John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, would be aghast to see the spot where he met his end. After all, the vainglorious murderer scoffed at what he was told was the $140,000 price on his head. He thought it should be half a million.
The place where Booth died is as unsung as modernity can make it, a forgotten median, sandwiched between the north and southbound lanes of a divided, four-lane highway. Commuters and truckers speed by, wholly unaware that they’ve passed the location where the most famous manhunt in United States history came to a violent end.
Passersby can be excused for missing this landmark, though. All that’s there to tell what happened–and only on one side of the highway, no less–is a state historical marker some distance southwest of the spot. A hundred yards or so up the road there’s a shallow pull-off on the left shoulder. A trail leads into the densely wooded median. Nothing remains from the time of Booth’s death.
As a matter of course, I’m aiming to chronicle with this project abandoned places of historic value where physical traces remain. The site of Booth’s death, however, raises a number of intriguing questions. Should we preserve, thereby honoring to some degree, history’s uglier episodes? What to do with sites that have fallen victim to progress, that are too far gone for any meaningful preservation? Foremost among my concerns: why did this happen to such a noteworthy spot?
Booth died on the front porch of Richard Garrett’s house, and the farmstead entered a downward spiral shortly afterward. The Garretts claimed that Booth’s death was foisted on them. They didn’t ask for that notoriety. It was simply a matter of wrong place, wrong time.
Booth, and later his accomplice Davey Herold, called on the Garretts seeking shelter. The Garretts’ farm just happened to be the first on the road between the tiny Virginia hamlets of Port Royal and Bowling Green. Booth had shot Lincoln ten days before. The same night Herold helped in the attempted murder of the Secretary of State. They were on the run. But the pair didn’t let on to that; they told the unsuspecting family they were former Confederate soldiers, cousins named Boyd, and the Garretts took them in.
“It has always been one principle of my religion to entertain strangers, especially any that seemed to be suffering,” Richard Henry Garrett later wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Herald. Garrett was a deeply pious man, 55 when war broke out, too old for service, head of a household that included several children from two marriages and a 500-acre working farm called Locust Hill.
Nevertheless, when Booth sought shelter, the Garretts had a gut feeling that something was amiss, and the second night of Booth’s stay, they made Herold and him sleep in the tobacco barn. That’s where Federal soldiers caught up with the fugitives. Booth refused to give up (although Herold surrendered) so the soldiers lit the barn on fire. Still Booth refused to come out.
Against orders, and peering through the slats of the barn wall, a zealous sergeant named Boston Corbett shot Booth and severed his spine. Union soldiers carried the paralyzed Booth to the porch of the Garrett farmhouse where he expired several hours later.
Booth’s passing was just the beginning of the Garretts’ troubles, even though it may not have seemed like that at first. Garrett’s sister-in-law said the farm enjoyed notoriety for quite some time. “The blood spot where Booth’s head lay on the porch at Mr. Garrett’s has been visited by thousands of curiosity seekers and lovers,” Lucinda Holloway told and interviewer two decades after the capture. Holloway claimed that “a large some of money was offered for the plank where the blood spot was made,” although there’s evidence that Garrett didn’t sell off the wood.
Perhaps liquidating the blood-soaked lumber wouldn’t have done much to relieve the economic troubles imposed on Garrett with the whole affair anyway. Much of his livelihood went up in smoke that night with the tobacco barn. Shortly after the war Garrett petitioned the federal government to reimburse him for what he lost, a well-built barn “framed on heavy cedar posts…furnished with all the fixtures for curing tobacco,” and the long list of farm and personal items inside, which included a wheat-thrashing machine, two stoves and five hundred pounds each of fodder and hay. His total claim was $2,525. To put that in perspective, the pay of a private at the end of the Civil War was $192 a year.
Garrett was not a wealthy man. A couple of his neighbors swore under oath that Garrett had “a large and dependent family, and that he is in moderate circumstances.”
Lucinda Holloway claimed that the Booth’s capture “brought pecuniary ruin upon the entire family.”
Garrett pleaded with government officials. “I was opposed to secession and opposed to the war, thinking it unwise,” he said. He claimed to have once “administered to the wants of twelve wounded Federal soldiers, who had been captured and brought to my neighborhood in a suffering state.”
But a congressional committee on war claims had no mercy. A report on Garrett’s case doubted his claim that he didn’t know who Booth was until after the assassin was dead. Garrett “was undoubtedly disloyal,” the report claimed. His was a misfortune of war. He was “not entitled to any compensation.”
That night, something shook Garrett deep inside, too, and there seems to have been some emotional wounds he wasn’t ever able to repair. It might have been that the cavalry that showed up threatened to hang Garrett, whom they dragged out of the house half-naked at one in the morning, if he did not reveal where Booth and Herold were hiding. Garrett stammered incoherently, falsely claiming the men had gone off into the woods.
“From the effects of this exposure and brutal treatment,” recalled his sister-in-law, “Mr. Garrett never recovered, it bringing on disease which led to a premature grave.”
By 1878, Richard Garrett was dead, but a steady decline of his farmstead seems to have already been set in motion. Four years after Garrett’s death, one of his sons (also named Richard Garrett) wrote that a “lonely grave, a desolate and decaying homestead, a scattered family bear mute testimony to the wrong done us, not only by the government, but by our friends.”
What Richard Garrett the younger was referring to was that the family, despite that hordes of curiosity seekers descended on the old farm, seems to have been considered a pariah no matter which direction they turned. Northerners thought the Garretts somehow abetted in the death of Lincoln. Southerners, embittered by the loss of the war, perceived that they were Union sympathizers. The family, Richard Garrett’s statement suggests, went their separate ways.
Oddly enough, people still came in droves to stand where Booth died. “The place has been an object of interest every [sic] since the awful tragedy was enacted there,” the Caroline Sentinel reported in 1890. “The blood stains are still on the porch where Booth was laid when mortally wounded.”
Indeed, there was so much macabre fascination with Booth’s bloody demise that “Mr. Evans, representing an English syndicate,” buyer of the property in 1890, according to the Caroline Sentinel, planned to dismantle the house, ship it across the country and put it on display at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
That ambitious plan fell through for whatever reason, but it suggests (though doesn’t prove) that the house, 25 years after Booth died on the front porch, was no longer inhabited. Sometime around 1900, Alpheus and Fannie Rollins became owners of the former Garrett homestead. The farmhouse was still firmly in place. It’s unclear if anyone lived there after the turn of the 20th century, but scant photographs suggest the structure had been all but left to the elements.
A grainy, undated photograph taken no later than 1924 shows the house in a sad state of disrepair, window panes missing, paint faded and flaked unevenly off the clapboard siding.
A 1937 photograph from the Virginia Works Progress Administration Historical Inventory Project shows the Garrett house far beyond repair, all the windows and doors gone, the structure broken and sagging in the middle as if cleaved by an ax. The accompanying report further illustrates the decay, hastened no doubt by scavengers seeking souvenirs: “All the mantels have been taken away, and some of the doors and windows have been removed.”
In 1940, as the United States inched closer to war, the federal government acquired more than 75,000 acres in Caroline County for live-fire and maneuverability training, and the wasted farmhouse fell on the northeastern rim of the newly-created Fort A.P. Hill.
Two topographical maps–one from 1942 and another from 1952 suggest the last days of the Garrett house. A structure on what’s believed to be the site of the Garrett farm is marked on the former. On the latter, there’s no such symbol.
But if being forgotten is an insult to a place of historic significance, being paved over is perhaps one more degree of disrespect. Originally the Garrett house sat a short distance off the road. In the hours before the standoff, Davey Herold and Richard Garrett’s son John stood in the front yard and watched as a company of cavalrymen thundered by on the way to Bowling Green to follow a hot lead on the whereabouts of the assassins (not knowing they had just ridden right past them).
This very same road was eventually paved and became U.S. Route 301. In 1964, what had been the two-lane road became the northbound lanes of 301. Construction workers graded and paved two more southbound lanes parallel to–north of–the existing road. The wide median, a stretch of land on which Richard Garrett’s farmhouse once stood, is now all woods and hemmed in by wide ribbons of asphalt. It’s probable that the site of the tobacco barn, 50 yards or so from the main house, the spot where federal soldiers finally caught up with their quarry, was graded into oblivion for the sake of two more lanes.
Follow the path that ducks inconspicuously into the median and you come to a clearing that seems like it’s visited occasionally. A sign warns of the stiff penalties for carting off relics (though there are none to be found). There’s standard roadside litter about: cracked concrete pipes, old plastic bottles. An iron pipe is driven deep in the ground. It’s somewhat underwhelming, and the sense that this seems just another spot along a busy, unremarkable road recalls John Wilkes Booth’s last words: “Useless, useless.”