Where John Wilkes Booth Died; The Garrett Farm

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.

Garrett Farm John Wilkes Booth

 Garrett Farm John Wilkes Booth 2

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).

SAM_1191 - Copy      SAM_1189

 

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.”

Garrett Farm John Wilkes Booth 5      Garrett Farm John Wilkes Booth 6

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
This entry was posted in Ghost towns, Military, Miscellaneous. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Where John Wilkes Booth Died; The Garrett Farm

  1. Doug Noble says:

    Richard,

    I enjoyed your articles very much. Especially this one on the Garrett Farm. It answered my curiosity directly, on how this place could be so forgotten and nothing much left of such a historic sight. Despite it’s notoriety. They certainly saved the School Book Depository.

    I wrote a historical novel, “The Year of the Ironclads” a few years ago. Not yet published. One chapter I thought would interest you involves the Confederate fortifications on nearby Jamestown Island. My parents live near you in Williamsburg.
    I am actually visiting in a couple weeks.

    But I thought one point of interest is the fortification where they have excavated the old colonial fort. You may remember this Civil War redoubt, in front of the ancient church tower. These forts were constructed under the supervision of Catesby Ap Rogers Jones as part of the river approach protection of Richmond.

    Jones with much desire to have command of a Confederate Vessel in the CSA Navy (Which of course hardly existed) got involved with the testing of the armor for the U.S.S. Virginia (The Merrimack). The testing occurred on Jamestown Island from either this fort, or one a bit further down the island. As you can imagine this was a top secret project. They fired on a mock casement, sloped and at the same thickness to test it’s strength. It met the Monitor on March 9th. Jones had been reassigned as the Virginia’s Second in Command, and when the Ships Commander became injured in the March 8th engagement with the USS Cumberland and USS Congress, Jones took command and was in charge during the Monitor engagement.

    The rest is history. I thought I would share this little story as it sounds like something you would be interested in.

    Regards,
    Doug Noble

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Thanks, Doug. Yes the saga of the Garrett Farm is what initially got me interested in disappearing history to begin with.

      I know of the fortifications at Jamestown but not of the site where the testing occurred. I will follow up on that.

      Please let me know about publication of your work. I’m interested in reading it.

      I’ve kept Civil War fortifications largely out of the posts here but have just completed an entire chapter about them in the book I’m writing. There are tons of them around here.

      Actually, I like the name Richard. It’s my father-in-law’s name and was a finalist for my son’s (it became his middle). You know what they say, anything but late for dinner…

      Thanks again for reading and for the comment.

  2. Doug Noble says:

    My apologies “BEN”

  3. Marsha says:

    I loved reading this story, as a child I heard about this from my Paw Paw Garrett, he was one of the son’s of Richard Garrett, he would always tell us about the piece of wood in the trunk that had the blood of John Wilkes Booth on it. I can’t really remember seeing it but heard talk about it when ever we went to visit our Grandparents. I now have six Grandchildren of my own and love to tell this story, they like their parents before them tell this story when they study about Lincoln in School. It is sad to see just a little sign on the road when we go South along that path. Thanks … Marsha

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Thanks for the comment, Marsha. That’s terrific that you’re part of the Garrett family and even better yet that you are passing along your family history and lore to your grandchildren. I, too, find it sad that there isn’t more to acknowledge the vanished farmhouse where such an important episode took place.

      Ben

      • Jill Garrett Tahmooressi says:

        Loved the article. Can you send me a link as I am a Garrett. My father, Gil Garrett related to Richard. He grew up in Bowling Green and I remember visiting my fathers Great- Aunt who took us to see the Garrett farm.

  4. Mike Burns says:

    Very interesting tale.
    Sad that such an important spot gets such little attention – no one is very anxious to want to seem to honor Booth in any manner it seems.
    If only Rolling Stone had been around to run his picture in 1865.
    I came upon this spot by accident taking the back, beautiful way to Williamsburg. I was shocked that the place of Booth’s capture received such little notice, but I guess neither north nor south has any desire to see Booth remembered.
    Still, the history should not simply be flushed done Orwell’s memory hole.
    Worth stopping just to remember what that night must have been like.

    • David Robert says:

      Mike, do you have ant tips on how to find the spot? I am looking for it this week. David

      • Ben Swenson says:

        David, it’s on Route 301about two miles southwest of Port Royal, VA, but only accessible on the northbound lanes. Once you see the state historical marker, drive up a couple hundred yards or so and you’ll see a pull-off on the left shoulder of the road. Follow the trail that leads into the woods and you’re there.

        Ben

    • Laurie Verge says:

      I’m a little late joining this conversation, but I just had to add that I am director of the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, MD – a site with close ties to the Lincoln assassination (and the first place that Booth stopped after leaving D.C.). Since 1977, we have been educating the public to this history and to the Booth escape route. We sponsor at least eight bus tours a year (and as many as 25) over the route, with the anticlimactic ending standing in the median strip of a major U.S. highway as our historian/narrator describes the final days of John Wilkes Booth. To date, over 10,000 visitors have taken this tour and enjoyed the history – and regretted that the Garrett farmhouse was lost.

  5. Peggy Cochran says:

    Being from Southern Maryland I have always been interested in Civil War History. And, of course we wore the gray!
    My Great-Grandfather was a surgeon during that time, but was only in the war from March 1863 until 1865… Anyway, I have read everything I can on John Wilkes Booth escape and some accounts contradict that he was actually killed there…It is my opinion, that it’s up to whatever You believe…
    I also wish that there was more to see at that site as I’ve been past it going through VA…

    • Jim Battaglia says:

      Peggy – you might be interested in reading “Assassination of Lincoln: A History of the Great Conspiracy!” The writer, Thomas Mealey (Maley) Harris, was published in 1892, 27 yrs. after the assassination. Not an easy read, but riveting! T.M. Harris was a member of the Military Commission, charged with prosecuting the conspirators. His perspective, is quite convincing. I have read much of the transcripts of testimonies given, and have drawn my own conclusions, which Mealey’s book locked it in for me! Just a couple of bucks and it can be on your Kindle! Ha! If you haven’t read it, I’d be interested in your views afterwards!

      Mealey was also a surgeon during the civil war! I love this discussion!

      • Peggy Cochran says:

        “Thank you”, Jim… The book you mentioned sounds like a “good” read….I will have to check it out and let you know….

  6. David Orr says:

    What a fine article. I would be happy to read more by this writer.

  7. Richard Bowers says:

    Hi Ben, I enjoyed reading your story. When I was six years old my Grandmother, Sallie Smith Jones Collins told me that we were related to the Garrett family and I never knew her to tell a fib.

  8. Peggy Cochran says:

    Yes, wish there was more to see of Garrett Farm….In the rush to catch John Wilkes Booth have often wondered if they got the “right man?”… Then history again repeated itself with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and I believe along with others that this was a massive cover up….Quick again to get things wrapped up and put the blame on Lee Harvey Oswald….

  9. wm strickland says:

    why was booth shot and allowed to die? was someone worried that he would name names of who and why linclon was shot .

    note the man who shot Booth ended his days living in a hole he dug in Kanasa .alone and avoided . did a guilt complex haunt him

    • Peggy Cochran says:

      William, I honestly think Booth escaped and someone else was shot in his place. David Herold kept telling them that it was not Booth, but they shut him up and he still ended up hanging…..It was Rudy that was shot, Cox’s hired man…Read “David E. Herold” His True Confession by Cristina Bryan. or visit http://www.barclaybryan.com….The whole investigation was a “big coverup”…

  10. Jim Battaglia says:

    Almost anyone can tell you that it was John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln, but hardly anyone would be able to tell you that it was Thomas “Boston” Corbett who shot Booth! I live in Southern Maryland and have visited many of the sites that Booth and Herold visited on their journey through Southern Maryland, and into Virginia, near Port Royal. I served as a consultant on renovations of Dr. Mudd’s house, and on Rich Hill. I think that Mr. Strickland eludes to a bigger conspiracy, that I find interesting. I have been a reader of all things relating to the assassination of Lincoln. Little tidbits, here and there, do raise some questions that might lead you to think of the possibility of a larger conspiracy! I’m glad I stumble onto this page! Jim

    • Peggy Cochran says:

      Sounds like you had a neat job, Jim… I was over at the Farmer’s Market in Charlotte Hall about three weeks ago and someone was selling a sofa/daybed that looked like it was of the same vintage as the one in Dr. Mudd’s House that he’d fixed Booth’s leg on….

  11. Brant Neer says:

    Richard Garrett’s daughter Cecilia F. was raised in Lexington MO by her Uncle, William P. Boulware and his wife Deborah F. Boulware. She was sent to Missouri after the death of her mother Elizabeth Garrett, Dr. Boulware’s sister in 1850, at that time being 12 years old. Later she married John Neill and lived out her life in Lafayette County MO. She is buried at Higginsville MO.

  12. Jim Battaglia says:

    Oddly enough, just last week’s Maryland Independent newspaper had an article about financing the restoration of Rich Hill! The Vallario family donated the site, and the president of the College of Southern Maryland, Brad Gottfried, was the one to make the suggestion that this site be preserved! This is right up the alley of “Abandoned Country!” I’m glad to see this happen…the place is so run down and is of such historic significance! It’s a part of history…good or bad. I can’t wait to see the progress!

    • Peggy Cochran says:

      Yes, I agree with you Jim that it would be neat to have “Rich Hill” restored. I’m from Calvert County and I think it is the same Vallario family that lives across from my brother on Broomes Island Road and has horses….

  13. Goldie McCloud Johnson says:

    Greetings…I was researching the 1865 “Sultana” fire-loss of life; I was prompted “see your Garrett’s and John W. Booth”…
    My Great Grandmother is of the Garrett kin of Buckingham, Cumberland and French lands/Manikin, VA (Bowling Green and Port Royal was part of these lands 1600-1800), there are several Richard Garrett’s in this line…My daughter has worked on this quest “how do we connect this Garrett farm and family; Booth knew Richard and I found the source…Thanks for all of the above info; yes “a cover is a cover”…
    I am spending the last part of this journey “heart-breast cancer (3 surg. -ect) I enjoyed visiting and reading all….Thank You, Love In Christ

    • Peggy Cochran says:

      That’s “very interesting” Goldie! Doesn’t surprise me that Booth knew Garrett….Just like he’d met Dr. Mudd before….Take care of yourself….I just had lung surgery in May and am recovering from that….

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Goldie,

      Thanks for reading and for the comment. Your best bet to research a connection between the Garretts of Caroline and Garretts near Manakin would be a book called Garrett History: History of the Garrett Family of Essex and Caroline Counties of Virginia, Beginning with William Garrett, born 1752.

      The book is available online. You can find it by going to Hathi Trust Digital Library at hathitrust.org and typing in most or all of that title above.

      Thanks again for reading.

      Ben

  14. Skip Shaffer says:

    What is the status now of the median strip location at the Garrett farmhouse site? I understand the the Army has rendered it inaccessible. When I drove by last week, I believe that the signage on the median was removed. although the sign by the slow lane on the NE lane is still there.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Skip,

      Thanks for reading and for the comment.

      I haven’t been by there lately although it’s likely I’ll get a chance to pass within a few weeks or so. If no one else chimes in by then, I’ll reply after that.

      Ben

  15. Charles Rollins says:

    I enjoyed your article and wanted to provide a very small bit of information. My great grandparents were Alpheus( Not Alfred) and Fannie Rollins who you mentioned in your article. I understand from my father that after they purchased the property people would come buy wanting to see the spot where Booth has supposedly died. They found it to be a nuisance. They sold bloody boards to whoever came by that supposedly came from the front porch of the house.(The boards made the family some extra cash but did not come from the from porch). My father also mention that the barn area was cleaned up and materials not damaged by the fire were reused by his family after they purchased the property. My father would have been 100 year old last week and he would had enjoyed your article.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Charles,

      Thanks very much for sharing your recollections. It’s remarkable to me that even though people have been making trips to see this significant spot in great numbers (as I’m sure your great-grandparents could have confirmed) there was never any effort to preserve it. I have made the correction to your great-grandfather’s name. I appreciate you pointing that out.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

      Ben

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