It took John Wilkes Booth 12 days to get from Ford’s Theatre (1) to his closing act at the burning barn on Garrett’s Farm. Today a good bit of the countryside on his escape route is little changed, and you can cover most of it on an afternoon drive.
Booth started by horse, on a frisky bay mare. “She can run like a cat,” he bragged as he showed her off the afternoon before that fateful night. “She is a bad little bitch.” Booth was an expert horseman, even with his broken leg, and he had an accomplice, David Herold, who knew the area. The pair followed the stagecoach road into the boonies of Prince George’s County and made the 13-mile ride to Mary Surratt’s tavern (2), arriving soon after midnight.
The tavern, now a museum, doubled as a safe house for the Confederate underground and is a key point on the route that Booth apparently planned in advance to stop at. Hemmed in by sprawl at a busy intersection in Clinton, it has been restored with just the right touch of rustic-backwoods decor, circa 1865. You can stand on the same worn floorboards where Herold waited as tavernkeeper John Lloyd retrieved rifles for the fugitives, while outside in the moonlight, Booth sat atop his horse and swigged from a bottle of whiskey. Before riding off, he blurted to Lloyd that he was “pretty certain that we have assassinated the President.” It was probably the closest Booth got to the glory he believed would be his.
As for Lloyd, his testimony later helped convict his landlady, 42-year-old widow Mary Surratt. Lloyd said she’d told him to “have those shooting-irons ready that night.” The museum takes no official stance on Surratt’s guilt or innocence. Docents instead en-courage visitors to weigh the evidence, which was mostly circumstantial but convincing enough to make Surratt the first woman executed by the US government.
Not far down the road from the tavern but a world away in the pastureland of Charles County is the Dr. Mudd House Museum (3). Behold the lone farmhouse, as stark and foreboding as the Clutter home of In Cold Blood. It was here Booth and Herold stopped next. Samuel Mudd, a physician and tobacco farmer, set Booth’s leg and put the fugitives up.
Unlike the county-run Surratt, the privately operated Mudd House makes no bones about its loyalty to the much-maligned doctor, who spent 3½ years in prison for his supposed part in the conspiracy. For years it was run by Mudd’s granddaughter, who not only restored the house but also defended it from any disparagers, including, apparently, a historian she once shooed away with a broom. “His name may be mud elsewhere,” says docent Marilyn Jumalon, “but not here in Charles County.”
Behind the house, you can walk the footpath through the 200-acre farmstead that Booth and Herold took into the Zekiah Swamp as they headed toward the shore of the Potomac River. A few miles south, the trail reaches Rich Hill (4), the house of Colonel Samuel Cox. He helped harbor the men in a nearby pine thicket as the manhunt intensified, close enough to hear the feds’ sabers clanking. (The dilapidated home is slated for restoration.) It was during almost a week’s worth of hiding in Cox’s pines that Booth read newspapers and realized he was being denounced as a heinous villain instead of a hero.
With time, Booth has gained sympathizers, if not exactly the sort he envisioned. A black neighbor who has witnessed the Cox place decay even while pilgrims appear every spring as regularly as the redbuds says he still marvels at Booth’s grit: “It blows my mind that he was able to make it all the way down here from DC with that busted leg.” A reenactor even camped out in the thicket and blogged about it.
The rest of the escape route through southern Maryland traces, as much as is possible, the final desperate stretch where the fugitives slogged their way to the Potomac. Roadside signs help you picture the setting, but much of the terrain is on private land. A good spot to end is a marker on Popes Creek Road (5), which has a map of the whole route and affords a panoramic view from the shoreline where Booth and Herold made their first attempt to row to Virginia. Disoriented, they landed back on the Maryland side, ultimately pushing off from Nanjemoy Creek, their destiny awaiting them across the river at Garrett’s Farm (6).
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.