When Boston Corbett Killed John Wilkes Booth
In the days after John Wilkes Booth fired a bullet into the back of President Abraham Lincoln’s head, the actor had displayed a remarkable ability to move, even with a broken leg, and to hide. But the men trailing him, a regiment of the 16th New York Cavalry, were relentless. In the dark hours of April 26, 1865, they traced Booth and a fellow conspirator, David Herold, to an old and cavernous tobacco barn on the south shore of the Potomac River near Port Royal, Virginia. After several minutes of shouted conversation, Herold emerged from the building and was arrested. Booth, though, refused to come out, and taunted the surrounding troops, telling them that he couldn’t give up his carbine rifle because he needed it to kill them. The squad’s commander, Lt. Edward P. Doherty, wanted Booth alive. The barn was surrounded. The following text is an excerpt from the new book The Madman and the Assassin: The Strange Life of Boston Corbett, the Man who Killed John Wilkes Booth by Scott Martelle.
Boston Corbett stood near a crack between two boards. The gap was about the width of a hand, and he feared that as the sky was lightening, John Wilkes Booth could see, and shoot, the soldiers while remaining hidden from them in the dark of the barn. Better, he thought, to enter the barn and try to subdue Booth.
He walked over to Doherty and offered to go after Booth alone. If the actor shot him, Corbett argued, the other soldiers could overwhelm the assassin before he had a chance to reload. (Corbett was unaware that Booth had a seven-shot carbine and several revolvers.) Doherty rejected Corbett’s suggestion, and the sergeant moved back to his position along one side of the tobacco barn.
A few minutes later, Conger came from around the front of the building and past Corbett to the rear, where he began igniting clumps of hay and slipping them through the cracks in the wall, hoping to burn Booth out. The actor hobbled to the flames, assessing whether he could put out the fire. “While he was advancing toward the fire he came very near to where I was standing and I took aim on him with my revolver, keeping my eye on his movements,” Corbett later said. “I could have shot him very easily when he was so near but kept my fire reserved until I thought it was not safe to trust him any more.” Booth hobbled back toward the front of the barn, Corbett watching through the wide cracks. “I saw him in the act of stooping or springing, and concluded he was going to use his weapons.” Corbett raised his own gun in his right hand, steadied it on his left forearm, and fired.
Corbett’s bullet hit Booth just below the left side of the skull, then traveled across the top of the neck and on out into the barn. Corbett would later note a sense of poetic, or cosmic, justice in that Lincoln and Booth were each shot around the same spot of the head. And the damage to Booth was no less severe than that to Lincoln: the bullet shattered vertebrae and severed the spinal cord, leaving Booth alive but paralyzed and in great pain. As the flames spread with a fury, Doherty, several of his soldiers, and Conger rushed into the barn and carried the momentarily unconscious Booth to the grass outside. The fire grew so quickly that they soon moved the wounded assassin a second time, ultimately placing him on the Garretts’ porch, his head on a thin, rolled-up mattress fetched from inside the house.
At first there was confusion about what had happened. Conger presumed Booth had shot himself, though Baker was certain he had not. “Lieutenant Doherty and the detective officers who were in front of the barn did not seem to know that I had shot him,” Corbett said later. “I informed Lieutenant Doherty of the fact, showing him my pistol which bore evidence of the truth of my statement, which was also confirmed by the man placed at my right hand who saw it.” Doherty, Baker, and Conger all questioned Corbett, who said he aimed at Booth’s shoulder, hoping to wound the assassin, but either his aim slipped or Booth moved at the moment Corbett pulled the trigger. Doherty and the detectives’ first statements after Booth’s capture and death make no mention of Corbett having violated any orders, nor do they suggest that he should face disciplinary action for shooting Booth. Mortally wounded, Booth drifted in and out of lucidity. In a weak voice, he asked the detectives to “tell my mother I died for my country.” He asked Baker to raise his paralyzed hands so he could see them, then mumbled, “Useless, useless.”
Doherty dispatched a soldier to find a doctor who, after a cursory exam, concluded Booth would live. A subsequent closer examination of the wound led to a change in prognosis. The actor, in fact, was dying, and quickly. The sun was low in the morning sky when Booth took a last, short breath. As Booth lay dying, the soldiers raced to save the rest of the Garretts’ farm buildings. A small shed connected the burning tobacco barn to the corncrib and some other storage shelters, and as the flames raged the men dismantled the shed to contain the damage to the tobacco barn. The effort worked: the building in which Booth and Herold were found burned to the ground but the other buildings survived. That job done, Doherty turned his attention to his men.
They had left Washington two evenings before and had yet to sleep, and so far on this day they’d had nothing to eat. Doherty told Corbett to ride to some of the neighboring farms and try to find breakfast for the men. Corbett mounted up, but made a personal detour before carrying out his orders. “I rode off to a spot where I could be alone and pray, and when I had gone through my usual morning prayer, I asked the Lord in regard to the shooting. At once I was filled with praise, for I felt a clear consciousness that it was an act of duty in the sight of God.”