The Rage of John Wilkes Booth, Part 3 of 5: A Shakespearean Finale? 

On April 24, John Wilkes Booth and David Herold arrived at the tobacco farm of Richard H. Garrett. They had been on the run for nine days. Booth lied to Garrett, claiming to be a wounded Confederate soldier, and the farmer agreed to let the men stay in his tobacco barn. The men were nervous, knowing the countryside was swarming with people looking for them.

The government was offering a $100,000 reward for the conspirators’ capture, which is the equivalent of $1.6 million in 2020. The biggest price was on Booth’s head, for $50,000.

Explicit warnings on the Wanted posters stated that anyone assisting the fugitives in any way would be treated as accomplices, who would be subject to a trial by a military commission and the death penalty.

 

In part, the poster read: “All good citizens are exhorted the aid public justice on this occasion. Every man should consider his own conscience charged with the solemn duty, and rest neither night nor day until it be accomplished.”

The wanted poster description of John Wilkes Booth was light on details. “BOOTH is Five Feet 7 or 8 inches high, slender build, high forehead, black hair, black eyes, and wears a heavy black mustache.”

Herold’s description was more substantial. “DAVID C. HAROLD (sic) is five feet six inches high, hair dark, eyes dark, eyebrows rather heavy, full face, nose short, hand short and fleshy, feet small, instep high, round bodied, naturally quick and active, slightly closes his eyes when looking at a person.”

David Herold

In the pre-dawn hours of April 26, soldiers from the 16th New York Cavalry arrived at the Garrett farm and surrounded the tobacco barn. They had tracked Booth and Herold to the area, and they had reliable information John Wilkes Booth was inside the barn. The soldiers were under strict orders to take Booth alive.

When they had surrounded the barn, the soldiers called out, awakening the terrified men. They shouted they would set fire to the barn if they did not surrender. David Herold came out at once and surrendered.

Not Booth. He shouted: “I will not be taken alive!”

The soldiers shrugged and made good on their threat. The barn was set on fire. Booth, armed with a pistol and a rifle, scrambled to escape the inferno.

33-year-old Sergeant Boston Corbett, in defiance of orders, crept up behind the barn and shot Booth in the back of the head, severing his spinal cord and instantly paralyzing him.

Sergeant Boston Corbett, who was credited with killing John Wilkes Booth

This was followed by a slow death. A soldier poured water into Booth’s mouth, but he could not swallow it. He turned his head and spit it out.

A little while later, he said, “Tell my mother I died for my country.”

He asked the soldier to lift up his hands where he could see them. The soldier did as he asked and Booth cried, “Useless… useless!” The soldier let his hands drop.

Garrett farmhouse, where Booth died

He did not speak again but he lingered for two hours and then word went around the soldiers clustered together that John Wilkes Booth was dead. Just eleven days had passed since Lincoln died in a shabby bedroom belonging to a humble tailor.

The soldiers examined his pockets, which contained a compass, his diary, and photographs of five women, including Booth’s fiancée Lucy Hale.

The contents of Booth’s pockets

Booth’s body was wrapped in a blanket, tied to the side of a wagon, and brought to the Navy Yard. According to official records, more than ten people who knew John Wilkes Booth identified him as the assassin. He was identified by a tattoo of his initials (JWB) on his left hand and a scar on the back of his neck. Three of his vertebrae were removed to access the bullet that killed him, and these bones can be seen today at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. The body was temporarily buried in a storage room at the Old Penitentiary.

Meanwhile, Booth’s co-conspirators were captured and tried. Four of them—Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt—were hanged.

The execution of four co-conspirators

Dr. Mudd, whose crime was setting Booth’s broken leg, received a life sentence. Edmund Spangler, the stagehand, was given 6 years in the federal penitentiary for being an accessory to the crime. In 1869, Mudd and Spangler were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. Until the day he died in 1875, Spangler always insisted his only connection to the plot was that Booth asked him to hold his horse.

According to the official reports, Booth’s body was moved from the Old Penitentiary to a warehouse. In 1869 it was sent to Baltimore for burial in the family plot. John Wilkes Booth’s grave is unmarked, but visitors often leave pennies on the grave of Booth’s father. Pennies, of course, feature the bust of Abraham Lincoln.

The headstone of Junius Booth, John Wilkes Booth’s father, with pennies left by visitors

But that’s not the end of the story. The strangest part of Booth’s story was about to begin.  Go to Part 4!

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