A Visit to “The Trap”

On April 24, 1865, John Wilkes Booth, the fugitive assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, was dropped off at the Garrett farm just outside of Port Royal, Virginia. Over the prior ten days, Booth and his accomplice David Herold had successfully eluded the massive manhunt searching for them in Maryland and had made their way into Virginia. By portraying himself as a wounded Confederate soldier named James Boyd, John Wilkes Booth was welcomed in by the Garrett family and given the hospitality of their home and farm. David Herold, on the other hand, decided for the first time to depart from Booth’s company. Whether this was his own choice or whether Booth sent him away on purpose, perhaps to scout the route ahead, is unknown. Regardless, Herold did not stay at the Garrett farm on April 24th and, instead, continued on towards Bowling Green with the three Confederate soldiers that he and Booth had met in Port Conway. When the sun went down on April 24th,  Herold and one of the soldiers, Absalom Bainbridge, would spend the night outside of Bowling Green, Virginia at the home of a Mrs. Virginia Clarke. Before that would occur, however, David Herold and the three Confederate soldiers would all make a pit stop on the road between Port Royal and Bowling Green at a tavern known as “The Trap.”

The Trap was built around 1752 and initially operated as a private home. Its location of being about half way between Port Royal and Bowling Green earned it the nickname of the “Halfway House.” In 1777, a wealthy man by the name of Peyton Stern (whose land holdings in Caroline County at that time stretched over 2,000 acres and included what would become the Garrett family farm) started operating the building as a tavern. In the 1830’s the tavern was acquired by a man named George Washington Carter, whose family owned an adjacent land tract of 452 acres. George Washington Carter died in 1853 leaving his widow, Martha, to care for their large family of children. Similar to the Surratt Tavern in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Mrs. Carter would continue to operate the tavern as a means of income and offer lodging for visitors passing by on the road. The Trap also operated as the local post office in the same way the Surratt Tavern did.

In 1865, Mrs. Carter was running The Trap with the help of her four daughters. The daughters were twins Martha and Mary (27), Sarah (23), and Agnes (20). On April 5, The Trap briefly received a fairly distinguished guest by the name of Thomas Conolly.

Thomas Conolly

Thomas Conolly

Conolly was an Irish member of British parliament who had crossed the Atlantic to visit the Confederacy. He was well connected, wealthy, and was able to meet many of the Confederacy’s elite. Conolly was lavishly wined and dined during his trip, likely in the hopes that impressing him would motivate him to convince his countrymen to support the Confederacy. Conolly had departed Richmond just before the Union troops seized it and was making his way north. He mentions his stop at The Trap in his diary which has been published as An Irishman in Dixie: Thomas Conolly’s Diary of the Fall of the Confederacy.

“Stopped again from the exhausted state of our horse at the Trap 1/2 way to Port Royal where we find Mrs Carter & her 4 pretty daughters. The house was full of Virginia Cavalry going to join their Regts & the girls & mother serving them all round with all they had. Got some dinner bacon & greens & pickled peaches & corn bread & milk. Matty [Martha] & I had a pleasant chat & I gave her the other gold stud wh[ich] pleased her much.”

Conolly’s diary paints The Trap as a bustling and busy tavern with soldiers anxious to get food and drink. It was, therefore, not out of the ordinary when, on April 24th, David Herold, Willie Jett, Mortimer Ruggles and Absalom Bainbridge stopped by The Trap after dropping John Wilkes Booth off at the Garrett farm.

The men all took drinks while at The Trap and apparently discussed, within earshot of Mrs. Carter or her daughters, their plan to split up at Bowling Green and for Herold and Bainbridge to find lodging at Mrs. Clarke’s while Jett and Ruggles stayed at the Star Hotel. After their rest stop at The Trap, the man saddled back up and rode on to Bowling Green.

About 12 hours later, on April 25th, David Herold, Absalom Bainbridge and Mortimer Ruggles returned to The Trap this time headed in the opposite direction. They had followed through on their plan to spend the night in and outside of Bowling Green and now Herold was heading back towards Booth with Ruggles and Bainbridge as his guides. Once again, Herold, Bainbridge and Ruggles took drinks at The Trap. Sadly we do not really know any of the conversation or even the amount of time the men stayed at The Trap before they bade the Carter ladies goodbye.

Herold 1

 

David Herold was dropped off at the Garrett farm on April 25th and rejoined John Wilkes Booth who had been treated with much generosity and kindness by the unsuspecting Garretts. Bainbridge and Ruggles continued on the road until they reached Port Royal and witnessed a detachment of Union troops crossing the Rappahannock river. This was the 16th New York Cavalry and they had finally found John Wilkes Booth trail. The troops had learned from William Rollins in Port Conway that Booth had been seen in the company of Confederate soldiers, one of whom was Willie Jett. Mrs. Rollins knew that Willie Jett was dating a girl in Bowling Green and that they would likely be heading there. Bainbridge and Ruggles turned around and rode back to the Garretts to warn Booth and Herold before heading out of the area themselves.

The 16th NY Cavalry, with William Rollins in tow, successfully crossed the Rappahannock and then began riding down the same road Booth and Herold had been on the day before. They unknowingly passed John Wilkes Booth and David Herold as they rode by the Garrett farm on their way to Bowling Green. By 9:00 pm, the band of soldiers found themselves at that old half way house, The Trap.

When the Union soldiers entered The Trap and began searching the premises, Mrs. Carter and her daughters were understandably excited and distraught at the intrusion by Yankee soldiers. The soldiers found no men in the large, log house as the Carter ladies “raised and kept up such a clamor.” In order to try to get some needed information from the Carters, two of the detectives with the 16th NY, Everton Conger and Luther Baker, told them that they were in pursuit of “a party that had committed an outrage on a girl.”

Everton Conger and Luther Baker

Everton Conger and Luther Baker

This claim softened the Carter ladies’ dispositions and made them inclined to tell the soldiers all they could. They verified that a group of men had stopped by the day before on their way to Bowling Green and that three of them had come back a few hours before the troopers arrival. The Carters also mentioned having overheard the conversation about the men splitting up with some lodging at Mrs. Clarke’s home. The detectives contemplated splitting up the detachment in order to send some men to Mrs. Clarke’s and the rest on to Bowling Green, but decided to move, as a whole group, on to Bowling Green. The 16th NY was at The Trap for about a half hour to forty-five minutes before carrying on.

In Bowling Green, the troopers found Willie Jett asleep in the Star Hotel. He immediately surrendered and informed the men that Booth was at the Garrett farm and that they had unwittingly gone right past him. They placed Jett under arrest and then hightailed it back up the road, passing right by The Trap again without stopping.

The rest, as they say, is history. The 16th NY successfully corner John Wilkes Booth in the Garretts’ tobacco barn, light the barn on fire to smoke him out, and then Sergeant Boston Corbett paralyzes Booth with a gunshot wound to the neck. John Wilkes Booth dies around dawn on April 26, 1865. David Herold, two of the Garrett sons, William Rollins, and Booth’s body are all taken back up to Washington for trial, imprisonment and questioning, and burial, respectively.

Mrs. Carter and her daughters likely heard later that the men the troopers were looking for at their tavern were not wanted for an outrage on a girl but, rather, for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

After the Civil War, Mrs. Carter and her daughters continued to run The Trap as tavern. Out of the four daughters, only Agnes would marry but would be widowed soon after the birth of her own daughter. Unfortunately, times continued to be tough for the Carters and in 1870’s Mrs. Carter had defaulted on her loans. She sold off some of her land to try to stay afloat but in 1888 the land containing the tavern was auctioned off to pay for her debts. The tavern property was purchased by a man named George Lonesome who, in 1913, sold it to man named J. Harvey Whittaker. Sometime between 1900 and 1924, The Trap tavern was demolished. A subsequent owner named J. D. Smithers built and ran a store on the site from 1924 until 1941.

During World War II, the United States government, in need of suitable training and maneuvering ground, seized and purchased over 77,000 acres of Caroline County, Virginia. Residents in the area were given between two weeks and two days to move out of their homes, taking all of their belongings with them, never to return. For many, the land seized by the government had been their homesteads for generations. It was a difficult time for many families in the area who had to leave the farms that had been in their families for years. Yet, the land provided to create the training grounds of Fort A.P. Hill was essential for the war effort. Today, Fort A.P.Hill is split in half by a highway, Route 301. The southern half, which contains the area of The Trap, is the home of various live weapons ranges and is practically always off limits to the public, even to those whose ancestors lived, died, and were buried there.

That being said, today, June 11, 2016, was the 75th anniversary of the establishment of Fort A. P. Hill and as such they had various history exhibits and activities planned for the day that were open to the public. The activities included a one time tour of the Delos area where The Trap was located. What follows are some pictures of The Trap site that David Herold and the members of the 16th New York Cavalry visited.

Trap Tour Map

This map was provided in a booklet tour participants received and shows a modern aerial photo of the sites with former land tracts superimposed over the image. The Trap tavern where Herold et al stopped is actually labelled here as #2 Smithers’ Store, as a man named Smithers ran a store on the former site of The Trap from 1924 – 1941. As stated above, the farm owned by George Washington Carter and inherited by Martha Carter was 452 acres which is why #1 is labeled as the Trap farm but is actually the location of a later home built on the property around the 1890’s.

Trap Ice House 1

Trap Ice House 2

While the main residence that occupied #1 “Trap Farm” was built in the 1890’s, there are some remnants of a much earlier outbuilding in the area that was likely connected to the tavern. These pictures show what is left of an old, sizable ice house. In the days before refrigeration, families would essentially dig a large hole in the ground. The deeper you dig the cooler the earth is and at a certain point it can get close to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. You would place your ice in these deep pits and then cover it  with saw dust or another insulator to slow down melting, allowing you to have ice even in the summer months. The whole thing would then be covered with a primitive roof of some sort. The size and depth of this ice house and its relative proximity to The Trap tavern has led the archaeologists to conclude that this ice house was used by the tavern to provide them with their ice.

 

Trap dirt explanation

This image is a preface for the ones that follow and explains why much of The Trap site and the old road that ran right in front of it look like a construction site today. The entire site around The Trap is covered in this layer of “foreign dirt” that had to be removed before excavations could be done.

Trap Rolling Road

In this image you can see very clearly the traces of the old “Rolling Road” that connected Bowling Green to Port Royal. This image is taken looking southwest in the direction of Bowling Green.

Trap Rolling Road 2

This image shows the remains of the Rolling Road in the opposite direction. You can just make out at the end how the road is beginning to turn towards the left. Following that turn takes you north towards Port Royal. David Herold, Bainbridge, Ruggles, and the 16th New York Cavalry all traveled this road twice on their way to and from Bowling Green.

The Trap Site 6-11-16

The Trap site 2 6-11-16

These pictures show the site of The Trap tavern itself. In the top picture you can see a dark square in the foreground. That is one of the brick piers that the tavern sat on. It was highlighted by spraying it with water to make the color more noticeable. In the bottom image you can no longer see the square as the water has evaporated but it is located between the green bags in the middle. The bottom image is taken from the Rolling Road to give you an idea of how close to the road the tavern stood. It was located on this perfect spot where the road curved north making its own intersection.

Kate in The Trap

Dave in The Trap

These are two images of Kate and me standing “in” The Trap. You can see the Rolling Road behind me.

The tour of The Trap site was a wonderful experience and one that we felt lucky to take part in. The location of The Trap inside the boundaries of the live range area of Fort A. P. Hill insures that it will rarely be open to the public. At the same time, Fort A. P. Hill seem to be the perfect stewards of the site and their archaeology efforts demonstrate their commitment to preserving the cultural heritage of the land they occupy.

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not address the two “elephants in the room” when it comes to The Trap. One issue is the correct spelling of the tavern. I, like many others, have always spelled it as The Trappe. You can find this spelling in other texts and articles about the assassination. According to one of our guides for the day, John Mullins, the site was originally spelled Trap and not Trappe. John says that this spelling did not come about until the 1890’s or so and was likely started after the area became known as Delos. The spelling of The Trap with the extra “pe” was likely people’s inadvertent way of referring to the old name and making it seem ever older by giving it the old English spelling.

The second item that I failed to address was the reputation of The Trap and the Carter ladies. Some texts and authors state that The Trap was a thinly disguised brothel run by Mrs. Carter and her daughters. When I first began researching the Lincoln assassination I heard from several knowledgeable individuals that The Trap had a slightly scandalous reputation. However, in researching the topic I have yet to come across anything that truly supports this idea. The origin of this misconception appears to be an April 27, 1865 statement from Luther Baker. In recounting the hunt for Booth, Baker shares the detachment’s stop at the Trap thusly: “About halfway to Bowling Green, which is 15 miles from the ferry, we stopped at a log house called the halfway house. We found there four or five ladies, who keep a house of entertainment.” Baker then proceeds to recount how no men were found in the house and how the ladies eventually gave them the information they needed. This wording that the Carter ladies kept a “house of entertainment” seems to be the fairly innocuous wellspring from which all unseemly rumors have flowed. However, in its early days, The Trap was a house of entertainment. Horse races and card games took place there. According to one of our guides for the tour, the name of The Trap was an old reference to how the tavern was a money trap for those who went there to play cards. Whether Mrs. Carter and her daughters still allowed card playing when they owned the tavern is unclear, but even if they did, a little card playing doesn’t equate to a house of sin. Unless better evidence can be found to support the idea that they were improper in anyway, I think Mrs. Carter and her daughters deserve to have their reputations vindicated.

References:
Former Community of Delos (The Trap) Tour Itinerary booklet
“The Trappe” by James O. Hall published in the Surratt Courier June 1987
John Mullins, Kerri Holland, Rich Davis – Archaeologists
The Lincoln Assassination – The Reward Files edited by William Edwards
An Irishman in Dixie: Thomas Conolly’s Diary of the Fall of the Confederacy edited by Nelson D. Lankford

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “A Visit to “The Trap”

  1. Eva E.

    Very interesting article, Dave! “The Trap” just suggests a brothel, I wonder why a lady with four daughters would keep it for a serious business (seems “unsafe” to me).

  2. Gene C

    Great article. Is it possible to obtain a copy somewhere of the tour booklet?
    Nice of you to help set the record straight on the Carter family.
    Were you able to visit the Garrett Farm site?

  3. Laurie Verge

    Excellent article that clears up quite a few questions I have had for half-a-century! Stand by for a personal email from me…

  4. Jeff Randolph

    Very informative article, thank you for your excellent research. I’m glad the tavern site is preserved.

  5. Fantastic, Dave! Wish I had attended – you are very lucky to get this once in a life time chance! Have there been any real archeological digs there at the site? If so have they uncovered anything? I’d also be interested in receiving a copy of the pamphlet.

  6. This is really fascinating! Great job!

  7. Julie

    Fascinating! Almost every book I’ve read on the Booth hunt seems to reference that comment from Baker about how the place was a ‘house of entertainment’ for Confederate soldiers and travelers. Now, we can imagine them as a widow and daughters working hard, cooking and serving drinks to survive in such a tough time. To think all these years their names have been tainted if they weren’t! Thank you for this research! Great job!

    • Julie,

      One thing I discovered when researching that really changed my mind about the Carters’ reputation was the diary of Thomas Conolly, the Irish member of Parliment who stopped at The Trap on April 5th. Conolly was a, shall we say,”connoisseur” of brothels. During his trip to the Confederacy he openly journaled his enjoyment of the brothels of New Orleans and elsewhere in the Confederacy. And yet, when talking about The Trap, there is no mention of any hanky-panky merely pleasant conversation. If The Trap was truly a brothel, I believe Conolly would have indulged and documented his experience.

  8. David

    I was privileged to take the tour. My family livsed about 3 miles from The Trap. Sister Jean says our Daddy would take the children to John Smithers store evsry Friday for groceries & that she could draw in detail evry part of the store both in & outside. I was born the year after the family vacated their home.

  9. Daniel

    This is a great article! I am a distant relative of Willie Jett and I have always found his story incredible. I will actually be traveling through Virginia in a couple of weeks and was thinking about visiting some sites that relate to his encounter with Booth. Do you have any favorite locations, museums, or anything else to visit? Also do you know anything about Jett’s life after his encounter with Booth? I have not been able to find that much about that.

  10. Laurie Verge

    Hi, Daniel…

    I am director of the Surratt House Museum, which has an excellent research center as part of its complex. We also publish a monthly newsletter with history as well as current events. Quite a few years ago (we’ve done the newsletter since 1977), there was an article about Willie Jett that followed him until his sad death at a fairly early age.

    I am at home, not at work, but here’s a tidbit: Willie died from syphilis of the brain and was confined to the hospital for the insane in Williamsburg, Virginia, at the end. He had married well, but his problems dissolved the marriage. He is buried in the Confederate section of the national cemetery in Fredricksburg, Virginia.

    I have been told that the Jett family home place is now The Ingleside Winery off of Route 3 in the Northern Neck. Someone said that a house is still there, but I did not see it when I visited the Winery. Absolutely beautiful and historic area of the Northern Neck of Virginia.

    Visit surrattmuseum.org and click on the drop down for the Surratt Courier. There is an index covering article from 1977-2015, in alphabetical order. Search for Jett.

    • Laurie Verge

      I should have added that we sell back issues of the Surratt Courier for $1/issue.

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