Part 1 of this story can be found here
After having secured Booth a place to stay at Richard Garrett’s farm, the rest of the travelers continued south, parting ways. Jett’s two riding companions were cousins Absalom Ruggles Bainbridge and Mortimer B. Ruggles. Bainbridge had served as a private in the 3rdVirginia Cavalry, before apparently joining Colonel John S. Mosby’s command in the final weeks of the war. Ruggles served through the war as a Lieutenant on the staff of his father, General Daniel Ruggles, before resigning his commission on March 29, 1865 in order to join Mosby. As they left the Garrett Farm, Herold and Bainbridge headed for the home of Joseph Clarke, a friend of Bainbridge’s. Jett and Ruggles rode to Bowling Green, the seat of Caroline
County. Rumors suggested that Jett was courting Izora Gouldman, whose father ran the Star Hotel in Bowling Green. It was there that Jett and Ruggles spent the night of April 24, 1865. The following morning, Herold and Bainbridge arrived at the hotel, picked up Ruggles and the three men rode back to the Garrett Farm where Herold rejoined Booth. Bainbridge and Ruggles left the farm and never saw Booth or Herold again.
For over a week, Union authorities had been scouring the countryside looking for Booth. As Booth and Herold reposed on the Garret Farm, Union cavalry closed in. Willie spent April 25 at the Star Hotel, little knowing that he would not get much sleep that night. Having been tipped off about Willie’s association with Booth, and his whereabouts, a patrol from the 16thNew York Cavalry rode into Bowling Green shortly before midnight. The horsemen surrounded the Star Hotel and then entered the building, bursting into Jett’s room. A frightened Willie acknowledged his
identity before confiding in one of the officers. “I know who you want; and I will tell you where they can be found.” It was exactly what the authorities wanted to hear and with those words Willie gave up the most hunted man in the country.
Willie guided the cavalry to the Garrett Farm. He was left at the gate to the property, while the cavalry rode in to get Booth and Herold. Herold surrendered, and later hanged for his crimes, but Booth was shot in the Garrett barn. The Union soldiers carried the mortally wounded assassin to the porch of Mr. Garrett’s house. Willie was brought to the scene. While he lay dying, Booth looked up, recognized Willie and asked: “Did that man betray me? Did Jett betray me?” His question went unanswered, but surely he knew the truth. A few minutes later, Lincoln’s assassin expired.
Their mission complete, the cavalry began the ride back to Washington, with Booth’s body and Willie as a prisoner. Willie did not complete the journey. Likely due to the excitement and confusion, at some point along the route north Willie made his escape. The following night, April 27, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered Willie found and brought to Washington. It didn’t take long for Willie to be located. He was transported to Washington and secured at Old Capital Prison.
Over the following weeks, Willie was subjected to questioning and cross-examination, as the Union authorities attempted to determine what role, if any, he may have played in Lincoln’s assassination and Booth’s escape. Willie provided a sworn statement on May 6. On May 17, Willie appeared as a witness for the prosecution in the trial of those charged as conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination. Willie’s innocence of involvement in the death of the president, as well as being a part of the conspiracy, must have been determined. On May 29, Secretary of War Stanton ordered Willie’s release, upon his taking the oath of allegiance to the United States.
To read a typescript of Willie’s May 6, 1865 statement, click here
To read a typescript of Willie’s May 17, 1865 testimony, click here
It should be noted that in documents from the time of the above described events, Willie Jett is often referred to as having held the rank of Captain. This belief also carries over into postwar accounts of Booth’s escape. I have not found anything to indicate that Willie ever held a rank higher than Private.
Part 3 looks at Willie’s life after the war and can be found here
Eric J. Mink