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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

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.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus