Congressman's Dad Shares Family's Connection to Lincoln Assassin
Herb Peters is the area's oldest-known Rochester-born citizen; his ancestors witnessed the death of John Wilkes Booth.
Editor's note: This story was first published in February 2011, two months before Herb Peters passed away.
At 95, Herbert Garrett Peters has a lot of stories to tell. A former English teacher and newspaperman, Peters knows how to tell a good tale – particularly when it’s one of his own.
Recently, Peters spoke to members of the Rochester-Avon Historical Society about his ancestry, which reads like an encyclopedia of American history. Not only is he descended from a Revolutionary War soldier, but Peters’ lineage also includes an association with one of the most infamous characters in American history: John Wilkes Booth, an actor best known for assassinating President Abraham Lincoln.
A life full of history
Peters, who is the father of U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-9th District, was born and raised in Rochester, which makes him — according to members of the historical society — the oldest-known Rochester-born citizen in the area.
During his presentation to society members, Peters fondly recalled his life as a boy in Rochester. His father worked for the DUR (Detroit United Railroad) in Rochester until it shut down in 1931. To support his family of five, his father then operated a grocery store from an addition built onto the family's house, and he later trained horses at his dude ranch on Harding Road.
In 1941, Peters joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps and became a first lieutenant. Three years later, he was stationed in Remes (now Reims), France, where he met his future bride, Madeline. They returned to Rochester in 1947 to begin married life and raise a family.
For 32 years, Peters taught English in Rochester’s junior high schools, and for 36 years, he was a reporter and editor for the Rochester Clarion.
Ties that bind
Peters’ family history spreads across the United States and covers the North and the South. His great-great-grandfather Ebenezer Peters was born in Rhode Island and was raised in the North. Another great-great-grandfather, William Garrett, was born and raised on a Virginia plantation and served as a soldier at Valley Forge during the American Revolutionary War.
When that war ended, Garrett returned to the plantation, married and had a son, Richard, born in 1806. Richard, Peters’ great-grandfather, eventually bought a Virginia farm of his own – a farm that not only became the scene of one of the most sensational stories in American history, but it is also the subject of a decades-long debate among historians that may soon come to a shocking conclusion.
John Wilkes Booth and the Garrett farm
On April 24, 1865, five horsemen rode up to the gates of the Garrett farm. As Peters tells the story, one of the riders, in Confederate uniform, approached Richard Garrett and told him, “One of the riders here is J. Boyd, a wounded Confederate soldier returning to his home in Maryland, and in need of short rest.”
Peters explained to the audience that “the Garretts did not know that President Lincoln had been assassinated by an actor named John Wilkes Booth on April 14 in a theater in Washington.”
Garrett gave in to Southern hospitality and his respect for the Confederacy, Peters said, and agreed to let the man named Boyd rest at the farm.
“None of the Garretts knew that Booth and co-conspirator David Herold escaped from Washington by horseback into Maryland and were the objects of a massive federal manhunt,” said Peters. And they didn't know that Booth was using the name Boyd as an alias to escape capture.
For the next two days, Booth lived and dined with the Garretts. He shared an upstairs bedroom with the Garrett's children, including 7-year-old Robert Clarence, Peters’ grandfather.
Booth also socialized with the Garrett’s other children, including 2-year-old Cora Lee, whom he referred to as his “little blue-eyed pet.”
“He’s completely at ease,” said Peters about Booth in the Garrett household. “He’s a superb actor and no appearance of a man on the run. He engages the family in small talk ... and he’s very grateful to the Garretts for their kindness.”
While Booth rested at their home, the Garretts learned of Lincoln’s murder — and of the $140,000 reward for turning in the assassin.
When Booth became fearful that Union forces were moving in, the Garretts grew suspicious of him and his “cousin” Herold. While they still didn’t realize he was Lincoln’s assassin, they did believe he was in some sort of trouble. So they moved him and Herold from their house to their tobacco barn.
On April 26, Union forces stormed Garrett’s farm, and the 16th New York Cavalry surrounded the house, demanding to know the whereabouts of Booth and Herold.
The Garretts directed the officers in charge to the tobacco barn where the two men were hiding out. Herold surrendered, but Booth refused, so the cavalry lit the barn on fire. According to Peters and many historians, Booth was then shot in the neck by Sgt. Boston Corbett. Mortally wounded, Booth was carried out of the barn to the porch of the Garrett house and died.
The whole event was witnessed by Peters’ grandfather, the 7-year-old Robert Clarence Garrett.
Historical fact or legend?
As with most historical narratives, there is another side to this story. While many historians and researchers believe Booth died at the Garrett farm, others — namely, Booth’s descendants — doubt the story and believe he escaped capture and lived several more years before committing suicide in 1907.
As David Lohr pointed out in his article “Did Abe Lincoln’s Assassin Escape? DNA May Solve Mystery” for AOL News, this version of Booth’s story was popularized by Finis L. Bates in his book, Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, published in 1907.
In the book, Lohr noted, Bates alleged that a man resembling Booth was killed at Garrett’s farm. He also claimed to have firsthand knowledge of Booth’s survival, stating that he was an attorney for a man named John St. Helen, who confessed to Bates that his true identity was John Wilkes Booth.
According to Bates, Booth later became known as David E. George and committed suicide in Enid, OK, 42 years after the assassination of Lincoln.
While Bates’ story has largely been refuted, there is still enough doubt to make Booth’s descendants want to find the truth.
In December 2010, several news outlets reported that Booth’s descendants planned to have the body of his brother, Edwin, exhumed for DNA testing.
“By using DNA comparisons,” writes Edward Colimore in his article “Booth Descendants Agree to Brother’s Body ID Tests” for The Inquirer on Philly.com, “relatives from the Philadelphia area, New Jersey and Rhode Island hope to learn in the coming months whether the lore of John Wilkes Booth’s flight is true.”
According to Lohr, the Booth family wants “to compare DNA from Booth’s brother ... to that of a bone specimen at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington. The bone is from a man who was gunned down inside the (Garrett) barn.”
Previous efforts to exhume the body of John Wilkes Booth were denied by a judge in 1995 who believed that Booth's exact burial location, Colimore wrote, "could not be conclusively determined."
Before testing on Booth's body can begin, however, "the family wants to get permission from the museum to obtain the DNA sample from the bone specimen," wrote Lohr. "A panel of judges will make the final decision."
No testing needed
To the Peters family, there’s no doubt that the man shot and killed on their ancestor’s property was John Wilkes Booth.
At the close of the historical society program, Peters told the audience that while Booth lay dying, a member of the Garrett family snipped a lock of his black hair to give to his mother.
Peters then cited a letter written on June 10, 1878, about that lock of hair and addressed to his great-uncle Richard B. Garrett:
I have received and forwarded to our mother the memory of the misguided boy whose madness brought so much ill to us. Though his name has never been spoken by us since his untimely end, I decided to express our good attitudes to your family for your kindness to him in his last hours. And for the last act which I am sure will do much to soothe and comfort his heartbroken mother.
Yours very truly,