In his decade as a professional actor, 26-year-old John Wilkes Booth played some of the most prestigious theaters in the United States. But the assassin of Abraham Lincoln delivered his final, and perhaps most memorable, performance in a tobacco-curing barn near Port Royal, Virginia.

To some observers, though, it was nothing short of a disappearing act.

The drama played out sometime after 2 a.m. on April 26, 1865 when a detachment from the 16th New York Cavalry regiment and a pair of detectives cornered Booth and a compatriot, David Herold, in the barn. By then, Booth and Herold had been on the run for 12 days.

Luther Baker, one of the detectives, told the two fugitives they had five minutes to come out, or the men would set the barn on fire.

Booth asked for “a little time to consider it.”

At that point, Booth and Herold weren’t even sure who their would-be captors were, apparently holding out hope that they might be sympathetic Southerners. Booth twice asked them to identify themselves, but was told only, “It don’t make any difference who we are. We know who you are, and we want you. We want to take you prisoners.”

Booth refused to come out, but attempted to negotiate, citing the leg injury he’d recently sustained: “I am a cripple. I have got but one leg. If you will withdraw your men in line 100 yards from the door, I will come out and fight you.”

Told that the men who surrounded him hadn’t come to do battle but simply to arrest him, Booth tried again, this time asking for just 50 yards. Again, his request was rebuffed.

“Well, my brave boys, prepare a stretcher for me!” Booth replied, in what the second detective, Everton Conger, remembered as a “singularly theatrical voice.”

By now, Booth’s accomplice had decided to give himself up. After some bickering with Booth, who denounced him as a “damned coward,” Herold appeared at the barn door and surrendered.

But Booth remained behind, hiding in the shadows, heavily armed with a pair of pistols, a large Bowie knife and a carbine, or short-barreled rifle.

Meanwhile, according to Conger’s account, the detective had snuck over to one corner of the barn, twisted a piece of rope into a fuse and ignited some of the hay that covered the barn floor.

The fire spread rapidly, and Conger, peering through a crack between the barn’s slats, saw from Booth’s facial expressions that he realized it would be impossible to put out. Booth, Conger said, “relaxed his muscles and turned around and started for the door.”

The next thing Conger heard was a shot.

Black and white illustration of the death of John Wilkes Booth
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John Wilkes Booth being dragged from the barn on Garrett's farm by Union cavalry sent to capture him after his assassination of President Lincoln.

His Longest Death Scene

When Conger reached the barn door, he found detective Baker with Booth, who had suffered a serious neck wound. Conger first assumed that Booth had shot himself, but Baker told him he hadn’t.

The two men carried Booth from the burning barn, and set him down in the nearby grass. [9]

“I put my ear down close to his mouth,” Conger recalled, “and finally I understood him to say, ‘Tell mother, I die for my country.’”

Suitable as they might have been, those were not to be Booth’s last words. His final death scene would drag on for several hours.

Soldiers moved Booth to the porch of the farmhouse belonging to the Garrett family, whose tobacco barn they had just torched. There, Booth struggled to sip water but managed to speak in a whisper. In unrelenting pain, he repeatedly begged his captors, “Kill me! Kill me!” A local doctor, summoned to the scene, pronounced Booth’s condition hopeless. He died at about 7 a.m.

Photographic head and shoulders portrait of Boston Corbett, who shot Lincoln Assassin John Wilkes Booth
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
American soldier Boston Corbett, who shot John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.

The Assassin’s Assassin

As detective Baker had suspected, the fatal bullet had not come from Booth’s gun but from one of the Union soldiers, an Army sergeant named Boston Corbett.

Corbett later testified that he had been watching Booth through a crack in the burning barn. “I could see him, but he could not see me,” he said. “It was not through fear at all that I shot him, but because it was my impression that it was time the man was shot, for I thought he would do harm to our men...”

Corbett’s rash decision made it impossible to capture Booth and interrogate him about the breadth of the assassination conspiracy, as many in Washington had hoped. Corbett later collected a $1,653.85 reward for his efforts.

But Was He Really Dead?

John Wilkes Booth’s body was taken aboard the USS Montauk, a Navy ironclad, for an examination by Army doctors. Based on such evidence as a scar from previous surgery and the initials JWB on his left hand, they concluded that the body was “beyond dispute” Booth’s, notes Michael W. Kauffman in his 2004 Booth biography, American Brutus.

But with the nation still in an uproar over Lincoln’s murder, not everyone was satisfied.

Conspiracy theorists maintained that Booth, a professional actor and master of disguise, had actually eluded his captors before the tobacco barn standoff and that some unfortunate dupe had taken the fatal shot to the neck.

Before long, newspaper stories had Booth in Mexico, India, Cuba, Brazil, Italy, Germany, Turkey, China and the Pelew Islands, to name but a few. By one account he had gone into the mining business in South America. In another, he’d become the leading actor in Australia under the name of Senor Enos. In yet another, he was in the service of a sultan in Egypt and owned more than 100 camels. Still other accounts claimed he hadn’t left the U.S. at all, but had become an Episcopal minister in Atlanta—or a carpenter in Tennessee. In 1907, a popular book maintained that a man confessing to be Booth had died just four years earlier, in Enid, Oklahoma; the man’s mummified corpse toured the country as a carnival attraction.

As it turned out, several of the rumors originated with a patient in an Ohio insane asylum. But other, seemingly credible citizens claimed to have seen Booth or received letters from him well after his supposed death. One U.S. senator, Garrett Davis of Kentucky, even speculated that Booth might still be alive in an 1866 debate on the Senate floor.

“I cannot conceive, if he was in the barn, why he was not taken alive and brought to this city alive,” Davis said. “…there is a mystery and a most inexplicable mystery to my mind about the whole affair.”

HISTORY Vault: The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth

It was the largest manhunt in history: 10,000 federal troops, detectives, and police untangling a vast conspiracy to track down the man responsible for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.