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The Death of an Assassin: The 151st Anniversary of the Capture of John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth’s sister recalled that when he was a young man, he met with a fortune teller who told him he was destined to lead a short and troubled life:

Ah, you’ve a bad hand; the lines all cris-cras. It’s full length enough of sorrow. Full of trouble. Trouble in plenty, everywhere I look. They’ll be nothing to you. You’ll die young, and leave many to mourn you, many to love you too, but you’ll be rich, generous, and free with your money. You’re born under an unlucky star. You’ve got in your hand a thundering crowd of enemies—not one friend—you’ll make a bad end, and have plenty to love you afterwards. You’ll have a fast life—short, but grand one. Now young sir, I’ve never seen a worse hand, and I wish I hadn’t seen it, but every word I’ve told is true by the signs. You’d best turn a missionary or a priest and try to escape it.

John Wilkes Booth. Photograph by Alexander Gardner (1865). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.19233

John Wilkes Booth. Photograph by Alexander Gardner (1865). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.19233

By fate or coincidence, on April 26th, 1865 John Wilkes Booth met his death at the age of twenty-six. After twelve days on the run with co-conspirator David Herold, Booth found himself surrounded by the 16th New York Cavalry and detectives Baker and Conger at Richard Garrett’s Farm near Port Royal, Virginia. Booth was sleeping, but was alerted to the approaching soldiers by the barking of Garrett’s dogs. He tried to escape, but the Garretts had locked the barn from the outside, fearing Booth and Herold might make off with their horses in the middle of the night. After a heated interrogation of the family’s patriarch, Richard Garrett, who insisted that the men had fled into the woods, the soldiers turned to question his son, John. John Garrett directed them to the tobacco barn. The soldiers demanded that the Garretts seize Booth and Herold’s weapons, threatening to burn their property if they did not comply. John Garrett was directed to unlock and enter the barn, where he told Booth and Herold that they were surrounded and that they should give themselves up. Booth accused John of betraying him and John retreated from the barn.

The soldiers renewed their call for Booth to surrender, threatening to burn the barn, but Booth held his position. David Herold, who mistakenly believed that his auxiliary role in the conspiracy would spare his life, was allowed to emerge from the barn and surrender.  Conger directed Richard Garrett’s sons with placing kindling beside the barn. Booth noticed this and ordered John Garrett away from the barn. Booth then asked for a chance to save his life, offering to settle the matter with a duel. Baker responded that he was ordered to take Booth prisoner, not fight him. Though Booth was greatly outnumbered, Baker, Conger, and Doherty (who led the 16th New York Cavalry) did not want to place the men in any unnecessary danger. Sergeant Boston Corbett repeatedly volunteered to enter the barn and fight Booth, with the idea that the ensuing struggle would cause Booth to discharge his weapons at Corbett, leaving Booth unarmed. The offer was refused, and the Cavalry set fire to the barn. Booth was left with three choices: commit suicide, fight his way out, or resign himself to die inside the blaze. Booth chose to fight. As he made his way to the door, he placed his carbine upon his hip, as though he were bringing it into a firing position. Sergeant Corbett, who had been watching Booth through a gap in the wall of the barn, fired, striking Booth in the neck. Booth was then pulled from the burning barn. The shot left him paralyzed, but it did not immediately kill him—he lingered for approximately three hours on Richard Garrett’s porch. Only able to speak in a whisper, Booth said, “Tell mother, I die for my country.” Booth asked to see his hands, and when they were shown to him, he remarked, “Useless, useless.” Booth died as the sun rose.

Sergt. Boston Corbett, 16th N.Y. Cav., who shot J. Wilkes Booth, April 26, 1865 / Brady, Washington. Photograph by Matthew Brady (1865). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40669

Sergt. Boston Corbett, 16th N.Y. Cav., who shot J. Wilkes Booth, April 26, 1865 / Brady, Washington. Photograph by Matthew Brady (1865). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40669

The Library of Congress has a page detailing the contents of President Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was assassinated by Booth at Ford’s Theatre. You might also wonder what Booth was carrying when he died at Garrett’s Farm. Given his reputation as a handsome actor, it comes as no surprise that several of the items were photos of women, one of which was Booth’s fiance. He also carried a small pocket calendar that he used as a diary in which he declared that he had “too great a soul to die like a criminal” and asked god to “spare me that and let me die bravely.”

The Cavalry intended to take Booth prisoner so that he could be interrogated to determine if he was part of a larger Confederate conspiracy that might implicate top Confederate officials, including Jefferson Davis. Corbett, claiming his hand had been directed by divine providence, had frustrated that effort. Corbett explained to his commanding officer that he opened fire because he believed Booth was about to emerge from the burning barn and open fire upon his fellow soldiers, and he had only intended to disable Booth, not kill him.  Corbett received a small portion of the reward money allotted for the capture of the Lincoln conspirators and enjoyed a moment in the spotlight that soon faded. He later found work as an assistant doorman for the Kansas State Legislature, until one day, possibly angered over an impious remark,  he drew his revolver in the statehouse. Corbett was arrested and confined to an asylum, but later escaped.

Sources consulted:
John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir
The Insane Story of the Guy Who Killed the Guy Who Killed Lincoln
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

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