On the night of April 22, Booth and Herold finally made the river crossing and stepped foot on Virginia soil. Herold left Booth by the boat and walked half an hour to their contact, an ex-Confederate spy named Elizabeth Quesenberry. Once Herold told Mrs. Quesenberry that he had been sent by Thomas Jones and that he was travelling with an injured companion, she may have guessed who that companion was. She decided it was too big a responsibility to shoulder alone, and got the help of other operatives to secure horses for the two men so that they could journey south as quickly as possible.
Once again, Booth and Herold were lucky enough to benefit from the experience of a more experienced Confederate operative. In this case, Elizabeth Quesenberry knew her own limitations and reached out to her fellow Confederate sympathizers for additional help. This realistic attitude towards her own capacities can be contrasted to Booth’s belief in his own abilities to survive in the wild, despite his experience being mostly limited to the stage.
Booth and Herold rode to the house of Dr. Richard Stuart. Even though Mudd had sent them, Dr. Stuart was suspicious of the ridiculous cover story Herold told him and did not want to help them. Reluctantly, he fed them. By the end of the meal, Dr. Stuart understood that the dirty, desperate men in front of him were the fugitive killers of Abraham Lincoln. He ordered them to leave. Booth was disappointed in Stuart and later sent him a critical letter with money enclosed to pay for the meal that he had given them so unwillingly. This money was an insult to Stuart, whom Booth felt had failed to show proper Southern hospitality.
Booth’s experience with Dr. Stuart was, perhaps, his sharpest disappointment in his expectations for Southerners to stand by him in upholding Southern principles. In the first place where he sought shelter in the South, he did not receive the Southern hospitality he expected to encounter wherever he went in the South. By sending Stuart money in the mail, Booth meant to suggest that Stuart was incapable of doing anything selfless out of principle, and that he would instead only act for his own gain.
Expelled from Dr. Stuart’s, Booth and Herold sought help and a place to stay at a nearby house owned by a man of color named Lucas. Only after Booth threatened Lucas with violence did Lucas allow them to stay the night. The next day, for twenty dollars, Lucas’s son Charlie drove the two men to Port Conway in a wagon. Booth and Herold were dropped off at the house of William Rollins, who they asked to take them across the Rappahannock River to Port Royal, where there was a railroad station.
Booth would not have expected a black man to treat him with hospitality, nor did he show that man any of the respect he felt was owed to white men. As a flipside of this, he saw it as natural that he would pay for a service from someone whom he thought could not be his equal.
At that moment, Booth and Herold saw three soldiers. They got ready for a fight, but were soon reassured to see that the men were Confederate soldiers. At first, Herold pretended that they were also Confederate soldiers who wanted to travel South and continue fighting. But when one of the soldiers, Willie Jett, asked Herold who they really were, Herold confessed: “we are the assassinators of the president!” The three soldiers decided to accompany Booth and Herold across the river and help them in any way they could on the other side. The successful crossing of the river and the newfound support of Confederate strangers inspired joy in Booth, who yelled, “I’m safe in glorious old Virginia, thank God!”
Having found sympathetic support from Confederate soldiers, Booth felt that he was finally going to begin getting the support for his escape and respect for his deed that he deserved. Booth feared the negative publicity of the trial that would inevitably follow his capture, but he eagerly desired the positive attention that he thought he would get among Southerners who considered him to be a hero. Meeting Jett and his friends felt to him like the beginning of a new chapter in his story.
In Virginia, Willie Jett brought Booth and Herold to the farm owned by Richard Garrett. He presented Booth as a wounded Confederate soldier and asked Garrett for shelter. Garrett, whose sons had fought in the Confederate army, agreed to take them in. Booth told Garrett that he had been wounded in battle and was now on the run from Union cavalry.
Although Booth felt more confident now that he was in Virginia, he followed Jett’s lead and kept his identity as Lincoln’s killer a secret. Garrett took Booth in based on a shared principle, but there was no certainty that he would take Booth in if he knew who Booth was.
Meanwhile, the investigation was changing course. Lafayette Baker, a favorite of Stanton’s, was deceitful and egotistical in his approach to the manhunt. He wanted to capture the killers and get the credit and reward money for it. He was even willing to steal other detectives’ tips for this reason. While snooping around a telegraph office, he heard a tip that two men had crossed the Potomac. Baker contacted his cousin, Luther Byron Baker, and told him to ride out to pursue this lead.
Stanton had led the investigation out of a sense of his duty to Lincoln and to the Union cause. Lafayette Baker, in contrast, was much more interested in rewards and fame than in catching Booth out of principle. For this reason, he made sure to give the tips he found to his relative, so that he could keep credit for the capture of Booth in the family.
Word was sent by telegram to Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty to report to Luther Byron Baker. Baker showed Doherty a freshly printed photograph of Booth and two other men. Colonel Baker would stay behind in Washington, but Edward Doherty, Luther Baker, and Everton Conger went by steamboat to Virginia. It was April 24, and the manhunters rode on horseback with the troops they commanded. They were now on the right trail and would reach the place where Booth had crossed the Rappahannock the next afternoon.
The manhunters now had good information and ample resources. Unlike the earlier confusion, when cavalry spread out across Maryland, searching for Booth in every town, there was now a specific tip about Booth’s whereabouts and dedicated officers assigned to follow that tip and see if it would produce the fugitives.
At the Garrett farm, Booth enjoyed a pleasant evening with the Garretts and slept in a proper bed. Herold rode with Willie Jett and his two comrades, Ruggles and Bainbridge, into Bowling Green to buy a new pair of shoes. He would return to Garrett’s the next day.
Booth and Herold felt that they needed to improve their appearances in order to win over the acquaintances that they would make in the South.
Meanwhile, the cavalry divided forces to search Virginia farmhouses more quickly, with Everton Conger leading one column and Edward Doherty the other. It had taken Booth ten days to reach Port Conway from Washington. The cavalry, relying on fresh information transmitted by telegraph and traveling by steamboat, traversed the same distance in one day.
Now that the authorities had good information, they were able to use the recent technological innovations of the telegraph and steamboat to move quickly in pursuit of Booth and Herold. The fugitives had, for many days, relied on more antiquated travel methods (rowboat and horse) for their escape.
At Garrett’s farm, Booth spent a leisurely day with the Garrett family, who did not know his true identity. John Garrett reported that there was now a $140,000 reward placed on the heads of Lincoln’s killers. Booth joined the family in speculating as to the assassins’ motivations for killing the president. Booth said he would try to get a horse and then ride south to join a Confederate army that was still fighting. But at this point, Booth was becoming too comfortable. He ought to have left sooner and continued south, placing more distance between himself and the Union troops.
Surrounded by comfort and people to talk to, Booth began to rest on his laurels. Instead of doing the practical thing, which would have been to continue further South as quickly as possible, he enjoyed exercising his skills as an actor, pretending to be another man speculating at Booth’s motivations.
On the Garretts’ porch, Booth spotted men on horses riding past the gate and panicked. This reaction alarmed Richard Garrett. Then, when a man approached the house, Booth asked Garrett’s eleven-year-old son to run upstairs and get him his pistols. It was only David Herold returning from town, and no gun battle broke out. Booth’s reactions, however, had startled the Garretts.
Once again, Booth failed to realize the limitations of his own charm. Although he had spent a pleasant day with the Garretts, his odd reaction to the sight of horsemen passing by and to a man approaching the farm tipped them off that there was something he was not telling them. They began to suspect that they were being taken in.
Booth told Herold he wanted to spend another night at the Garretts’. Herold thought this was a mistake. The fugitives were surprised, however, when John Garrett, who was overseeing the farm while his father was away on business, refused to let them stay another night.
Booth believed that the Garretts shared his principles and would therefore continue to show him the Southern hospitality he expected.
On April 25, the Sixteenth New York Cavalry rode into Port Conway. Luther Baker questioned William Rollins, who told him he had brought a man with a broken leg and three Confederate soldiers across the river the day before. Rollins also helpfully told Luther Baker that Willie Jett was courting a young woman whose father owned a hotel in Bowling Green. The soldiers followed this lead in search of Jett.
Rollins had not known that he was helping Lincoln’s killer and he felt no loyalty toward Booth. He immediately gave the most crucial information of the entire manhunt, giving the investigators the key to finding the fugitives.
At 4:00 PM on April 25, Ruggles and Bainbridge rode to Garrett’s farm with a warning for Booth: the Union cavalry had crossed the Rappahannock and would likely be there soon. Having delivered this warning, Ruggles and Bainbridge rode off. Booth and Herold ran and hid in the woods behind Garrett’s house.
Booth and Herold’s ability to get information from contacts was being badly outstripped by the coordinated efforts of the government. This was the last piece of information they would receive before their capture.
This new bout of strange behavior from his guests worried John Garrett even more. He ordered them to leave, saying he would help them find transportation, but Booth and Herold said they would not leave until the next morning. That night’s dinner was nothing like the friendly dinner of the day before. As the fugitives discussed how to find transportation, John Garrett grew suspicious that Booth and Herold intended to steal his father’s horses. After dinner, John Garrett told the two men that they could not sleep in the house. He would allow them to shelter in a tobacco barn. Booth and Herold settled in for the night, and they did not notice when the Garrett brothers locked them into the tobacco barn. The two brothers camped out outside the tobacco barn, suspicious that the fugitives would steal their horses.
It seems odd that the Garretts were unaware that Booth and Herold were Lincoln’s killers, as Swanson’s account suggests. Surely, if the Garretts had seen the posters advertising the $100,000 reward for Lincoln’s killer, they would have recognized the famous face of John Wilkes Booth. More likely, the Garretts knew who Booth was and were scared that Booth would steal their horses in order to escape. In this case, it suggests that the Garretts might have been willing to shelter Booth out of shared principles, but not to allow him to take their property.
In Bowling Green, Doherty, Baker, and Conger found Willie Jett at the Star Hotel, just where William Rollins had said he might be. They interrogated him harshly, trying to frighten him. Jett gave in: he agreed to show the soldiers where Booth and Herold were.
Instead of protecting Booth out of shared principles or personal loyalty (as Booth would have expected), Jett gave in when faced with the prospect of likely execution for supporting Booth.
As the cavalry arrived at Garrett’s farm, the barking of dogs and the clanking metal sounds of the horse riders woke Booth. He and Herold tried to escape the barn and were stunned to find themselves locked in. With Booth’s injury, the two men did not have the combined strength necessary to break a board in the wall and climb out.
At this point, the two fugitives’ luck had turned. They were not prepared to make an escape, even if they had been able to get out of the barn. Their options for action had run out.
At the farmhouse, the cavalry demanded that Richard Garrett take them to the killers. He was reluctant to do so. Doherty grabbed John Garrett and put a gun to his head, demanding that he give up the assassin’s location. Reluctantly, Garrett told the manhunters that Booth and Herold were in the tobacco barn. Baker then ordered John Garrett to enter the tobacco barn and take the fugitives’ weapons from them. John Garrett refused, unwilling to risk his life. Baker told him he would have to do it, or see all the Garrett property burned.
Garrett’s refusal to show the cavalrymen where Booth was hiding was a further suggestion that he knew who Booth was and wished to protect him out of their shared principles. Only once his son and his farm were threatened (which placed his survival on the line) was he willing to give up those principles. Next, the manhunters sought to force the son to risk his life for their principles.
Baker unlocked the barn door and pushed John Garrett inside. Garrett told Booth that he was caught and should give himself up. Booth damned Garrett for betraying him and threatened to shoot him. Garrett fled. Swanson speculates: why had the twenty-six armed soldiers sent an unarmed civilian in to confront Booth? Surely a few casualties would have been worth the honor of capturing the assassin.
At the moment of confrontation, the cavalrymen proved reluctant to fight for their principles. They first tried to make an innocent bystander take on this task for them and Booth took this bait and blamed Garrett for treachery he had not committed.
Booth spoke to the manhunters, buying time and refusing to leave the barn. Herold, on the other hand, wanted to turn himself in. In his mind, he was not guilty of anything. He had only accompanied Booth, not killed anyone. Booth at first refused to let Herold turn himself in, but then he called him a “damned coward,” and let him leave. Herold stuck his hands out of the barn door and was grabbed and whisked off by the soldiers.
Herold failed to grasp how culpable he was in the eyes of the law for having aided Booth during his escape. Booth, on the other hand, turned on Herold at the last moment, giving Herold no credit for all that Herold had already done for him. Booth’s uncompromising sense of how principles should guide behavior allowed no exceptions, even for such a close comrade.
Booth knew that this moment would go down in history. He was keen to script the perfect ending to the dramatic performance begun the night he killed Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.
Baker and Conger argued over what to do next. If they waited until morning, Booth would be able to see the manhunters and pick them off one by one with his weapons. A sergeant named Boston Corbett offered three times to go into the barn and fight Booth one-on-one, but Doherty ordered him back to his position. Conger and Baker decided to burn the barn to force Booth to come out.
Once again, the manhunters were not operating under the same set of assumptions as Booth. They did not want to risk their lives in order to capture him and defend their principles. Nor did they want to give him the chance to honorably die in a duel, as Corbett offered.
Conger ordered the Garrett sons to pile straw on the side of the barn. Hearing the noise, Booth threatened to shoot the Garretts. They retreated. Then Booth challenged the twenty-nine manhunters to fight him honorably in a duel. Baker declined. Conger lit the kindling. As the barn burned the manhunters could see Booth inside.
To the end, Booth wanted to fight in a matter that aligned with his principles. Duels were an important part of the Southern culture of honor; being burned alive while cowering in a barn was not.
Booth could either burn to death, shoot himself, or come out and try to fight the manhunters. More than anything else, Booth did not want to be captured and brought back to Washington for a very public trial and hanging. He decided to fight the manhunters. Encumbered by weapons and crutches, Booth hopped forward, readying himself to do battle with the assembled men.
Booth was not only remaining loyal to his principles at this moment, but also to his instincts for what would make the most striking conclusion to the drama he was spinning with himself as a central character. By trying to fight twenty-nine men while injured, he hoped to be remembered for incredible bravery.
Meanwhile, Boston Corbett walked to the side of the barn and spotted Booth through one of the gaps in the barn walls. As he saw Booth preparing to bring a carbine into firing position, Corbett shot Booth with his revolver. Booth crumpled to the ground.
Booth expected to face gunmen coming from the front but not the side. Like Abraham Lincoln, he was struck unexpectedly and went down without a fight.
Baker and Conger rushed into the barn to retrieve Booth. Booth was paralyzed and unable to speak as they brought him out of the barn and laid him on the grass. The bullet had passed through his neck and spinal column. Eventually, he managed to speak, saying “tell mother, I die for my country.” The soldiers brought Booth to the Garretts’ porch and tied David Herold to a tree nearby. He would have to watch, powerless, as his friend died.
At this moment, which Booth had hoped would cement his image as a brave hero, he did not get to engage the manhunters in a battle, nor did he get to give a moving final speech. Instead, the actor, who was so used to filling a full room with the sound of his own voice, could barely get a single word out.
Booth begged to be put out of his misery, but Conger told him they wanted him to get well. Back in Washington, Stanton wanted to interrogate Booth, whom he thought was only a pawn in a larger Confederate conspiracy involving Jefferson Davis.
Stanton wanted to find out from Booth who else had been involved in Lincoln’s killing, and he also wanted to give Booth a very public trial and execution. By executing Booth, Stanton hoped also to strike a death blow to the principles Booth had lived for.
Conger angrily demanded to know who had shot Booth. Boston Corbett stepped forward, saying he had shot Booth to protect his comrades. Since Conger, Baker, and Doherty had failed to explicitly tell their men to hold their fire, Corbett’s action was not against protocol.
In the moment of true danger, Boston Corbett had killed Booth. The lives of his comrades were more important than the principle that the authorities hoped to prove by putting Booth on trial and executing him publicly.
A doctor arrived and determined that Booth was dying. “My hands,” Booth whispered as he died. Baker raised Booth’s hands so that the dying man could see them. “Useless, useless,” Booth said. As the sun came up, John Wilkes Booth died.
As he faced death, Booth’s last words expressed despair, but in a very dramatic and memorable way. It is difficult to say if, as he died, he finally faced his limitations as a human being, or if he continued to act the part of a hero and defender of a lost cause until the very end.