Biographies & Memoirs





Until just a few hours ago, John Wilkes Booth was happier and more content than at any time since killing Lincoln. His broken leg notwithstanding, his three days in Virginia, with its pro-Confederate citizens and custom of hospitality, have made him think that escape is a likely possibility. He even disclosed his identity to a group of former southern soldiers he met along the road. To everyone else who’s asked, he’s a former soldier who was injured at Petersburg and is on his way home.

He’s spent the last day at the farmhouse of Richard Garrett, whose son John just returned home from the war. The Garretts do not know Booth’s true identity and believe his story about being a former soldier. He’s enjoyed hot meals and the chance to wash and sleep. But an hour before sunset came word that Federal cavalry were crossing the ferry over the Rappahannock River.

Booth reacted to the news with visible fear. The Garretts, seeing this, grew suspicious and insisted that both men leave. Booth and Herold refused, though not in a belligerent manner. Not knowing what to do and not wanting to create a problem with the two armed strangers, John Garrett sent them to sleep in the barn. Now Booth and Herold hide in a forty-eight-by-fifty-foot wooden structure, filled with hay and corn. Tobacco-curing equipment is stored inside, and thick cedar beams provide sturdy structural support. Worried that Booth and Herold plan to steal their horses and escape in the night, John and his brother William sleep outside the barn, armed with a pistol.

Booth doesn’t realize the Garrett brothers are outside guarding the barn; nor does he know that the cavalry is surrounding the house. All he is sure of is that at two A.M. the dogs begin barking. Then a terrified John Garrett steps into the barn and orders the men to give up their weapons. The building is surrounded, he tells them.

“Get out of here,” Booth cries, “or I will shoot you. You have betrayed me.”

Garrett flees, locking the barn door behind him. Booth and Herold are now trapped inside, with no idea how many men are out there. Then Herold says he wants out. He’s sick of this life and wants to go home. He’s done nothing wrong and wishes to proclaim his innocence.

“Captain,” Booth calls out, not knowing the proper rank to use. “There is a man here who very much wants to surrender.”

Then he turns to Herold in disgust: “Go away from me, damned coward.”

Herold exits through the main door, wrists first. He is immediately taken away and arrested by the soldiers.

Lieutenant Baker calls to Booth, telling him that the barn will be set on fire within moments unless Booth surrenders. “Well, Captain,” Booth cries out, his old sense of the dramatic now fully returned, “you may prepare a stretcher for me. Draw up your men. Throw open the door. Let’s have a fair fight.”

Then Booth hears the crackle of burning straw and smells the sickly sweet wood smoke of burning cedar. “One more stain on the old banner!” he yells, doing his best to sound fearless. No one quite knows what that statement means.

He looks across the barn and sees Lieutenant Baker opening the door. The actor hefts his loaded carbine, preparing to take aim.

Just as Abraham Lincoln felt a slight instant of pain and then nothing at all when Booth shot him, now Booth hears the crack of a rifle and feels a jolt in his neck, and then nothing. Sergeant Boston Corbett has fired a bullet and it slices through Booth’s spinal cord and paralyzes him from the neck down. John Wilkes Booth collapses to the floor of the barn, the flames now climbing higher and higher all around him.

Boston Corbett, in his own way, is as much a zealot as Booth. Only his passion is religion. Incredibly, years before, Corbett cut off his own testicles with a pair of scissors after experiencing a moment of lust. Booth has now been shot by a man very much like himself: a rebellious fanatic. Corbett actually disobeyed orders when taking aim at the actor. Baker and Conger pull John Wilkes Booth from the barn moments before it is completely engulfed in flames. The actor is still alive.

As with Lincoln, the decision is made not to transport him, for any movement will surely kill the actor. But he is dead by morning anyway. His limp body is hurled into the back of a garbage wagon.

The flight—and life—of John Wilkes Booth has come to an end. He is just twenty-six years old.


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