Special Report

The Final Hours of John Wilkes Booth

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

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

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.”


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