Lincoln’s killer found by Fremont dentist

Lou Hebert

The story of how John Wilkes Booth was shot to death in a barn in rural Virginia is relatively well known by those who follow Civil War history. But did you know that the group of soldiers who captured and killed Booth were being guided by a young man from Fremont who only years before had been a dentist?
The day was April 26, 1865, 12 days after Booth had shot the president in Ford's Theater and the young Sandusky County man credited with the key to his capture was J. Everton Conger.
In the days after the assassination, thousands of police and soldiers had fanned out in the area around Washington, D.C. to bring Booth and the plotters of the conspiracy to justice. The manhunt was intense and the rewards being offered reached $100,000. For J. Everton Conger, his motivation was not money, but was his assignment, for he was part of a newly created intelligence service in Washington, designed in part, to protect the President. The forerunner to the Secret Service.
Born near Huron, Ohio in 1834, the son of a Presbyterian minister, Conger grew up in Huron but would later move in his early 20's to Fremont to set up a practice as a dentist. His future as a dentist however was altered by the start of the Civil War. He, like many, answered the call to duty and initially served as a 3-month enlistee in the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, but later joined the West Virginia Cavalry as an officer. He rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel but suffered some severe combat wounds. They were so severe, he was sent away from the front, and assigned to the newly formed intelligence service in Washington, D.C. His new commander was General Lafayette Baker who headed up this special detachment.
After the Lincoln assassination in mid-April, Baker and Conger were put to the test. They were tasked with finding Booth and the co-conspirators involved in the plot and bring them to the courts to face trial.
Everton Conger's role was to ride along with a New York Cavalry Regiment and head south into Maryland and Virginia where it was suspected where Booth had fled. Booth had suffered a broken leg when he leapt to the stage at Ford’s theater that night, so he was not moving fast and needed assistance. In the course of the pursuit, Conger was able to interview Dr. Sam Mudd, the doctor who set Booth’s leg and several others who gave Conger information that Booth may be heading towards the Richard Garrett Farm near Port Royal, Virginia.
Conger and the New York Cavalry unit of 25 men reached the farm early on April 26, 1865. There they found the elusive Booth and David Herold in a tobacco barn. The soldiers surrounded the barn and Booth was ordered to surrender. He refused, but Herold decided it was best to comply and did so. As he left the Barn Booth called him a "coward". With Booth refusing to come out, Everton Conger gave Booth some persuasion to leave the refuge of the barn by setting it afire. The soldiers were instructed not to shoot Booth, but wait for him to be taken alive as a prisoner. But, in the confusion of the flame and smoke, a young soldier, Boston Corbett, raised his gun and took aim through a gap in the side of the barn.
The bullet found its mark and tore through the back of Booth's neck. He fell to the ground. A soldier from Michigan, rushed into the burning barn to grab the fallen Booth and drag his body to the porch of the Garrett farmhouse. There, surrounded by the troops, he lay dying. In a story, told by Conger, Booth was given some whiskey and according to Conger, Booth whispered, "Tell my mother I did it for my country." His ragged breathing would only last another 30 minutes. By dawn, John Wilkes Booth was dead.
Later, Conger found Booth's diary and other items and turned them in to the investigators who were still trying to unravel the plot that Booth had devised to kill Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward. For his success in finding Booth, Conger was given $15,000 reward money, a substantial sum in 1865. And back here in Northwest Ohio, his town of Fremont gave him a pair of inscribed silver-handled pistols for finding Booth.
After his service, Conger came home to Fremont and to his wife and five children. But the young hero no longer wanted to pursue the dental profession and instead moved to the state of Illinois where he studied law and set up a practice. Later he was appointed a federal judgeship in the Montana Territory, and relocated to the town of Dillon.
Years later, in a quest for new adventure, he followed his daughter's family to Hawaii where he found contentment at last, and lived until his death in July of 1918 in Honolulu. Conger’s body was returned to Dillon, Montana where he is buried and where he was remembered fondly both as a judge and an American patriot who captured one of the most highly sought fugitives from justice in the nation’s history.


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