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The Hampton Roads Tie to Lincoln’s Assassination
By Nancy E. Sheppard

Lincoln ImageThe grave of Reverend Dr. Richard B. Garrett at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Portsmouth is a simple one, lovingly erected by the congregation that turned to him for ministry for 21 years. It is the type of grave that most would walk by without paying it a second glance. But beneath the slab of stone lies the body of the last person to see John Wilkes Booth alive.

Reverend Garrett was raised near Port Royal, Virginia on his family’s farm, called "Locus Hill.” There’s was the life of most rural Virginia families… farming, family, and faith were the focal points of their universe. When two strangers came knocking on the family’s door in April 1865, Richard H. Garrett (Rev. Garrett’s father) didn’t think twice about inviting the men into his home to break bread. He figured that they were now former Confederate soldiers just trying to make their way home. His youngest son, Richard, shared a bedroom with the strangers that night. He noticed peculiarities about one of the men. He had curly, black hair and his skin was soft and white like marble… not showing any evidence of the harsh life lived by soldiers. The stranger swung his belt, which held two revolvers and a dagger, over the railing of the bed and carefully placed a leather case and a pair of opera glasses upon the mantel. The same man confided in young Richard that he was planning to end up in Mexico.

The next day, the elder Garrett grew suspicious of their house guests and sent them to the barn to sleep. At 2 A.M., the U.S. Army arrived, demanding the two mysterious men surrender themselves. The curly haired man refused and was shot. Mrs. Garrett and her daughters carried the stranger into the house, where they sponged his lips with water and brandy. Some of the last words he said before he died were: "Tell my mother I died for my country. I did what I thought was best.” It wasn’t until later that Mr. Garrett learned the true identity of his guest: none other than John Wilkes Booth.

The reputation of the Garretts was forever damaged and they fell into financial ruin. By the time Richard H. Garrett passed away 13 years later, the farm had fallen into disrepair and all of the Garrett children went their separate ways. Richard B. Garrett decided to enter into the ministry and studied at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He served at two churches before receiving the position in Portsmouth on July 1, 1899.

In 1907, a Tennessee lawyer named Finis L. Bates published a book entitled, Escape & Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. Based on extremely loose and unsubstantiated evidence, he theorized that Booth hadn’t died at Locus Hill but, instead, made his way to Mexico, where he committed suicide several years later. Reluctantly, Reverend Garrett wrote a 7-page letter to Bates’ lawyer, explaining who he was and what he had witnessed. He went on to give a series of lectures entitled, "A Chapter of Unwritten History,” recounting his experiences in the last days of John Wilkes Booth’s life. He only did so as an effort to restore dignity to his father’s memory and prove that Bates’ theory was false.

Reverend Garrett died on July 1, 1922 and was quietly buried in an unassuming grave in Portsmouth, taking with him the memories of that terrible night in 1865.


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