Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Dinner, and that's all

The home of a Confederate doctor who grudgingly sheltered John Wilkes Booth is up for sale

John Wilkes Booth (Library of Congress/public domain)

Dinner, and that's all

A historic Virginia home that John Wilkes Booth visited during his frantic escape after assassinating President Lincoln at Ford's Theater is being put on the auction block.

Cleydael, the summer home of prominent Confederate supporter Dr. Richard Stuart in King George, Va., will be sold on October 7 at 11 a.m. Motley's Auction and Realty Group is in charge of the sale since the previous owner, Kathryn Coombs, died without leaving a will.

Although the house has enjoyed a prestigious history, it will need major work. Recent pictures show that Hurricane Irene tore off part of the roof. "We hope that they [the new owners] will recognize its legacy and would be willing to continue to preserve it and keep it as part of Virginia's great properties that are a part of our history," said Randy Jones, spokesman for the Virginia Historical Registry.

Built in 1859 by Stuart, a direct descendant of English kings, Cleydael has hosted Robert E. Lee's two daughters and possibly several of Mosby's rangers. The colonial-style house features a wide central hallway that stretches from the front to the back door, a common element for houses constructed before the advent of air conditioning. In Dr. Stuart's office is a mysterious trap door, a curious feature because the house has no basement. Legends explaining the door's existence range from a furnace door to a hideout for Confederate spies. John Wilkes Booth, however, certainly did not hide beneath the trap door.

Booth visited Cleydael nine days after Lincoln's assassination. Around suppertime on April 23, 1865, Booth and an accomplice, David E. Herold, arrived to ask for accommodations and medical assistance for Booth's broken leg. "Stuart knew who Booth was, wanted nothing whatever to do with him," said Michael Kauffman, author of American Brutus and former tour guide of the John Wilkes Booth Escape Route Tour.

Stuart's family, however, curious to speak with the assassin, persuaded Stuart to let the men have dinner. Likely afraid of the government's reprisal, Stuart promptly sent Booth and Herold away after they ate. This brusque treatment was new for Booth. Up to this point, sympathetic friends had helped him on his way. "This was the moment when Booth really started to realize how badly he had messed up," said Kauffman.

Booth is reported to have died at dawn three days later. Some scholars claimed that the famous Shakespearean actor was not killed then, but instead committed suicide many years later in Oklahoma. However, Thomas Goodrich, author of The Darkest Dawn, compared such claims to Elvis sightings. "That would've been quite a performance if it were true," he said. When Booth's body was examined in an autopsy, several friends and acquaintances who knew Booth unequivocally recognized him. He had two distinctive marks: A scar on the back of his neck from a surgery, and a tattoo of his initials on his left hand. Witnesses found both on the body.

Booth's legacy reaches well beyond his death. "It is difficult to overstate Booth's impact in killing President Lincoln," said Dr. Gerald Prokopowicz, chair of the history department at East Carolina University and host of Civil War Talk Radio. "If Lincoln had lived, he would not be remembered, perhaps, as fondly by many people." But Lincoln would also have headed a gentler Reconstruction period. "The Civil Rights Movement could have started a century earlier," said Michael Kauffman. "If Booth wanted his act to benefit the South, he couldn't have miscalculated more."

Kauffman fondly remembers Kathryn Coombs, the late owner of Cleydael. An antique dealer and historical props seller from Alexandria, Coombs allowed filmmakers and tourists alike to visit. "She was always quick to open her door to anyone," Kauffman said. "I worry about Cleydael a lot because it was always such a great highlight of our tours. I think King George County has a great treasure on their hands."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette Rikki is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD contributor.

An actual newsletter worth subscribing to instead of just a collection of links. —Adam

Sign up to receive The Sift email newsletter each weekday morning for the latest headlines from WORLD’s breaking news team.

Please wait while we load the latest comments...