There are pieces and chunks of obscure history that go forgotten over time, and maybe when it comes to the likes of John Wilkes Booth – who murdered a popular president, after all – that’s mostly okay. After all, why give him any more attention than he already gets?
That said, it is kind of weird that the story of his escape, capture, and demise has largely been swallowed up by time. But here’s how it went down:
John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirator David Herold had been planning their escape route through the Zekiah swamps for some time prior to the shooting. What Booth didn’t count on was breaking his leg in his leap from the balcony, and that painful accident ended up putting a deadly kink in his best laid plans.
They had to stop to see a doctor, then move slowly from Confederate sympathizer to Confederate sympathizer on crutches. A manhunt – the largest in history at the time – was hot on their heels with a $50,000 bounty on Booth’s head.
The fugitives made their way from Maryland to Virginia, where they stopped at the tobacco farm of one Richard Garrett. They told the farmer they were soldiers on their way home from the Battle of Petersburg and provided false names. Though Garrett thought the story seemed suspicious, he also claimed to not have known about Lincoln’s assassination when he gave the pair shelter in his barn.
Two days later the 16th New York Cavalry arrived, and Garrett rolled over like a hound dog for a belly scratch. Harold surrendered without much of a fight, but Booth refused to come out. The soldiers set fire to the barn, hoping to force Booth’s surrender, and then Sergeant Boston Corbett shot toward the assassin through a crack in the wood. The bullet partially severed Booth’s spinal cord, paralyzing hime below the neck. He died on the porch of Garrett’s house two hours later.
For a long time afterward, gawkers showed up to see the bloodstains. Garrett, presumably less impressed, sued the government to try to recoup the funds to rebuild the burnt barn and the equipment he’d lost inside it. He was unsuccessful, partially because the government thought he might have lied about not knowing about the assassination, manhunt, and just who exactly it was he’d allowed to hide in his barn.
Here the story turns sad: Garrett and his family were social outcasts for the rest of their lives. Northerners were pretty sure they had sheltered Booth on purpose, while Southerners didn’t think he’d done enough to help the men escape.
The Garretts sold the property in the early 1900s, and between 1942 and 1952 the house and other structures were torn down to make way for a highway expansion. The spot where John Wilkes Booth – arguably the most (in)famous assassin in American history – died is now located on the median between the northbound and southbound lanes of U.S. Route 301.
There’s a small, historical marker on the side of the highway that tells the tale of Assassin’s End, and a sign that warns trespassers to stay well clear. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll likely miss it.
And maybe that’s the way it should be.
h/t: Atlas Obscura
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