands he was quickly handcuffed and dragged through the door.
The officers called my brother and commanded him to go into the barn and persuade [Booth] to surrender. My brother declined but was compelled at the point of a pistol to obey. He went but Booth refused to listen to him and repeated his determination not to be taken alive. My brother was then ordered to pile some dry brush against the side of the barn and the officers announced to Booth that they intended to burn the barn over him. He replied, “All right, I will not surrender.” Once he said, “Captain, 1 do not want to shed blood, I cotdd kill you now where you stand if I wanted to.” The Captain was then standing between the building and a fire the men had built. He moved.
At last finding their efforts to induce him to surrender vain, Col. Conger, the officer in command, went to a corner of the barn where a quantity of hay was stored, pulled a wisp of it through a crack and set it on fire. In an instant the fire blazed to the ceiling of the building. Conditions were changed. Now the men could see for the first time the man they were hunting, while they themselves were protected by the surrounding darkness. They pressed close to the building and looked through the cracks. It was a fearful picture. Framed in great waves of fire stood the crippled man leaning upon his crutches and holding his carbine in his hand. His hat had fallen off and his hair was brushed back from his white forehead. He was as beautiful as the statue of a Greek god and as calm in that awful hour.
At this moment the crack of a pistol was heard, and we who were watching saw him sink down where he stood. The fire was almost upon him. The soldiers still dared not enter the building. My brother no longer able to bear the sight threw open the door and running in dragged the dying man out of reach of the hungry flames. They carried him out and laid him on the grass but the heat was so intense that they brought him to the house and laid him on the gallery floor.
The men said he shot himself but too many were watching him at the time. It seems that strict orders had been given that he should be taken alive. Presently a sergeant, Boston Corbett, was found who said he had fired the fatal shot to save the life of his commander as Booth was just in the act of firing upon him. It was not true. He made no movement to fire upon anybody. [Corbett had a strange record: he was a religious fanatic and a self-made eunuch. Some historians believe that Booth did shoot himself: apparently neither his weapon nor Corbett’s was checked after the shooting.]
As Booth laid upon the grass near the burning barn, he said, “Captain, it is hard that this man’s property should be destroyed. He does not know who I am.” These words perhaps saved my father’s and brothers’ lives as a proclamation had been issued authorizing the hanging of anyone without trial found harboring the assassins of the President.
Booth never moved after he was shot. The bullet had passed through his neck in almost the exact spot where he had struck Lincoln. He was completely paralyzed from the neck down, but retained the power of speech. When [he was carried] to the house, a messenger was sent to Port Royal for Dr. Urquhart. My mother and sisters brought a mattress and pillows and made him as comfortable as possible. They bathed his face and dipping a sponge in brandy and water, gave it to him to suck as he was unable to swallow any nourishment in any other way. The Doctor came and as he knelt and examined the wound … [Booth] looked at the Doctor and said, “Useless! Useless!” He then called to the officer standing by him and said, “Tell my mother I died for my country, I did what I thought was best.”
From this time he sank rapidly and just as the sun was rising gave a long gasp and breathed no more.
Preparations were at once begun to take the body away. My mother brought water and carefully bathing the blood from his face and neck, she tied a handkerchief about the face. When her work was done, one of the curls on his brow had escaped from the bandage and my sister, with the consent of the officer, took a pair of scissors and clipped it off.
After his death the officers gathered around the body and producing a photograph and several of the advertisements containing the description of Booth, they proceeded to identify the body. This was positively the first intimation that any of us had as to who our guests were. Standing beside the dead body my father heard for the first time that the man who for two days had been his guest was the man who had killed the President.
The same wagon was brought which had been engaged to take them to the railroad and the body was sewed up in a blanket and put into the wagon and carried across the country to the Potomac where a passing gunboat was hailed and the party embarked for Washington.