Follow in the tracks of John Wilkes Booth’s desperate flee for freedom for a captivating adventure
“Sic semper tyrannis.” The words roared over the heads of the hushed crowd at Ford’s Theatre. It was April 14, 1865, and Abraham Lincoln had just been shot. Envisioning himself a hero and a martyr for the Southern cause, actor John Wilkes Booth bellowed those words—Latin for “Thus always to tyrants”—after leaping onto the stage from the theater’s presidential box, where he had fatally wounded the beloved president with a .44-caliber Derringer pistol. Booth escaped through a stage door, mounted a horse waiting for him in the back alley, and bolted away.
Accompanied by David Herold, a fellow conspirator, Booth would be aided by a host of knowing or unwitting accomplices as he fled Washington, D.C. The two men spent the next 12 days trekking through southern Maryland, across the Potomac River, and finally into the countryside of northern Virginia, all the while being hunted by Federal troops.
On April 26, surrounded by Union soldiers in a barn near Bowling Green, Va., Herold surrendered. Booth, however, refused, saying, “I prefer to come out and fight.” The Federals set the barn ablaze to force the issue and Sergeant Boston Corbett shot Booth in the neck. Booth would die three hours later. The manhunt was over.
Today, much of the countryside on Booth’s escape route is unchanged, and several of his more famous stopovers, including the Surratt Tavern and the farm of Dr. Samuel Mudd, are preserved as historic sites and museums. The 90-mile route can be explored in a single day. Civil War Trails Inc. offers a tour map of the route and its signs inform the narrative along the way. In tracing the path from Booth’s fateful first act at Ford’s Theatre to his epilogue at that tobacco barn in Virginia, travelers will delight in the often-bucolic landscape and the scintillating history it hosts.
Ford’s Theatre 511 10th St NW, Washington, D.C. On the morning of April 14, Booth learned that Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, would attend a performance of “Our American Cousin” that night at Ford’s Theatre—a theater at which Booth had frequently performed. About 10:15 p.m., when the production reached a particularly amusing scene often met with audience laughter, Booth entered the presidential box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head, mortally wounding him. When Major Henry Rathbone, a guest of the Lincolns, lunged at Booth, he stabbed Rathbone, then jumped to the stage from the presidential box. His flight to freedom had just begun. Ford’s Theatre has been restored to its historic appearance and still holds productions, tours, and houses a museum on the bottom floor. www.fords.org (Sean Pavone/Alamy Stock Photo)
Surratt House Museum 9118 Brandywine Rd., Clinton, Md. At midnight on April 14, Booth and Herold arrived at the Surratt Tavern, owned and operated by Confederate sympathizers Mary Surratt and her son, John Surratt Jr., a friend of John Wilkes Booth. Herold and Booth retrieved weapons and supplies stashed here and quickly set off on their way. Mary Surratt’s tenant gave damning testimony that sent her to the gallows on July 7, 1865, as one of Booth’s co-conspirators in the assassination plot. She was the first woman executed by the federal government. Her son was tried but ultimately acquitted. The tavern has been preserved as a museum and historic site. www.surrattmuseum.org (Melissa A. Winn)
Mudd House Museum 3725 Dr. Samuel Mudd Rd., Waldorf, Md. At 4 a.m. on April 15, as Lincoln lay dying at the Petersen House across the street from Ford’s Theatre, Booth and Herold arrived at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Booth asked Mudd to set his leg, which he broke during his escape from Washington. As Booth and Herold rested in an upstairs room, Mudd traveled into nearby Bryantown to run errands. When he returned, the two had fled. Today, the house serves as a museum. Behind it, you can walk the footpath through the 200-acre farmstead that Booth and Herold took into the Zekiah Swamp as they headed toward the Potomac River. www.drmudd.org (Melissa A. Winn)
St. Mary’s Church 13715 Notre Dame Pl., Bryantown, Md. The plot to assassinate President Lincoln began in the same places where the manhunt for Booth would take place. Here at St. Mary’s Church, Dr. Mudd first met Booth in 1864. Booth had come to Bryantown to recruit men to help him kidnap the president. Booth and Mudd met several more times before the doctor set his broken leg at Mudd’s home on April 15, 1865. The Mudds are buried in the church cemetery. (Melissa A. Winn)
Pine Thicket 9695 Bel Alton Newtown Rd., Bel Alton, Md. While the manhunt for Booth and Herold grew close, the pair hid in this pine thicket waiting for a chance to safely cross over to Virginia. Locals brought them food, drink, and newspapers, which revealed to the disgruntled Booth that he was not being hailed as the hero he had hoped, but instead as a monstrous villain. Booth lamented in his pocket diary, “Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.” On April 20, their local guides led them down to the Potomac River to cross into Virginia. (Melissa A. Winn)
Crossing the Potomac 11495 Popes Creek Rd., Newburg, Md. On the night of April 20, Booth and Herold stood here with Confederate signal agent Thomas Jones, who had secured them a rowboat to cross the river. Before pushing the fugitives off into the darkness, Jones recommended they cross the river to Mathias Point and then downstream to Machodoc Creek and the home of Elizabeth Quesenberry. Disoriented, the pair did not reach Virginia that night. Instead, they rowed into Nanjemoy Creek, Md., spent the next day resting, and set off for Virginia again. (Melissa A. Winn)
Garrett Farm Site John Wilkes Booth’s flight from justice ended at the Richard Garrett Farm, south of Port Royal, on April 26, 1865. The 16th New York Cavalry, acting on a tip, found Booth and Herold hidden in a tobacco barn there. Herold surren- dered, but Booth refused, even after the troopers set the barn afire to flush him out. Booth was shot in the neck by Sergeant Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett. He was then dragged out of the burning barn, dying at the farmhouse three hours later. The Garrett Farm buildings are long gone, and the site, part of Fort A.P. Hill, is not accessible to the public. (Melissa A. Winn)