On the morning of April 24th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth and David E. Herold were being escorted through King George County, Virginia by Charley Lucas. The night before, the pair had essentially evicted the free black family of the Lucases from their own cabin after being denied lodging at the home of Dr. Stuart’s, Cleydael. Despite, or perhaps due to, the aggressive nature of these “guests”, William Lucas, the patriarch of the family allowed Booth and Herold to hire his son Charley to take carry them by wagon to the town of Port Conway.
Port Conway was a small village on the northern side of the Rappahannock River that separated King George County from Caroline County. It got its name from the Conway family of which President James Madison was descended Not only was Madison’s mother’s maiden name Conway, but the fourth President of the United States was born there on the family plantation, Belle Grove. Aside from Fredericksburg much further north, Port Conway was one of the few places one could cross the Rappahannock River via public ferry. The ferry ran between Port Conway on the north, to Port Royal to the south. When Booth and Herold were dropped off by Charley Lucas at Port Conway, they found the ferry was on the other side of the river and that they had to wait for it to return before they could cross. While the pair waited at Port Conway, anxious to get across as quickly as possible, the came across William Rollins. Rollins lived at Port Conway with his wife Bettie where he fished and ran a small store. Herold tried to arrange for Rollins to take them over the Rappahannock River and offered him $10 to ferry them over and then take them to Bowling Green. Rollins said he would consider it, but he had to go out and tend to his nets first as the shad were running. Rollins stated that, if the ferry had not returned by the time he came back, he would take the two men across. While Rollins was away fishing, three recently paroled Confederate soldiers rode up to Port Conway. They were Willie Jett, Absalom Bainbridge, and Mortimer Ruggles. Herold and Booth quickly made friends with these soldiers and ended up confiding their identities as the assassins of the President to them. The trio, with defacto leader Jett, agreed to help the two men. When Rollins returned, he saw that the ferry was making its way to Port Conway and David Herold told him his services were not going to be needed. Jim Thornton, the ferry operator, ferried the five men, two fugitives and three soldiers, across the Rappahannock river to Port Royal.
In Port Royal, Jett called on the home of Miss Sarah Jane Peyton, looking for a home in which to lodge to two men. At first, Miss Peyton agreed to let the “wounded Confederate soldiers” and his “brother”, stay and invited them into the house. For some reason, perhaps after seeing the rough condition the two men were in, Sarah Jane Peyton changed her mind. She told Jett that she could no longer house them because her brother, Randolph Peyton was not going to be at home for a couple days, and it would not be proper for two men to stay without the man of the house present. Willie Jett went across the street and knocked on the door of Mr. Catlett, once again trying to find lodging for the two men. Mr. Catlett was not at home. According to Willie Jett, it was Sarah Jane Peyton who suggested they might try Mr. Garrett’s place up the road from Port Royal. With that, all five men headed out of Port Royal and towards the Garrett farm. In the end, it was due to the gossipy nature of Mrs. Bettie Rollins back over at Port Conway that led to John Wilkes Booth’s demise. When the troops came to Port Conway and asked around, Mrs. Rollins told them that they might be able to find Willie Jett at a hotel in Bowling Green owned by his girlfriend’s parents. It was at this hotel that Jett was found, just like Bettie Rollins thought he would be, and from there he led the troops back to the Garrett farm.
Today, nothing remains of Port Conway other than Belle Grove and a church. The colonial town of Port Royal has fared far better with an active historical society and, as I posted here, a recently opened museum.
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