Richard Baynham Garrett and the Unwanted Celebrity of an Assassin Come Calling

You’d not think to look for traces of John Wilkes Booth in Portsmouth, Virginia. Sure, the city has witnessed its share of extraordinary episodes, but the bustling port town is a long way from Washington D.C. and the quiet, rural community where the most famous manhunt in U.S. history came to a violent end. For twenty years, though, Olde Towne Portsmouth was the home of Richard Baynham Garrett, a man who unexpectedly came closer to Booth than he would have liked, sharing the assassin’s last night’s sleep, his final meal, watching him utter a few weak phrases and die.

That fleeting brush with history would normally have garnered little beyond the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, which is what Garrett would have preferred. In Portsmouth there is no indication at Garrett’s ordinary grave, or the house where he lived, or the church where he worked, that he was a part of this renowned event. The decades-long aftermath of Booth’s capture kept Garrett forever on the defensive.

Soon after Booth died, doubts arose about what exactly happened that night. In the years that followed, revisionists stained his family’s name and offered alternative scenarios that led up to Booth’s capture and killing, and Garrett felt like he had no choice but to step forward and set the record straight. The duty of Garrett family apologist turned out to be a lifelong endeavor for Richard Garrett and followed him to Hampton Roads.

Richard B. Garrett was the youngest son of Richard Henry Garrett, whose Caroline County, Virginia farm, Locust Hill, was the site where federal soldiers caught up with Booth and accomplice Davey Herold twelve days after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The site of the Garrett farmhouse, which I’ve written about before here, is now a wooded and litter-strewn median in the middle of Route 301.

Young Richard Garrett was ten years old when Booth showed up at his family’s door seeking shelter. The Garretts took Booth in; they were most likely under the impression he was a wounded Confederate soldier named Boyd. Supper that evening was a merry affair with the theatrical Booth trading yarns with two of the Garrett sons who were genuine Confederate veterans.

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 Left: Richard Baynham Garrett’s grave in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Portsmouth, VA. Right: The Confederate section of Cedar Grove Cemetery. Garrett’s Grave is to the right of the flagpole in the background.

The first night of Booth’s arrival, four Garrett siblings spent the night in the same room as the assassin. In the morning, the young Richard noticed an odd jumble of personal effects beside the slumbering stranger. Hanging from a bedpost was a belt containing two revolvers and a dagger. A leather case and opera glasses were on the mantle.

Garrett remembers how dashing his sleeping houseguest was, how foreign those features seemed to ten-year-old eyes used to bronzed and weathered country folk. “I had never seen such a face before,” he wrote years later in a remembrance of Booth’s capture. “Jet black curls clustered about a brow as white as marble and a heavy dark mustache shaded a mouth as beautiful as a babe’s. One hand was thrown above the head of the sleeper, and it was as white and soft as a child’s.”

The next morning Booth, still under the assumed name Boyd, asked to inspect a map. Young Richard fetched it off the wall and spread it before the assassin. Booth told the boy that his ultimate destination was Mexico, that living under the tyrannical hand of the Union was no longer an option.

That was one of several clues that indicated Booth was not giving the family a straight story. Supper that night–Booth’s last meal–was a decidedly more muted affair than the night before. Booth and Herold slept not in the farmhouse, but in a barn, locked inside by the Garretts so the suspicious pair wouldn’t run off with any horses or other belongings.

Richard Garrett watched wide-eyed as federal soldiers surrounded the barn at two o’clock in the morning and demanded fugitives’ surrender. Herold came out, shrieking, carrying on so pitifully that the soldiers gagged him to shut him up. Booth refused to give up, even with flames licking his coattails, and a soldier shot him, hitting his spine, rendering him motionless.

Booth was carried to the farmhouse’s porch. Garrett’s mother and sisters brought a mattress and pillow to lay his body on. They sponged water and brandy to his lips. Garrett heard Booth gasp words as death closed in on him: “Tell my mother I died for my country,” he said, conceding his identity. “I did what I thought was best.”

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Court Street Baptist Church where Garrett was pastor for 21 years.

The episode brought scorn upon the Garretts from every quarter and financial ruin to the family homestead. Northerners had no sympathy for a family they thought harbored Lincoln’s killer. Southerners saw a family that aided an army of aggressors. The government refused to reimburse the Garretts for the more-than-$2,500 worth of material they lost that night. Patriarch Richard Garrett died in thirteen years later and Locust Hill fell into disrepair. His children all went their separate ways, preferring to put that dark chapter behind them.

Young Richard Garrett heard the call of Christian ministry and after completing his education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, served as pastor at churches in Kentucky. In 1899 he landed at Court Street Baptist Church in Portsmouth and was pastor there for 21 years until his retirement in 1920.

Even as an active minister, all the bad press and misinformation about the Garrett name, and especially that of his father, didn’t sit right with Reverend Garrett. In a public lecture he called “A Chapter of Unwritten History,” Reverend Garrett stood up for his father and family: “Standing beside [Booth’s] dead body my father heard for the first time that the man who for two days had been his guest was the man who had killed the President.”

Garrett was responding to a host of conspiracy theories and wild guesses about Booth’s motives and flight. “[T]hey are so contradictory and some of them so manifestly untrue that it is hard to sift out the real truth,” he wrote of speculation about Booth’s time on the lam.

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Garrett’s house on London Street in Olde Towne Portsmouth.

Garrett was especially annoyed by the 1907 publication of The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth by Tennessee lawyer and author Finis L. Bates. Bates’s book made the remarkable claim that, in fact, the man who died on the Garrett porch that night was an overseer named Ruddy and Booth instead escaped west and lived under the assumed names John St. Helen and David E. George until he took his own life in 1903.

Richard Garrett dismissed these claims out of hand. In a 1907 hand-written letter on Court Street Baptist letterhead to one A.R. Taylor, Garrett blasted holes in this outrageous claim. “There never was the slightest doubt about the death of J. Wilkes Booth on April 26, 1865,” he wrote. Bates “was so eager to fit the facts to his theory that he clutched at straws.”

Reverend Richard Garrett died in 1922. No telling if he got a sense late in his life that he had once and for all cleared the family name. The evidence seems to suggest otherwise. In 1921, Garrett’s brother, William Garrett, published another account of Booth’s capture for the magazine Confederate Veteran that again absolved the family of any complicity in Booth’s flight or capture. That elusive sense of innocence might have haunted Richard Garrett to his dying day, but if so, he took it to his simple grave in Portsmouth.

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Garrett’s gravestone inscription which reads in part: “This Tablet is Erected By Loving Members of Court Street Baptist Church Of Which He Was Pastor 1899-1920”

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
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