The Final Hours of John Wilkes Booth

“I have too great a soul to die like a criminal,” Booth once wrote

Booth illustration
"One more stain on the old banner," Booth yelled, conjuring the Confederate flag as he prepared to face his pursuers The Meserve-Kuhnhardt Collection

The dogs heard it first, rising from the southwest. Distant sounds, yet inaudible to human ears, of metal touching metal; of a hundred hoofs sending vibrations through the earth; of labored breathing from tired horses; of faint human voices. These early warning signs alerted the dogs sleeping under the Garretts’ front porch. At the farm, John Garrett, corn-house sentinel, was already awake and the first to hear their approach. William Garrett, lying on a blanket a few feet from his brother, heard them too.

It was after midnight, and dark and still inside the farmhouse. Old Richard Garrett and the rest of his family had gone to bed hours ago.

All was quiet, too, in the tobacco barn, where John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirator David Herold were sleeping. The barking dogs and the clanking, rumbling sound finally woke Booth. Recognizing the unique music of cavalry on the move, the assassin knew he had only a minute or two to react.

Booth woke Herold. They snatched up their weapons and rushed to the front of the barn. “We went right up to the barn door and tried to get out,” Herold would recall, “but found it was locked.” The Garretts—suspecting the fugitives might steal horses—had imprisoned them! Booth wasted no time trying to pry the lock from its mountings. They had to flee the barn before Union troops surrounded it.

Booth wheeled 180 degrees. “Come on!” he called to Herold and limped 50 feet to the back wall. “[W]e went directly to the back end of the barn, and we tried to kick a board off so we could crawl out,” Herold would say. Booth, who had fractured his left leg a couple of inches above the ankle when he jumped to the stage after shooting the president, could not leverage his full weight on his left foot to kick with the right. The board did not give. Herold fared no better.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase to Catch Lincoln's Killer (P.S.)

Based on rare archival materials, obscure trial transcripts, and Lincoln's own blood relics, Manhunt is a gripping hour-by-hour account told through the eyes of the hunted and the hunters, this is history as you've never read it before.

The Union column raced up the road and threw a cordon around the farmhouse. Lt. Edward Doherty of the 16th New York Cavalry and detectives Luther Baker and Everton Conger dropped from their saddles, leapt up the porch and pounded on the door. Richard Garrett walked downstairs in his nightclothes.

David Herold panicked: “You had better give up,” he urged Booth. No, the actor declared, “I will suffer death first.”

Doherty, Baker and Conger pounced as soon as old man Garrett opened the door. Conger barked first: “Where are the two men who stopped here at your house?”

Startled, Richard Garrett replied: “They have gone.”

“Gone where?,” Conger demanded.

“Gone to the woods,” said Garrett.

“What!” Baker interrupted. “A lame man gone into the woods?” Well, he had crutches, Garrett pointed out.

“Will you show me where they are?” Baker continued.

“I will,” Garrett promised, “but I will want my pants and boots.”

Garrett’s interrogators refused to let him back into the house to dress, so his family passed his clothes to him through the door.

Conger decided to play the old man’s game, at least momentarily: “Well, sir, whereabouts in the woods have they gone?”

Garrett began a story of how the men came there without his consent, that he did not want them to stay, and that...

Enough, Conger interrupted: “I do not want any long story out of you. I just want to know where these men have gone.”

Richard Garrett was afraid, and he started his monologue all over again. Conger turned from the door and spoke gravely to one of his men: “Bring in a lariat rope here, and I will put that man up to the top of one of those locust trees.” Even under the threat of hanging, marveled Conger, Garrett “did not seem inclined to tell.” A soldier went to get the hemp persuader.

John Garrett emerged from the corn house, walked up to the nearest cavalryman and asked whom they were pursuing. “That I cannot tell you,” the trooper answered, telling another soldier to take John to the house. When they got near the house, John saw Doherty, Conger and Baker on the front porch talking to his father. Spotting John Garrett, Conger bellowed to his soldier escort, “Where did you get this man from?” John Garrett came to the rescue of his tongue-tied father.

“Don’t hurt the old man: He is scared. I will tell you where the men are you want to find,” he said.

“That is what I want to know,” said an exasperated Conger. “Where are they?”

Before John had time to answer, Doherty seized him by the collar, pushed him down the steps, put a revolver to his head and ordered him to tell him where the assassins were.

“In the barn,” John Garrett cried out.

Not good enough, warned Conger. Which of the three barns?

In the tobacco barn, said Garrett.

Booth and Herold heard the soldiers rush and surround the barn. “Don’t make any noise,” Booth whispered. “Maybe they will go off thinking we are not here.” Conger heard someone moving around inside, rustling the hay. It was Herold, failing to heed Booth’s orders to take cover.

Baker summoned John Garrett to his side and pointed to the tobacco house: “You must go in to the barn and get the arms from those men.” Garrett objected violently to the suicidal plan. Baker went on: “They know you, and you can go in.” Yes, Booth and Herold did know John Garrett—as the man who had ordered them out of his house, refused them the comfort of a bed and locked them in the barn.

Baker explained that this mission was not optional: “Unless you do it, I will burn your property.” Baker didn’t mean just the tobacco barn.

By now William Garrett had also emerged from the cover of the corn house and joined his brother near the tobacco barn. William pulled the key from his pocket and surrendered it to Baker.

Baker stepped forward and shouted to Booth: “We are going to send this man, on whose premises you are, in to get your arms; and you must come out and deliver yourselves up.” Booth said nothing; it might be a trick. He readied himself for a dismounted charge by more than 20 cavalrymen the moment the door opened. Baker, key in hand, strode up to the barn door. He inserted the key, turned the lock and, slowly, opened the door. Booth remained invisible, hiding several yards away in the black inner recesses of the barn. He saw movement. He held his pistols tightly, thumbs ready to cock the hammers of the single-action Colts. But he held his fire. Baker seized John Garrett and half-guided, half-pushed him through the door and closed it behind him.

John Garrett stood alone, in the dark, at the mercy of Lincoln’s killer. He spoke timidly, reporting that “the barn was surrounded, that resistance was useless, and that [you] had better come out and deliver [yourself] up.”

A growling tenor voice, dripping with malice, replied from the darkness: “You have implicated me.”

Garrett tried to reason with them: “Gentlemen, the cavalry are after you. You are the ones. You had better give yourselves up.”

Like an apparition, Booth’s pale, haunting visage emerged from the void. Then he exploded: “Damn you! You have betrayed me! If you don’t get out of here I will shoot you! Get out of this barn at once!” Garrett, glimpsing Booth’s right hand in motion, turned and ran from the barn.

Finally, at the climax of a 12-day manhunt that had gripped the nation, a heavily armed patrol of 16th New York Cavalry had cornered Lincoln’s assassin at the Garrett farm in Port Royal, Virginia. But at that critical moment, Conger and the others hesitated. Instead of ordering their men to rush the barn and take Booth, they had decided to talk him out, and then delegated a solitary, unarmed man, a civilian—and an ex-Rebel soldier, no less—to negotiate Booth’s surrender. It was a clear abdication of command responsibility. Twenty-six cavalrymen, each armed with a six-shot revolver, could pour a fusillade of 156 conical lead bullets into the barn before having to reload. Booth could fire 12 rounds from the revolvers and seven from his Spencer carbine. He wouldn’t have time to reload. Or the troops could, without warning, before they fired a shot, charge the barn and try to take Booth by surprise. In the dark, and in the few seconds before they seized him, Booth could not pick off more than a few of them. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wanted Booth alive for questioning.

Why did they hesitate? If brave Union men could charge Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and suffer several thousand casualties, and if the valiant regiments of the Army of Northern Virginia could make the disastrous, suicidal Pickett’s charge on the third day at Gettysburg, why couldn’t 26 soldiers, under the cloak of darkness, charge two civilians hiding in a barn? Surely the honor of capturing Lincoln’s assassin was worth the risk of a few casualties.

Even after John Garrett’s failed mission, Doherty, Conger and Baker dithered. The trio deputized Baker as their spokesman. He shouted an ultimatum to the occupants: “I want you to surrender. If you don’t, I will burn this barn down in 15 minutes.” It was 2:30 a.m., Wednesday, April 26, 1865. From the time the 16th New York arrived at Garrett’s farm until this moment, the fugitives had not spoken one word to their pursuers.

Then a voice from inside the barn bellowed three questions: “Who are you?” “What do you want?” “Whom do you want?”

It was Booth. The assassin stepped to the front of the tobacco barn and peered through a space between two boards, mistaking his counterpart for an Army captain.

“We want you,” Baker replied, “and we know who you are. Give up your arms and come out!”

Booth stalled: “Let us have a little time to consider it.”

Surprisingly, Baker agreed: “Very well.”

Ten or 15 minutes elapsed. The manhunters maintained a keen vigil on all four of the barn walls to ensure that their prey did not slip out unnoticed.

Herold had convinced himself, naively, that once he explained his role the soldiers would send him home. In his mind, he wasn’t guilty of anything. Booth had killed Lincoln, and Lewis Powell had stabbed the secretary of state, William Seward. Herold had just gone along for the ride. Booth could roast alive in the tobacco barn if he chose, but Herold implored Booth to release him. Some of the soldiers could hear his begging.

Baker, counting down the minutes on his pocket watch, shouted to Booth that he was running out of time. Five minutes more and he would torch the barn.

Booth relented. Forcing Herold to share his fate would serve no purpose. The actor called out to Baker: “Oh, Captain—there is a man here who wants to surrender awful bad.”

Too excited to remain silent, Doherty blurted out: “Hand out your arms.” Yes, chimed Baker, “let him hand out his arms.”

Their demands perplexed Herold. Would they refuse his surrender until he handed over Booth’s firearms? Herold knew that Booth would never give up his guns. “I have none,” Herold pleaded.

Doherty did not believe him: “Hand out your arms, and you can come out.”

“I have no arms,” Herold whimpered, “let me out.”

Baker scoffed: “We know exactly what you have got.” The Garretts had given Baker and the other officers a complete inventory of the fugitives’ arms and equipment: two revolvers, one Spencer repeating carbine, one bowie knife, a pistol belt, a couple of blankets and the clothes on their backs. “You carried a carbine,” Baker insisted, “and you must hand it out.”

Booth spoke up to end the impasse: “The arms are mine, and I have got them.”

Baker disputed the assassin: “This man carried a carbine, and he must hand it out.”

Booth argued back, and reminded the nitpicking officers that “there is a man in here who wants to come out.”

Yes, Herold affirmed: “Let me out, quick; I do not know anything about this man, he is a desperate character, and he is going to shoot me.”

Booth supported Herold’s charade: “Let him out; that young man is innocent.”

Enough, reasoned Doherty. If they can persuade one of the fugitives to come out of the barn without a fight, why not forget the arms, wait no more and take the man? The lieutenant turned to Baker: “We had better let him out.”

“No,” Baker countered, “wait until Mr. Conger comes here.”

Well, where is he? Doherty demanded. Out of sight, at the back of the barn, preparing to set it on fire, he was told.

“Open that door!” Doherty commanded one of his troopers. “I will take that man out myself.”

The lieutenant positioned himself to the side of the door. If he stayed out of the line of fire, Booth could not see—or shoot—him when he opened the door for Herold’s exit. Inches apart, separated only by the width of the barn wall, Doherty and Herold could hear each other’s breathing. They caught glimpses of each other through the spaces between the boards.

Then, in the last seconds before David Herold left the barn, Booth whispered the last words exchanged between them: “When you go out, don’t tell them the arms I have.”

With that, Herold passed from fugitive to captive.

Now Doherty, Baker and Conger faced a bigger problem. Booth remained in that barn, heavily armed and waiting for their next move. Yes, they possessed certain advantages. The assassin was surrounded and outnumbered 29 to one. Escape seemed impossible. But then, so had escape from an audience of more than a thousand people at Ford’s Theatre. Like a baited bear, Booth remained lethal.

He wanted to go down fighting, not hanged like a petty thief. “I have too great a soul to die like a criminal,” he had written in his diary a few nights before. He had already perpetrated the most flamboyant public murder in American history. Tonight he would script his own end with a performance to equal his triumph at Ford’s.

Booth enjoyed three tactical advantages: He occupied a fortified position, but his adversaries had to come in and get him; they were deployed in the open around the barn and could not see him, but he remained hidden and could see them; they wanted Booth alive and did not want to be killed by him, but he was ready to die, and to take some of them with him. Moreover, morning’s first light would illuminate the manhunters and render them perfect targets.

Doherty wanted to wait until morning, but Baker and Conger argued against it. One of Doherty’s sergeants, Boston Corbett, volunteered for a suicide mission. He would slip into the barn alone and fight Booth man to man: “I offered to Mr. Conger, the detective officer, and to Lt. Doherty, separately, to go into the barn and take him or fight him—saying if he killed me his weapons would then be empty, and they could easily take him alive.” Three times Corbett volunteered, and each time Doherty vetoed him.

Conger and Baker wanted to burn the barn. The flames and choking smoke would do the job for them, at no risk to the troops. Indeed, the only danger would be to those who had to lay kindling against the timbers. Booth might be able to shove his pistol into the four inches of space between the boards and shoot the men at point-blank range.

Conger sent for the Garrett sons. He had one more job for them, he explained. They would lay the kindling. John Garrett gathered pine twigs and set them next to the barn. When he returned with a second armful and bent low to arrange the pile, the rustling alerted Booth.

Garrett jumped when he heard that familiar, menacing voice address him from the other side, just a foot or two away: “Young man, I advise you for your own good not to come here again.” Garrett dropped the kindling and retreated.

If they were gathering kindling, Booth realized, the manhunters did not plan on waiting until sunrise. Booth decided to retake the initiative. He challenged his pursuers to honorable combat on open ground.

“Captain,” he called out to Baker, “I know you to be a brave man, and I believe you to be honorable. I am a cripple.” Booth’s tantalizing admission thrilled every man who heard it. The manhunters had suspected, but were not absolutely sure, that the man in the barn was John Wilkes Booth. They had gotten reports that Lincoln’s assassin was lame, and now the man in the barn confirmed it. “I have got but one leg,” Booth continued. “If you will withdraw your men in line 100 yards from the door, I will come out and fight you.”

As a sign of good faith Booth revealed that he had chosen, at least up to now, to spare Baker’s life: “Captain, I have had half a dozen opportunities to shoot you, but I did not.”

Baker’s eyes darted to the burning candle he held improvidently in his hand. Conger suggested that Baker relieve himself of the inviting target immediately.

This was better than Shakespeare. Lincoln’s assassin had just challenged 29 men to a duel. Or was it, in Booth’s mind, a knightly trial by combat, with victory the reward to the just? Baker declined the glove: “We did not come here to fight you, we simply came to make you a prisoner.”

The assassin repeated his challenge but reduced the distance to offer more generous odds to his opponents: “If you’ll take your men 50 yards from the door, I’ll come out and fight you. Give me a chance for my life.”

Again Baker declined.

“Well, my brave boys, prepare a stretcher for me!” Booth jauntily replied.

Conger turned to Baker: “We will fire the barn.”

“Yes,” his fellow detective agreed, “the quicker the better.”

Conger bent over and lit the kindling.

Within minutes an entire corner of the barn was blazing brightly. The fire illuminated the yard with a yellow-orange glow that flickered eerily across the faces of the men of the 16th. Booth could see them clearly now but held his fire.

As the fire gathered momentum, it also lit the inside of the barn so that now, for the first time, the soldiers could see their quarry in the gaps between the slats. Booth had three choices: stay in the barn and burn alive; raise a pistol barrel to his head and blow out his brains; or script his own blaze of glory by hobbling out the front door and doing battle with the manhunters. He would not stay in the barn. And suicide? Never.

He moved to the center of the barn, swiveled his head in every direction, measuring how quickly the flames were engulfing him. He glanced toward the door and hopped forward, a crutch under his left arm and the carbine in his right, the butt plate against his hip. “One more stain on the old banner,” Booth cried out, conjuring up the Confederate battle flag.

Sergeant Corbett watched Booth’s every move. Corbett had, by stealth, peeked between one of the gaps between the barn’s vertical boards. Booth “turn[ed] towards the fire, either to put the fire out, or else to shoot the one who started it, I do not know which; but he was then coming right towards me...a little to my right—a full breast view.” Now Booth was within easy range of Corbett’s pistol. But the sergeant held his fire: “I could have shot him...but as long as he was there, making no demonstration to hurt any one, I did not shoot.”

Corbett poked the barrel of his revolver through the slit in the wall and aimed it. The sergeant described what happened next:

“Finding the fire gaining upon him, [Booth] turned to the other side of the barn and got towards where the door was; and, as he got there, I saw him make a movement towards the floor. I supposed he was going to fight his way out. One of the men who was watching told me that [Booth] aimed his carbine at him. He was taking aim with the carbine, but at whom I could not say. My mind was upon him attentively to see that he did no harm; and, when I became impressed that it was time, I shot him.”

Instantly Booth dropped the carbine and crumpled to his knees. He could not rise. He could not lift his arms. He could not move at all.

Like sprinters cued by a starting gun, Baker rushed into the barn with Conger at his heels. Baker caught Booth before he toppled over and Conger seized the assassin’s pistol, having to pry it out of the actor’s grasp.

“It is Booth, certainly,” Conger cried jubilantly.

Baker glared disapprovingly: “What on earth did you shoot him for?”

“I did not shoot him,” Conger protested. “He has shot himself!”

Conger raised Booth up and asked, “Where is he shot?” Conger searched for the wound: “Whereabout is he shot—in the head or neck?” Conger examined Booth’s neck and found a hole where blood was running out. “Yes, sir,” Conger deduced. “He shot himself.”

“No, he did not,” Baker said.

There are better places to continue this debate, Conger suggested: “Let us carry him out of here: This place will soon be burning.” They carried Booth under the locust trees a few yards from the door and laid him on the grass.

Conger looked back at the barn: “It was burning so fast; and there was no water, and nothing to help with.” He went back to the locust trees. Gazing down on Booth’s broken body, “I supposed him to be dead. He had all the appearance of a dead man.” Then Booth opened his eyes and moved his lips.

Conger called for water, and a soldier offered his canteen. Baker produced a tin cup, and they splashed some of the water on Booth’s face and poured a little into his mouth. He spit it out. He could not swallow; he was almost completely paralyzed. He tried to speak.

Conger and Baker bent down and put their ears close to Booth’s mouth. After several attempts, Lincoln’s assassin spoke: “Tell mother, I die for my country.” Conger wanted desperately to confirm the accuracy of what Booth had said. These might be the assassin’s historic last words, and they must be reported to the nation exactly as Booth said them.

Enunciating each syllable slowly and clearly so that Booth could understand him, Conger repeated the phrase verbatim. “Is that what you say?” the detective asked.

“Yes,” the assassin whispered.

The tobacco barn was now fully ablaze. The detectives shouted for everyone to retreat to the Garrett house. Several men seized Booth by the arms, shoulders and legs and marched quickstep to the farmhouse. They climbed up the stairs and laid Booth flat on the wood-planked piazza. Blood pooled under his head and stained the floorboards. The Garrett girls carried an old straw mattress from the house and laid it on the porch. Conger and the others folded it in half and laid Booth’s head and shoulders on it. Lucinda Holloway, a Garrett relative, carried out a pillow and gently placed it under his head.

On the porch, Conger observed, Booth “revived considerably. He could then talk so as to be intelligibly understood, in a whisper.”

Booth asked for water and Conger and Baker gave it to him. He asked them to roll him over and turn him facedown. Conger thought it a bad idea. Then at least turn me on my side, the assassin pleaded. They did, but Conger saw that the move did not relieve Booth’s suffering. Baker noticed it, too: “He seemed to suffer extreme pain whenever he was moved...and would several times repeat, ‘Kill me.’”

Booth wanted to cough. He asked Conger to put his hand upon his throat and press down. The detective complied, but nothing happened.

“Harder,” Booth instructed Conger.

“I pressed down as hard as I thought necessary, and he made very strong exertions to cough, but was unable to do so.”

Conger, guessing that Booth feared that some asphyxiating obstruction was stuck in his throat, told Booth: “Open your mouth, and put out your tongue, and I will see if it bleeds.” Conger reassured Booth: “There is no blood in your throat; it has not gone through any part of it there.”

“Kill me,” Booth again implored the soldiers. “Kill me, kill me!”

“We don’t want to kill you,” Conger comforted him. “We want you to get well.”

Conger wanted Booth alive so they could bring him back to Washington. But it was obvious that John Wilkes Booth was not going back alive. Who had fired that shot? Conger demanded to know. He walked away in search of the trigger-happy trooper.

Presently, Boston Corbett came forward, snapped to attention, saluted Conger and proclaimed, “Colonel, Providence directed me.”

Corbett made the same confession to his commanding officer, Doherty, claiming that he had shot Booth only because he believed the assassin was about to open fire on the soldiers. And, Corbett continued, he did not intend to kill Booth. He wanted only to inflict a disabling wound.
Several soldiers compared the location of Booth’s wound with that of Lincoln’s. Perhaps, they marveled, God’s justice had directed Corbett’s bullet to the back of the assassin’s head. Corbett, too, wondered: “[W]hile Booth’s body lay before me, yet alive, but wounded, and when I saw that the bullet had struck him just back of the ear, about the same spot that his bullet hit Mr. Lincoln, I said within myself, ‘What a fearful God we serve.’”

Kneeling at Booth’s side, Lucinda Holloway gazed upon his face—“luminous” is how she remembered it for the rest of her life. Booth stuck out his tongue. He was thirsty. “I took my hand kerchief and dipped it in water and moistened his lips,” she would recall. “I again moistened his lips and he repeated his message to his mother. Soon he gasped, and I again moistened his lips and tongue a third time.”

Booth rallied and opened his eyes.

“The damn rebel is still living!” a soldier exclaimed.

“My hands,” Booth whispered. Baker raised them up for Booth to see. For the last time John Wilkes Booth beheld the hands, now helpless, that had slain a president. Tenderly, Holloway massaged his temples and forehead. Her fingertips felt the life draining out of him: “The pulsations in his temples grew weaker and weaker.”

Mustering all his remaining strength, Booth looked at his hands and spoke again: “Useless, useless.”

His breathing turned sporadic and labored, and he gasped for breath every few minutes. His lips turned purple and his throat swelled.

The rising sun nudged above the horizon and colored the eastern sky. In Albany, New York, mourners who had waited in line all night filed past Abraham Lincoln’s remains, displayed in the state Capitol’s Assembly Chamber. That afternoon the funeral train would pull out of the station, heading west to the prairies. Lincoln would be home soon.

Booth gasped again.

The sun broke free from the horizon and flooded Garrett’s farm with light, which shone on Booth’s face. The soldiers tried to shield his eyes by draping clothes over the back of a chair that they set up on the porch between Booth and the sun.

The stage grew dark. His body shuddered. Then John Wilkes Booth was dead. The chase for Abraham Lincoln’s assassin was over.

From Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killerby James L. Swanson. Copyright (2) 2006 by James L. Swanson. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow & Co., an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.