Happy Boothday To You: In Which Our Intrepid Correspondent Rides, Rolls and Rows His Way Into History Chasing the Ghost of John Wilkes Booth


Our Boothday correspondent, astride his getaway steed, prepares to flee down the Ford's Theatre alley 134 Good Fridays after John Wilkes Booth, top, did the same.  (James A. Parcell/The Washington Post)

Crashing onto the stage of Ford's Theatre, my body crumpled and my knees drove past either side of my chin, so that I resembled a squatting, grimacing gargoyle. This was the first time I felt a pang of respect for John Wilkes Booth. The second time was when I was stranded in the middle of the Potomac River, in a rowboat, with a candle and a compass and a police boat bearing down from the north, but that comes much later in our story.

After Booth hit the stage on April 14, 1865, he exclaimed, "Sic semper tyrannis!" -- "Thus always to tyrants."

My quote was: "Ooof!"

Booth flashed a bloody dagger, its blade inscribed with the words "Land of the free."

I clutched a notebook with a scribbled phrase, and this is another direct quote: "Aren't you glad I said no?"

Suzanne Kelley had said that minutes before. She is the National Park Service site manager for Ford's Theatre. She had escorted me to the box where Booth fired a lead ball that smashed six inches into Abraham Lincoln's brain. She seemed not bureaucratic, but fun -- she has a stuffed Taco Bell dog on her desk and she tells a funny story about meeting Johnny Cash -- but she refused to let me leap from the box, the way Booth did. Might break my leg, the way Booth did. Imagine the red tape.

The box was decorated in crimson. A damask upholstered rocking chair was a careful reproduction of where the president sat as Booth sneaked up from behind. A metal-and-plastic console quietly sucked late 20th-century filth from the air.

I looked over the edge of the railing, draped with period flags of the sort that famously snagged Booth's spur. It was a long way down! Fifteen feet from the top of the railing. That's like jumping from a second-story window.

"Aren't you glad I said no?" chirped Kelley.

She produced a steel stepladder.

While Kelley steadied it on the stage beneath the box, I climbed to the fourth step, maybe six feet up, and hurled myself off. What you can't fully appreciate from reading a history book is: Man, you come down hard.

Every June, people in Dublin celebrate Bloomsday. They attempt to do everything and go everywhere that Leopold Bloom and the other characters did in James Joyce's "Ulysses." It is weird and fetishistic and cool.

I came up with Boothday.

Here's why: The first presidential assassination still sears, even through the jade of our own used-up century. In its sinister simplicity is its power: a conspiracy theory that actually proved correct. A lone gunman who really was one. He struck on Good Friday: Judas Iscariot guns down the Savior of the Union.

The murder of Lincoln was also this city's greatest detective yarn. The detectives -- they were called that, even then -- tracked the desperadoes through Maryland and Virginia on horseback. The prototype for countless cowboy hot pursuits, cop chase scenes, and hardboiled manhunts -- real and celluloid -- was improvised in the Washington suburbs.

The key landmarks are still there -- the theater, the alley, the very same Pierre L'Enfant downtown street plan through which Booth rode his getaway horse. There's the tavern, the safe houses, the pine thicket where he ate a ham sandwich. The precise spot of ground where he fell with a bullet through the neck and said his incredibly apt last words.

Scrape away the accumulated gloss of advancing civilization -- as provisional as a vinyl house in a pleasant subdivision in a field where Booth once contemplated eternal damnation -- and the haunted history stares you in the face.

There are only a few places in the country where that happens, where the channel back to the desperate deeds and choices that shaped the American soul is so clear that you have to pay attention.

So then: Walk in the footsteps of Booth, dial back history, go deep into the heart of that nightmare.

But have I no sense of decency?

Right away I should introduce you to Don Paul, who speaks for those who think Boothday is, well, just a little sick.

He repairs boats on the Virginia side of the Potomac River and was surprised to learn three years ago that he inhabits one of the houses where Booth sought aid and comfort. He is patient and friendly with the Booth groupies and assassination buffs who come to his door -- and there are a surprising number of them -- but this is what he really thinks: "That's like 100 years from now following Hinckley's route after he shot Reagan."

But Hinckley was so uninteresting. For one thing, John Hinckley's route was a lot shorter: roughly the distance from standing on the sidewalk outside the Washington Hilton to lying on the sidewalk, beneath a mob.

For another, Hinckley, who was trying to impress an actress, is easily dismissable. Booth wasn't, as you learn on Boothday. The handsome, well-read 26-year-old actor is seductive in death: America's Lucifer.

And precedent is on my side. The tradition of retracing Booth's 100-mile getaway route is well established. The first version of Boothday came right after the assassin was fatally shot in a burning tobacco shed in Virginia. Federal troops and private detectives began at the end, marking the trail back toward Ford's, arresting everyone in their path.

Then came the journalists and adventure writers who tramped through the fields and woods and sent back purple dispatches with suspiciously long quotes from "eyewitnesses." Hot on their heels were the assassination buffs. Their fascination was epitomized by Osborn H. Oldroyd, who walked the entire route with an umbrella and wrote a book about it in 1901.

Now we have the tourists. Bus tours track Booth's flight, while families in cars visit Ford's then get lost following the vague roadside markers erected by the government.

It turns out a whole subculture of characters exist whose lives in one way or another revolve in the orbit of the hot ball that lodged forever in the nation's mind.

So, Mr. Paul, we are simply exploring a rich American tradition.

Plus, it would be really neat to ride a horse through downtown D.C.

Saddling Up

"Do we get to shoot at you like an escaping bad guy?"

That's the affectionate cop humor of Sgt. Joe Gentile, spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department. We are deep into our preparations for Boothday, and he's not sure a civilian riding a horse through the city is legal. He thinks we might need a parade permit.

Walter Smith, in the D.C. corporation counsel's office, researches the question. He discovers that the last city horse law was passed in 1892. The statute makes it illegal to ride on the sidewalk, on pain of a $5 fine. But you can ride in the street, as long as you obey traffic laws. Fair enough.

Now we need a horse. Booth was able to choose from rental stables all around the city. It was the equivalent of hiring a car. The analogy works: People knew horses the way we know cars. Witnesses exactly described Booth's bay mare with a white star blaze on the forehead, the way today they might note a white Ford Bronco fleeing the scene.

"See what a nice horse I have got!" Booth boasted to a saloon keeper the day of the assassination. "Now watch: He can run just like a cat."

The only stable in downtown Washington today is Charley Horse Carriage Co., owned by Sarah Davies. We are in luck: Her horses are accustomed to wading through traffic, and they wear special shoes for asphalt.

My mount is a dark bay gelding with a white star blaze on his forehead. His name is Bartholomew, a big placid lug with nerves of steel and soulful brown eyes. He is most un-catlike. He likes to cast up his eyebrows in a quizzical expression that clearly states: "Are you kidding me?"

Start of the Show

Boothday naturally must take place on Good Friday, April 2 this year. Booth began his 100-mile dash after shooting the president about 10:15 p.m. Since Bartholomew does not come with headlights or taillights, it seems prudent to start our journey in the morning. It took Booth 12 days. To make this sporting, since we'll be cheating with mechanized conveyance when necessary, we'll try it in 12 hours.

Booth was no alienated loner. He was a celebrity, earning movie-star wages of $20,000 a year, and he was well known at Ford's. It was as if Sean Penn, instead of marrying Madonna, had decided to shoot the president. Before striding into the theater that night, the first thing Booth did was drink a glass of whiskey followed by a glass of water at the Star Saloon. Today the Ford's Theatre box office is where the saloon stood, but across the street is Mike Baker's 10th Street Grill, a boardinghouse at the time of the assassination. The bartender pours some Jack Daniel's and some water. I want to obey all traffic laws, including the one about riding under the influence, so I take only a sip of the booze.

A few minutes later, I am standing in the crimson box on the infamous spot behind Lincoln's rocker. I look at where the president probably was just beginning to chuckle at the punch line in Act III, Scene 2 of "Our American Cousin." Booth waited for the applause. I feel sick to my stomach. Could it be the nip of whiskey? But I also feel a sneak attack of emotion. I cut it off before it embarrasses me.

I remember what Mike Maione once told me. He's the gonzo kvetcher of a historian at Ford's, forever complaining about all the assassination myths he must debunk, loving every minute. At his desk he's got the massive "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln" and pinned-up photos of Booth's co-conspirators swinging from the gallows.

"Why are we doing this?" Maione asked rhetorically, and by "this" he meant everything of which Boothday is just a part, the whole Lincoln fascination, Ken Burns, hairsplitting assassination debates, 1 million people a year lining up to visit Ford's.

"We are trying to get right with Mr. Lincoln," Maione said. "He had lessons for us. We would have evolved better as a nation if he had lived. On the day he died, he came here, to Ford's. His spirit, his feeling, is here."

I'm across the stage and out the back door to the alley, where Bartholomew is waiting, as only horses can wait. The old Ford's stage manager was sentenced to six years in prison for innocently instructing an underling to hold Booth's bay mare.

The alley is walled in by decrepit brick buildings. It's all graffiti, dumpsters and urine stink. A man is sleeping under ragged blankets.

Booth spurred his skittish horse to a gallop. I accelerate Bartholomew to a walk.

"Remember," Kelley calls after me, her stepladder smirk having never left her lips. "Don't go in the tobacco shed."

Davies is beside me, riding a light gray gelding named Friar Tuck. For late 20th-century insurance reasons, she must accompany me and her horses. In one hand she holds a long, black rope, the other end of which is attached to Bartholomew's bridle.

Okay, it's a leash.

The Man and the Myth

We turn right out of the alley onto F Street. It's rush hour.

A horse is much taller than a car. From the driver's seat of a Chevrolet, once you get close, the view is all flank, tail, boots and stirrups. That is why nearly every motorist we pass is craning way over, almost lying across the passenger seat, to verify some highly unexpected visual data at this early hour of the day. At intersections, Bartholomew likes to nuzzle down to the occasional hatchback. Despite his blinders, he and the occupants can exchange identical glances: Are you kidding me?

Riding a horse from Ford's Theatre, announcing to anyone who looks at you funny that you are tracing Booth's escape route, confirms one thing: The story has powerful resonance. Especially around here, personal connections to the characters are not unusual. Random pedestrians spontaneously claim deep personal involvement in the folklore.

The first person we meet is John Lusk, a construction worker with a crew renovating the old Riggs Bank building at the corner of F and Ninth. When we explain our mission, his face lights up like a child's under his hard hat. He says he lives on a farm in Charles County that used to be owned by a peripheral character in the assassination drama. "When they started hanging everyone, he got out for a while," Lusk says.

Lusk recites the whole assassination story during a pause in traffic. He does pretty well until the end: "The last I know, Booth went to England. He got away with it."

Curious improvisations on the facts are common, such as Booth's escaping capture.

Other people have their famous American villains scrambled.

"I had no idea he came this way," says one man. "I heard on the news they got him right away."

The news?

"He shot Reagan, right?"

This part of Booth's route is inexactly known, because there were no witnesses between Ford's Theatre and the Anacostia River. We take the quickest way, which historians say is a good guess.

We pass the MCI Center, near where Booth once plotted with his minions, and zigzag to Capitol Hill.

At Pennsylvania and Fourth Street SE, we pull into an Exxon station. Bartholomew lifts his head, bares his teeth and gives a tremendous extended Academy Award equine whinny. I look around to see what he's referring to. Sure enough, here is a politician.

It's Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon, the recently retired chairman of the House Rules Committee, waiting in line to fill up his Mercury Grand Marquis. I tell him about Boothday. "I just gave Speaker [J. Dennis] Hastert an oil portrait of Lincoln," Solomon says.

Continuing at a trot, we pass the Navy Yard on M Street and come under the 11th Street bridge. Booth crossed a low wooden bridge right about here. He gave his real name to a sentry, who quizzed him about crossing past curfew. "I thought he was a proper person to pass," the sentry recalled, perhaps a smidge defensively, "and I passed him."

Today the bridge is an Interstate highway, so we take a horse trailer to the other side, remount and head into Anacostia.

Booth traveled up the long hill on Good Hope Road, part of which back then was called Harrison Street. His brief legacy in Anacostia is not part of most official histories, which tend to skip from Ford's directly to Maryland. But it is recounted in neighborhood myth.

"My aunt told me this didn't used to be called Good Hope Road," says Mark Burr Jr., 16, who lives on Good Hope. "They chased him from Ford's Theatre all the way up here. And they caught him on Good Hope Road. It was out of `good hope' that they found him, and that's why they named the road."

At Alabama Avenue SE, about three hours and five miles from Ford's, my thighs feel as though they have been stomped and set on fire. It's nothing compared with riding with a broken leg, but I switch from the dark bay gelding to a green Ford Mustang. At least it has a chrome galloping horse logo on the side.

Along for the Ride

In America, our deepest preoccupations end up as songs. I pop a cassette tape into the Mustang and hear staccato guitar picking, followed by lyrics.

John Wilkes Booth was a Southern man

Son of an actor in Maryland

The song is "John Wilkes Booth" by Mary Chapin Carpenter. She was commissioned to write it by noted bluegrass artist Tony Rice, a Lincoln assassination buff, who recorded this version. The song recounts the story with detail and accuracy.

The chorus goes:

Some said there were five, some said there were 10

Some said there was never more than just one man

Who would smile to see Mr. Lincoln dead

Booth abetted these myriad retellings in fable, film and fiction by leaving behind a florid diary, written in the heat of his flight. The diary, and the later testimony of major and bit players in the drama, fleshed out the conspiracy.

The basics: Booth, believing Lincoln a tyrant, used his charisma to gather co-conspirators. The first plan was to kidnap the president and exchange him for Confederate POWs. It didn't lack for nutty flair: One version had the gang lowering Lincoln from a theater balcony with a rope. By April 14, five days after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the plot had evolved to assassination. As Booth shot Lincoln in Ford's Theatre, an accomplice attacked and seriously wounded Secretary of State William Seward. Booth ordered a third plotter to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, but he backed out.

The authorities named 10 conspirators. Three months after Booth was shot, four were hanged, including a woman named Mary Surratt, and four were sentenced to prison. Surratt's son John was released after his trial ended in a hung jury.

Ever since, assassination buffs have quarreled bitterly over who was truly guilty. In some cases, absolute proof is lacking. As the song says:

Only Booth could have proved them free

Of the taint of the conspiracy

It's not a romantic outlaw ballad, like Woody Guthrie on the subject of Pretty Boy Floyd. The tune evinces fascination, not admiration, for the bad guy. In the liner notes, Rice writes that "it is possible to appreciate both Abraham Lincoln and the man who felt compelled out of patriotism to assassinate him."

But this is a dangerous thought. Rice feels compelled to issue a disclaimer: "Speaking on behalf of Mary Chapin as well as myself, neither of us could condone such a criminal act as the one committed by John Wilkes Booth."

Such are the guilty apologies on Boothday. This song will be our soundtrack.

The Single-Shot Theory

Branch Avenue -- Route 5 -- into Maryland is a six-lane highway. The way has been straightened, the topography flattened, since Booth came riding through. Back then, the country road meandered, rutted and unpaved, through farm fields and forests.

Now Prince George's is a jarring patchwork. Tattered agricultural shanties persist not far from grand new vinyl palaces with brick facades and brass doorknobs. Winding country lanes open onto shopping strips selling videos, liquor, designer nail jobs and redwood decks. Between these extremes is an intermediary layer of modest ranch houses, the first suburban wave that crashed onto former plantations along Booth's route, where Lincoln had declared the slaves free, and where today in some cases the slaves' descendants own the very same ground.

Near what is now the Capital Beltway, Booth met up with one of his most committed supporters, David Herold, a shiftless, goateed 22-year-old, who rode with him the rest of the way, and was hanged for his trouble.

I pull the Mustang into the parking lot of the old Surratt tavern, a red Georgian clapboard place once owned by Mary Surratt. It's now the Surratt House Museum, offering full exhibits on the story and twice-yearly bus tours of the escape route. Here is where Booth and Herold stopped around midnight for whiskey and a rifle. Michael Kauffman is waiting for me.

Kauffman is one of the leading Lincoln assassination experts, though his real job is network television news technician. He is a method historian. He believes in total immersion. He set fire to a tobacco shed, to see how quickly it would be consumed. He has splashed through the Zekiah Swamp in Charles County, which Booth had to cross. He has leaped from a ladder onto the stage of Ford's Theatre. Besides his physical experiments, Kauffman has laboriously assembled data on thousands of people connected to the drama.

"Booth structured everything so it would be very daring and dramatic," Kauffman maintains. "He wanted to make sure . . . people would know he wasn't taking the easy way out." That's how Kauffman explains the single-shot Derringer, leaving him only the dagger to slash through Lincoln's defenders.

Some might think Kauffman sounds a little soft on Booth.

"It's in bad taste to say anything nice about him," he sighs. He thinks Lincoln was a great president, and Booth's deed dastardly. But he finds it historically useful to try to empathize with the anti-hero.

Booth came from a line of self-styled republicans. His father's middle name was Brutus, the despot slayer in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." According to Kauffman, Booth acted more or less rationally in response to the way Lincoln treated his home state of Maryland. The Lincoln of Maryland was a tad despotic, mainstream historians agree. He suspended civil liberties, jailed dozens of legislators, and shut down pro-South newspapers.

"To explain is not to excuse," Kauffman says of his attempts to understand the assassin. It is his Boothday disclaimer.

Today Kauffman is wearing a green baseball cap from Garfield Furniture Inc. in Enid, Okla. This is a bit of Boothday irony. See, one of the Booth myths was that he escaped, fled to Enid, committed suicide in a hotel. A man claiming to be Booth actually did take his life in an Enid hotel, after which a promoter took a mummified body, billed as the Booth suicide, on the sideshow circuit. The suicide hotel was converted into a furniture company. The company owners preserved intact what may be the room where "Booth" offed himself. Kauffman visited and came back with the hat.

Kauffman shows me where a Spencer carbine for Booth was hidden beneath a floor joist of the Surratt tavern.

Meanwhile, back at Ford's Theatre, around the time Booth picked up the gun at the tavern, Eureka! Somebody finds the murder weapon.

A guy from the theater audience is fumbling through his coat for his door key. Geez, it must have fallen out in the president's box when he was rendering assistance. He goes back, fishes around under the rocker, and comes up with the Derringer.

He dutifully hands it over to . . . a reporter from the Associated Press.

This almost never happens at crime scenes anymore.

Mudd Slinging

We are in Charles County now. The roads are more narrow and winding. The houses are smaller and farther apart. There are vast farms.

We pass Dr. Samuel Mudd's house, now also a museum. Booth stopped here at 4 a.m. and Mudd set his broken leg.

The house rises sharp and clean and white in the middle of a field, a counterpoint to the blurry -- yes, muddy -- controversies that still envelope the assassination, chief among them being the question of Dr. Mudd's guilt or innocence.

"Watch out for the Mudds," warns James O. Hall. "They're advocates, not historians." Hall is another great assassination scholar, who wrote a detailed guide for the modern traveler of the escape route. He's one of those convinced that Mudd was "up to his neck" in Booth's schemes.

Louise Mudd Arehart, the feisty granddaughter of the doctor's, has no patience with the Hall camp. "They don't open their mouths and say any of that stuff to me," she says.

Arehart claims that Mudd didn't recognize Booth, even though they had met before, and out of humanity simply aided an injured stranger.

President Andrew Johnson pardoned Mudd in 1869, partly for his heroism during a yellow fever epidemic while in prison. The family wants a complete exoneration. They are pressing their case with the U.S. Army, and a federal judge ruled last fall that the Army should reconsider Mudd's conviction.

Other hotly argued controversies: Did Mary Surratt, who was in on the kidnapping scheme, know the plot had changed to murder? Should she have been hanged?

Did Jefferson Davis and the Confederate hierarchy put Booth up to it?

The buffs and historians quarrel endlessly about this stuff, but they unanimously dismiss the way-out theories of others who believe, for example, that Booth got away. Three years ago, Kauffman and Hall were among those who testified against a dramatic, but unsuccessful, legal quest by descendants of Booth's relatives: to exhume Booth's Baltimore grave to see if he is really there.

One thing is certain: Not all of Booth is in the grave. I have held Booth bits in my hand: a section of his bullet-shattered spine and a piece of his smoggy-yellow severed spinal cord. They are stored on foam in a blue cabinet at the National Museum of Health and Medicine on 16th Street NW. The vertebrae -- tagged as a classic gunshot-to-spine injury -- are mounted on a polished wooden stand, like a gift from the Nature Company.

Bad Notices

A succession of Marylanders helped Booth's flight, proving correct Lincoln's instinct about the leanings of the Free State.

One of the most helpful was Thomas Jones, a Confederate agent. He led Booth and Herold to a pine thicket outside what is now the little town of Bel Alton, near the river. This is where Booth was 134 years ago today.

Jones published an unabashed tell-all book about his experience 28 years later. That would be like an accomplice of Lee Harvey Oswald selling his assassination memoir today. Back then, it wasn't long before many of the sympathizers were blabbing to reporters. They did not fear prosecution. After the quick hangings, the public's thirst for vengeance seemed to pass, and the nation quickly moved on.

Jones recalled his introduction to Booth: "He was lying on the ground with his head supported on his hand. His carbine, pistols and knife were close beside him. A blanket was drawn partly over him. His slouch hat and crutch were lying by him. He was exceedingly pale and his features bore the evident traces of suffering. I have seldom seen a more strikingly handsome man."

Over the next few days, Jones would deliver ham and bread and butter.

Now Kauffman and I are sitting in the pine thicket, eating ham sandwiches.

These aren't the same pine trees -- they don't live that long -- but it's the same piece of ground, Kauffman maintains. The ground is littered with beer bottles.

Across the way lives a woman who grew up on the street. She took the whole Booth thing for granted, until one day she met Jeff Huffman, an assassination buff. "When he found out I lived on this road, boy, that was a bonus," says Joan Huffman. "He married me!"

 Jones also brought the assassin newspapers.

This was the crushing moment for Booth -- reading the press notices of his criminal performance. He had expected to find some sympathy for his bravery, if not approval of his deed. He had expected to be taken seriously, a fearsome and worthy adversary of the North.

Instead he found Lincoln rendered a saint. And the killer was being called a punk, a coward, a Judas. They said he wasn't such a hot Shakespearean actor, either. In the unkindest cut of all, the papers expressed doubt that such inconsequential scum could have pulled this off himself.

The Washington Chronicle: "His capture is certain; but if he is true to his nature, he will commit suicide, and thus appropriately end his career."

His hometown paper, the Baltimore Sunday American, said Booth was "loose in morals and dissipated in his habits" and concluded that the "infamous plot" was "devised, no doubt, by older heads and blacker hearts." Booth liked to visit New York, the paper noted darkly, "where, doubtless, the hellish scheme was concocted."

New York! Of course!

Booth threw a fit. He was the author and protagonist of this tragedy, and he wanted some credit, damn it.

He started writing furiously in his pocket journal, which is now on display at Ford's Theatre. He dated the entry "The Ides," an allusion to the Ides of March, when Brutus killed Caesar. Booth killed Lincoln the day after the Ides of April.

"I struck boldly, and not as the papers say," Booth wrote. "I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends; was stopped, but pushed on. . . . In jumping broke my leg. . . . The country is not what it was. This forced union is not what I have loved."

In the journal he also floated the incredible notion that it might still be possible to return to Washington and "clear my name."

Against the Current

Nobody rows anymore. Even Osborn H. Oldroyd, with his umbrella, took a sailboat. In all the retracing of Booth's route over the years, everyone conveniently skips the part in the rowboat. Until now.

Booth and Herold pushed off in a 12-footer supplied by Jones from a narrow beach where a little stream still flows into the Potomac. History is a matter of perspective on this beach. Today it is littered with blackened, fossilized sharks' teeth that predate Booth by about 15 million years. The Jesuits own the property now. Upon the cliffs above the beach is the Loyola Retreat House, where Father Stephen Garrity is preparing to lead an afternoon Good Friday service. The devout and the searching come here to be alone with God.

As he contemplated his river crossing, a week after committing murder, Booth was feeling alone, and thinking of God. Grandiosely spinning his legacy, he wrote in his journal about being "wet, cold and starving, with every man's hand against me."

"And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for. . . . And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant . . . am looked upon as a common cutthroat. . . . For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and Holy, brought misery upon my family, and am sure there is no pardon for me in the heavens, since man condemns me so."

And this: "I have too great a soul to die like a criminal."

The trick about rowing across the Potomac is catching the tide right. When Booth made his first attempt to cross, he got swept upriver and landed on the Maryland side again, before he successfully crossed the next night.

Today the tide will be against us. Our mission is to see if we can follow the course Booth originally set to the Virginia side, in spite of the tide. To glean further data, I have brought a black cherry-scented candle from CVS and a compass from Sears. Kauffman has brought an A&W root beer mug for bailing.

We splash up to our knees dragging our rented boat from shore, and jump in. Something happens when we are bobbing off shore, under the high cliffs, pulling away from Booth's beach. A sudden euphoria washes over us. Kauffman is grinning crazily.

"This is really cool," he says.

The river is smooth and lazy and quiet, the color of lead. The rowing seems easy. We take turns at the oars.

Before Booth and Herold pushed off from shore, Jones lighted a candle and pointed out the correct heading on Booth's compass. The compass is now at Ford's dripped with candle wax.

One theory is that Booth went off course because the candle blew out and he could not see his compass.

Kauffman sets a heading of 190 degrees, to take us diagonally under the Route 301 bridge and across to Virginia, six miles. Our candle stays lit for 30 minutes. This may be significant. Or it may mean nothing at all, since we don't know the wind conditions, and there was some rain when Booth attempted to cross. But it is a true fact.

We come to a bobbing orange buoy, which is roughly the spot where a federal gunboat was anchored during Booth's crossing, according to Kauffman. To avoid detection, Booth and Herold may have stopped rowing and drifted off course.

After about an hour, Kauffman makes another observation.

"We're not making any progress past that buoy."

The calm river surface is an illusion. A profound tide is surging upriver toward Washington. Cruising right at us is a big motorboat from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Of course, the captain is probably just curious, but imagine if it were a hostile federal gunboat. I can't help feeling helpless.

Fortunately, we have a Plan B, in the form of a Post outdoors columnist in a motorboat.

Angus Phillips takes us aboard, and tows the row boat behind. Even with the power of 70 horses, it takes another hour to get to the other side.

Nice feat, Booth.

Gimme Shelter

As a point of pride, we row the last few hundred yards to shore. Don Paul, wearing a knit cap and the faintest trace of a smile, watches us come in.

He lives in the former house of Elizabeth Quesenberry, a notorious Confederate spy dame, and his Dahlgren Marine Works is on the land she used to own. The white wooden house is much altered since then, but it is a major stop on all Booth escape tours.

He and his wife, Shirley, had no idea when they bought the place.

"You're sitting there eating your breakfast in the morning," says Paul, "and a whole bunch of people come up and start taking pictures. You get a little worried."

Quesenberry was a little worried herself at the prospect of helping the fleeing felons. She dispatched another spy, who found someone to bring Booth and Herold to Cleydael, the grand second home of Dr. Richard Stuart, a wealthy associate of General Lee. Today Cleydael is the name of an upscale subdivision, where new homes range up to $350,000. The old house that sheltered Booth is in their midst, a stately neoclassical dwelling with a wraparound porch.

Above the front door is a wooden sign that says in Gaelic, "A thousand welcomes."

That's the doing of Brenda Pollock, an Irish native. She and her American husband, Richard, bought the house a few years ago because they wanted a place with more history and character than the new homes going up everywhere. They weren't much into Booth and the assassination until they bought the place. Now they're hooked. This becomes clear when they realize it is the legendary Kauffman at their door. They are so sorry they missed his lecture in town last year.

Pretty soon Kauffman is inspecting the place and being interrogated.

"Did Stuart know Booth?"

"No."

"Did Stuart know of Booth?"

"I kind of doubt it. Every time Booth and Herold would try to tell their story, Stuart would say, `I don't want to know who you are.' "

Outside, luscious lawns cover the ancient landscape. Kids ride bikes on smooth asphalt roads. About the only other structure that was still around from Booth's time was an old well that Ed Veazey, the subdivision's developer, had to fill in.

To this day, he regrets not using a metal detector on the well. Booth no longer had a horse; he was hitching rides when he got here. He didn't need his second spur, the one he didn't lose when Mudd set his leg. Maybe he threw it down the well.

Veazey has a name for the next Cleydael cul-de-sac he develops. "I'm going to call it Booth's Spur."

Playing the Final Scene

Booth and Herold rode in the back of a wagon down to the ferry across the Rappahannock River, where they met three Confederate soldiers on their way home after the war.

"We are the assassinators of President Lincoln," Herold said, according to Willie Jett, 18, one of the soldiers.

Jett asked Booth and Herold for their autographs.

The hunted men ended up at Richard Garrett's house, claiming to be a wounded former Confederate soldier and his friend. When a posse of federal cavalry and detectives came galloping by, Booth and Herold bolted for the woods.

Now Garrett was suspicious of his two visitors. He wouldn't let them stay in the house that night. He let them sleep in the tobacco shed, but he locked the door, fearing they would steal his horses and be off.

The feds found Willie Jett sleeping in a hotel a few miles down the road. Jett led them back to Garrett's, where they surrounded the tobacco shed about 2 a.m.

Today the site of the Garrett farmhouse is the wooded median of Route 301 where it cuts through Fort A.P. Hill a few miles south of Port Royal. All that's left is some chimney bricks and beautiful purple wisteria. The site of the tobacco shed is off the right shoulder of the southbound lanes.

Booth tried to choreograph his last scene to maximum heroic effect.

He would not be a coward, as the papers said.

He would not commit suicide, as the papers said.

But he didn't want to burn up. He didn't want to hang. He was 26. He wanted to exit big.

The stagey dialogue of that final scene is preserved in the testimony of the surviving witnesses.

"Captain, I know you to be a brave man, and I believe you to be honorable," Booth opened, not realizing he was addressing a lieutenant named Luther Baker.

The assassin tried to cut a deal. How about the troops move back 100 yards and give him a sporting chance to fight his way out?

Nothing doing, said Baker.

Okay, said Booth, how about 50 yards?

No way, said Baker.

"Well, my brave boys," said Booth, "prepare a stretcher for me."

This is when Herold indicated a desire to come out with his hands up.

"Will you leave me now?" cried Booth to his partner. "Go, go. I would not have you stay with me."

An officer lit some straw and shoved it through a crack in the barn. It flared up.

Kauffman picks up the story on the shoulder of the southbound lane of Route 301. It is dark. We scramble up the side of the road, through prickers and brush. The roadbed was cut down into the land, making the tobacco shed site appear elevated.

Now we're standing amid a stand of trees. Trucks and cars with bright headlights are roaring past, barreling south toward Bowling Green, and then Richmond, old capital of the Confederacy.

Kauffman knows this is where the shed stood, because he has studied surveys and aerial photos of the site from before the farmhouse was demolished in the 1930s. He's been here so many times, he can find it in the dark.

He stands about where Booth had stood, physically reenacting the assassin's last minutes: He notices the imaginary fire behind him. He's got the crutch in one hand and the carbine from Mary Surratt's in the other. He makes some moves to quell the flames. It's hopeless.

"So Booth spins and turns around and drops the crutch, and starts to shuffle to the door."

Now Kauffman is limping. He looks to his right, where Sgt. Boston Corbett would have been peering through a gap in the shed boards. Corbett stuck the long barrel of his Colt cavalry revolver into the shed.

"Booth takes a step toward the door while raising the carbine."

Corbett fired.

"When Corbett shoots him, it's exactly when he takes his step on his bad leg, so he's in a little more of a crouch than Corbett expected, and the bullet goes in the right side of his neck and down, toward the back, and out the left side. They heard the bullet hit the other side of the shed, but it was never recovered."

I look around in the dark. Could that spine-shattering piece of lead still lie beneath this soil?

Now Booth is paralyzed from the neck down. The traffic is loud. "He just drops. Baker threw open the door and ran in. The barn was being consumed at that point."

The soldiers pull Booth out to Garrett's front porch, where he lies with his head in the lap of a young woman boarder, murmuring:

"Tell my mother I died for my country."

Then, "Kill me, kill me."

Finally, he nods at his hands, and someone lifts them above his face.

"Useless, useless," he mutters.

The paralyzed hands? The assassination? His life?

Then he dies.

 

Tracing Booth's Route

By Horse: From the alley behind Ford's Theatre, turn right on F St. NW, right on 5th St. NW, left on E St. NW, right on New Jersey NW, left on Constitution, right on First St. NE, left on Independence, right on Pennsylvania SE, right on 8th St. SE, left on M St. SE.

By Horse Trailer: Cross 11th St. Bridge

By Horse: Continue up Good Hope Road to Alabama Ave. SE

By Mustang: Take Naylor Road to Route 5. Cross Beltway, exit onto Linda Lane, continue on Old Branch Avenue to ...

... Surratt tavern, where Booth gets whiskey and a rifle. Now Surratt House Museum. Open Th-Fri., 11-3, Sat-Sun. 12-4; escape route bus tours by reservation, 301-868-1121.

Continue on the same route now called Brandywine Rd. Right on Horsehead Rd. Right on Poplar Hill Rd. Left on Dr. Samuel Mudd Rd. to ...

... Dr. Mudd's house, where Booth gets his broken leg set. Now a museum, open 12-4 Sat. & Sun., 11-3 Wed.

Continue on Mudd Rd. Right on Bryantown Rd. Left on Route 5. Right on Burnt Store Rd. which becomes Olivers Shop Rd. Right on Route 6 across...

... Zekiah Swamp. Left on Bel Alton Newtown Rd. Left on Wills Rd. to...

...Pine Thicket where Booth hides (across railroad tracks on private property). Return on Wills Rd. Left on Bel Alton Newtown. Left on Route 301. Right on Popes Creek Rd. to...

... Loyola Retreat House, private property, where Booth boards row boat.

By Row Boat: Booth was blown upstream his first attempt, but we try to go straight across. Fighting strong tide, row to ...

...Here. Now request motorboat tow. By Motorboat, continue to...

Dahlgren Marine Works, on land formerly owned by Confederate spy Elizabeth Quesenberry. Back in Mustang. Take Route 206 to...

Cleydael subdivision, where Booth stopped for help. Continue on Rt. 206. Left on Rt. 611. Right on Rt. 301 to...

...the site of Richard Garrett's tobacco shed, where Booth is fatally shot, about 2.5 miles south of Port Royal, on the right shoulder of the southbound lanes. He dies on the porch of the main house, which stood where the highway median is now. Make a U-turn to find the historic marker beside northbound lanes.

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He currently writes general features and profiles for the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Style and Sunday Arts, with a focus on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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