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Biking Booth’s Escape Route

After slaying Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth spent 12 days on the lam in a strange and tragic odyssey. To ever truly understand him, I'd have to literally retrace his footsteps.

A stone marker rests at the spot where Booth died along a wooded median between the north- and southbound lanes of Route 301, in Virginia. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of American history knows that Abraham Lincoln was brutally assassinated. His untimely death occurred on April 14, 1865, a mere week after the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate States Army at Appomattox. In the midst of celebrating the Union’s victory, President Lincoln was enjoying a production of the great farce Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. Meanwhile, one of the most famous actors of the day, a 26-year-old Union-hating heartthrob named John Wilkes Booth, was fuming over the outcome of the Civil War. Revenge, he decided, would be his. Just as the biggest punch line of the play was delivered, Booth slunk into the presidential box and fired a single .44-caliber bullet from a Derringer into the back of Lincoln’s head. Honest Abe slumped forward while his assassin proceeded to wrestle with Major Henry Rathbone, Lincoln’s guest, burying a dagger in his shoulder and seriously wounding him. Booth then leaped down onto the stage, possibly breaking his leg in the process (it has never been determined whether his leg was broken from the jump or during his escape). He shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants”), before vanishing into the night. What’s not so well known is that afterward Booth fled into southern Maryland, a hotbed of Confederate sympathy, and spent 12 days on the lam in a strange and tragic odyssey that involved swamps, rivers, dead horses, country doctors, and heavy realizations that the North had won and there was no turning back. I can be weirdly obsessive when it comes to history, and I’ve often wondered what Booth’s last days were like. Eventually I came to the realization that to truly understand them—to make sense of the changes they wrought on America’s soil—I’d have to literally retrace his footsteps. The only catch was that, unlike Booth, I didn’t have access to a horse (and even if I did, riding one the entire route would’ve been impossible). So I took my bike. Things started off shitty. I awoke the first day—the day I’d designated as the date of Lincoln’s assassination—at 8:00 AM. I’d overslept. I was supposed to be at Ford’s Theater, halfway across town, at nine for a tour. Flustered and a bit pissed off, I shoved a sleeping bag, some clothes, and a handful of PowerBars into my backpack. Then I hopped on my orange 70s-era iron Nishiki and hightailed it to Chinatown. A chilling rain fell and the brakes on my bike kept slipping, but I made it to the theater just in time, perhaps feeling a tiny sliver of the stress that Booth had experienced 146 years ago. A gaggle of DC tourists were waiting outside, and I stepped into line behind them. I overheard some kids talking about a recent Toby Keith concert and an older couple bickering as they deciphered directions to somewhere on a smartphone. We moved inside and descended into the theater’s basement, which was literally filled with history. Videos about Lincoln, the Civil War, and the role of slaves flittered across monitors, and exhibits crowded the walls. “You know why he threw the gun down?” a father rhetorically asked his son as they looked at the single-shot Derringer that Booth used. “’Cause he was done. One shot.” Perhaps he was impressed by Booth’s accomplishment on a purely technical level? I was particularly bummed when I learned that visitors weren’t allowed into the presidential box. I gazed up at it from the seats below until a guide instructed everyone to take a seat as some sort of presentation was about to begin. I was here to relive history, not to have it recounted to me, so I split. From Ford’s Theatre, Booth galloped by horse down F Street, over the Navy Yard Bridge, and into what’s now modern-day Anacostia, the poorest and blackest part of Washington. I did the same on my trusty Nishiki steed. What I saw of Anacostia was fucked, a ghetto nightmare of poverty and neglect. Thugs milled about and made sketchy handoffs. Buildings were boarded up and burned out. I entered the neighborhood at the bottom of a steep hill along the cruelly named Good Hope Road, becoming more and more conscious that I was the only white dude around. Up the street a trio of older gentlemen stood under the doorway of an abandoned building. I got off my bike and walked their way. The first guy looked like a weasel: skinny, scraggly, hunched over, with a lazy eye that was focused on something indeterminable. The guy in the middle had these big, pink-tinted eyes and an aura of worn-out sadness about him. The last one was the largest of the bunch. He wore a badass mustache and a brown Stevie Wonder hat and was munching on a bright green pickle wrapped in a piece of cellophane. “Excuse me,” I said, drawing apprehensive stares. “This is kind of out of left field, but do you guys know anything about John Wilkes Booth?” They all nodded their heads. “John Wilkes Booth,” the weasely guy said. “Abraham Lincoln.” “Booth crossed the bridge and went right up this road right here. Right up this road and then he took a right on, uh…” “Wait,” I said, “you know the story?” The .44-caliber Derringer that Booth used to assassinate Lincoln. Sure enough, he did. In fact, all three of them knew all about it. The guy with the big eyes told me that when he was a kid, his mom had a map of Booth’s escape route she would show him from time to time. Everybody in the area knew something or other about the escape, he said. It was part and parcel of growing up in Anacostia. I asked Big Eyes his name. “Love,” he said. “Love? Like L-O-V-E?” “Yeah, man. Love.” Love gave me his cell number and told me to call him in a few days, that he was going to rummage around for that map. I asked the men whether I could take their pictures, but they said no. So I shook their hands and bade them farewell. “All right, Vinnie,” the pickle eater called out as I biked off into the rain. A few minutes later I dismounted and pulled out my camera to document the urban decay, but I quickly bailed after a hateful-looking thug hocked a loogie at my feet. My welcome had been worn out. As I pedaled toward Maryland, I passed by fried chicken and seafood shacks, the environment gradually becoming more suburban, with an emphasis on strip malls. It was still raining. Booth’s original plan was to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war. His group of coconspirators included Davey Herold, a pharmacist’s assistant and avid hunter. After the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, fell, the plan veered toward a more permanent solution—assassination, a slew of them actually. Booth wanted to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and Ulysses S. Grant, the Union Army commander, in addition to Lincoln. But in the end only Lincoln got capped, and only Booth and Herold (whom Booth rendezvoused with in Maryland shortly after the assassination) were the targets of the ensuing manhunt. By 3 PM my jeans were soaked through and I had arrived at the Surratt House in Clinton, Maryland. The red wooden structure was where Booth and Herold made their first stop, picking up some “shooting irons” and a jug of whiskey. Mary Surratt owned the place back then. She also ran a boarding house in DC where Booth and other conspirators hung out. Booth’s post-assassination visit to Surratt’s country house earned her the honor of being the first woman the US government sentenced to death (she was hanged). After the tour, I ducked into a liquor store across the street to pick up some whiskey, à la Booth. As I perused the aisles, my backpack and camera dangling about, a security guard approached and asked what I was up to. I told him I was retracing Booth’s escape route, and he got majorly stoked. His name was Mr. White, and he claimed he knew a guy named Bobby Valentine who lived in a nearby house that Booth may have stopped at during his getaway. I was so pumped on the tip that I forgot all about the whiskey and left empty-handed. Thirty minutes later I was knocking on the door to Valentine’s vine-covered brick residence. He was a cool old dude, a retired used-car salesman. I asked him whether it was true that Booth had stopped at his house, but he said no, it wasn’t. It was almost as if Booth had left false tracks in his wake, calculated diversions to throw off would-be pursuers who would come looking for him even centuries later, guided by folklore. Riding on, I happened on a more definite trace of his passage: a signpost that read JOHN WILKES BOOTH AND HIS COMPANION DAVID HEROLD ENTERED CHARLES COUNTY HERE. I was on the right track, entering farmland. It was getting dark, so I found a spot off the road in the woods and set up camp, just as Booth might have done. I didn’t have a tent, so I wrapped my sleeping bag in trash bags in a bush-league effort to keep dry during the evening downpour. As the sun set, blessedly the rain stopped. Little brown crickets chirped. Billowing clouds charged through the night sky. Alone and at peace, I popped on a nightlight and began to read. Around 10 PM I was startled by a sudden beam of light coming from the road, scanning the area around me. I quickly turned off my nightlight and lay still. After a long minute of waiting, I threw up a hand. The beam zeroed in on it. “Hello?” I called out, blinded. “Are you guys the cops?” No response. I tried again. “Police?” “Yes,” came a faint reply. “DON’T MOVE!” Dancing red and blue lights began to flash. Two officers, a man and a woman, cautiously made their way over to my campsite, their hands hovering over their holsters. “What’re you doing?” one of them asked as they shined their flashlights in my face. I was lying on a bed of ripped-up trash bags; I must have looked like a fool. I told them I was following Booth. That broke the ice. Of course, they knew all about the route. Everyone in this fucking town did. The presidential booth from which Booth jumped after capping the president… and a couple of boring DC tourists. It turned out that they were game wardens who had seen my nightlight from the road. They thought I was doing something called “spotlighting,” which is when poachers transfix deer by shining lights in their eyes at night and then blow them away. Then they searched my stuff and informed me that I was on private property, but in the end they let me stay put. “Listen,” the man said, “you should know that the rest of these spots you’re planning to go to are also on private property.” “How is it that everyone around here knows so much about this particular moment in history?” I asked. “I’m from southern Maryland,” he said. “It’s like, whatever.” With that, the officers left and, crushingly, it started to rain again. When I woke up the next morning, the air was frigid and everything was dripping wet. I had managed to stay dry, but the bag holding my shoes got the worst of it. I laced up a sopping pair of New Balances and tried to stay Zen as my feet went numb. Dejectedly, I crawled onto my bike and pedaled five miles back up the road to a Dunkin’ Donuts, where I wrapped my fingers around the largest hot coffee they sold and lost myself in the morning news being broadcast on the television hanging from the wall. After thawing out for an hour or two, I rode to the Mudd House in Waldorf, Maryland. The house’s namesake, Samuel Mudd, was a doctor who was an acquaintance of Booth’s and, some believe, played a part in the original kidnapping plot before it devolved into murderous desperation. Booth and Herold had visited the good doctor’s house after Lincoln got popped, and Mudd set Booth’s broken leg. According to my time line, this meant Booth had gotten here much faster than I had—on a busted wing. This trip was turning out to be a lot more depressing than I had planned. A guide at the Mudd House told me more about Booth’s family than I could ever have wanted to know. Apparently Papa Booth was a famous British actor, vegetarian peace nut, and subscriber to an early-1800s version of the free-love movement. After sashaying his penis around town for a while, he found himself inside a particularly fertile lady, ended up having ten kids with her (including Booth), and moved to Maryland so his wife wouldn’t find out (she did). On the front lawn of the Mudd House, a couple of Confederate-soldier reenactors had set up a faux battle camp. They told me they were known as Sons of Confederate Veterans, and they had a lot to say once I approached them. It wasn’t a “civil war,” they told me, because the South didn’t want to overthrow the government, they just wanted to pull away from it; there were blacks who fought for the Confederacy; their uniforms were cooler than the Union’s, etc. One of them showed me his Confederate-flag license plates. I figured it was time for me to move on. Adhering to the theme of the trip, the weather continued to suck—windy, misty, and cold. Originally I had planned to ditch my bike at Zekiah Swamp, where legend has it that Booth and Herold disposed of their horses by wading them into the water and shooting the poor beasts in their heads, just like poor old Lincoln. But considering the forecast, and realizing that it would take forever to walk the rest of this route, I decided to keep my trusty iron steed. Call it a modern convenience. Fate, however, doesn’t fuck around, so of course I got a flat tire as I crossed the swamp and was forced to ditch my bike on the side of the road. Luckily, a short while later a young couple pulled up in their car and swooped me away. Their names were Sean and Kat, and they were traveling with a skinny pit-bullish pup named Remy who wouldn’t stop licking me. I told them about my little project, and they kindly agreed to take me to my next destination—a dense overgrowth of trees that is today known as the Pine Thicket, where Booth and Herold laid low from April 16 to 21. It was also where Booth first read newspaper accounts of his act and learned he was no hero. Even the South had condemned him. I can’t say I am capable of empathizing with someone who killed one of this nation’s greatest men, but goddamn what a bummer that must have been for him. I think he truly believed at least half the country would back him up. From Booth’s April 21 diary entry: With every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for. What made Tell a hero? And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat. After meandering around the Pine Thicket I made my way to Route 301 and rented a room in a cheap off-ramp motel. The next morning I toured the Potomac River with a man named Wilt Corkern, a family friend who used to run a colonial farm living-history museum in nearby Accokeek where I worked as a farmhand one summer. Together with his wife, Mary Bruce, we made our way to the spot where Booth and Herold had crossed into Virginia, the destination from which the hunted duo thought they would be spirited to safety. They thought wrong. After crossing into Virginia, Booth and Herold were unceremoniously bounced from shelter to shelter—even more frequently than in Maryland—ultimately ending up at a farmhouse near Port Royal, about 70 miles from Ford’s Theatre. A pair of opinionated Sons of Confederate Veterans, who had staged a faux battle camp outside the Mudd House, in Waldorf, Maryland. Today the spot rests along a wooded median strip in between the northbound and southbound lanes of Route 301. No trace of the farm remains. Night was approaching on my arrival; the hollowed-out clearing was cocooned by thick vegetation and resonant with the sounds of birds, crickets, and the occasional whoosh of a passing car. I walked into the clearing. A stone marker lay before me, apparently left by some pro-Confederate group. Pennies littered the ground around it. It read: LET YOUR PEACE FALL UPON THE SOUL OF JOHN WILKES BOOTH. I slid off my backpack and took a seat. It was here that the Union cavalry tracked Booth down. Trapped alone in a burning barn after Herold had surrendered, he took a bullet to the neck, which severed his spinal cord. He was carried out of the barn and laid on the porch of the nearby farmhouse. Shortly before expiring, he asked his pursuers to lift his hands before his eyes. “Useless,” he said, “useless.” And then he was gone. As I sat there, I got to thinking about how successful Booth had been, how he had accomplished the most difficult—and in his mind the most crucial—part of his mission, only to have the whole thing backfire in his face. Some people say he was a coward for not enlisting, but I think it took some seriously heavy balls to do what he did, however misguided his actions might have been. In fact, the whole country seemed to have iron balls back then; people didn’t hesitate to take action when action was needed. Nowadays that doesn’t seem to be the case. As I thought about this, an odd sort of loneliness fell over me, a very bothersome feeling. I pulled out my phone and gave Love a call to soothe my mind. “Love,” I said. “Did you ever find that map?” “No, man. I can’t find it. I’ve been looking all over!” “Well, listen… If you do find it, will you let me know?” “I surely will,” he said. “I surely will.”