The Man Who Shot Lincoln
by Charles McGuigan
Barrett Snow could feel something percolating inside. He had no idea what it was; but it was there, pumping steadily through every vein. He helped his mom and dad mix earth with wood shavings and chicken guano and bag it for sale as Cathy’s Compost. It would pay for the mill they lived in out in Fluvanna, just on the county line, not far from Columbia and the graceful confluence of the Rivanna and James rivers. Barrett never minded the work, something his mother Ferae had taught him since he was just a toddler. Work hard. Find your bliss. Be who you knew you had to be. Barrett had learned how to get by in school, but he knew it wasn’t school that would teach him. He needed to have his hands and mind and heart into it all, like his mother, who blew glass tubing, lit half of Richmond and a good part of the East Coast with pulsing argon and neon that fired the night. His father Ken had taught him how to make money out of whatever you were doing. Taught him common sense, as he liked to say. And Barrett’s biological father had, through strands of DNA, given him an armor against fear. He didn’t know his biological father all that well, but there it was. He was part of Barrett, one way or other. These genes were working in him, transforming him into what he was maybe destined to become. That was a distinct possibility. Barrett knew he was going to become something that no one else was, but he wasn’t sure, not at that moment, what that might be. He knew, though, that he would be like no one else. And in that, there was a certain sense of invulnerability. That nothing could really ever chop him down. Barrett packed the wood shavings into an 80-pound bag and pulled it tight. Hoisted it.
We’re sitting at a work bench in Barrett’s garage behind his home in Mechanicsville, not far from the windmill on Route 360. It’s his man cave and he’s been showing me his latest acquisition, a four-color screen press for making T-shirts that he designed which feature Barrett Snow, Stuntman, at least fifteen different permutations of the same logo. For Barrett this is just another way of marketing himself as a stuntman and it’s all starting to pay off, but it’s been a long road, and far from bump-free.
Barrett was born out in New Mexico under a dome of countless stars at night, a blue bowl, deep as cobalt some days that stretched on forever like an African sky. When he was two years old, his family moved first to Georgia and then to Tennessee before coming to Richmond. They lived for ten years out in Highland Springs then bought an old mill out near Columbia where they settled in for good.
Barrett’s mother, who died unexpectedly a few years back, was a force of nature, and a lot of her was distilled into her only son. She had a natural ability with anything artistic. She painted water colors, built furniture and blew neon, running her business, Nothing But Neon, from the family home in the Kent Mill out in Fluvanna for fifteen years. “She could not be a very nice person, but most of the time she would give you her shirt off her back,” Barrett tells me.
Ferae Felicia Tanco Droege was her name and she told her son this when he was a boy and it has stuck with him ever since: ”Have a good work ethic, always stay true to myself and be who you are.”
Growing up in Fluvanna, Barrett learned self-sufficiency. The family grew most of their own food and canned it and raised chickens and hogs and goats and even made essential oils from lavender, which was time-consuming and ultimately not all that profitable. They also sold the compost.
Before he was even three years old, Barrett was riding a two-wheel bicycle. By the time he was four, building ramps and making jumps with his bike. Falling a lot and crying, but getting back in the saddle a moment later and trying again. At age twelve he had learned to weld and found that he could do almost anything with his hands.
“At age thirteen I started doing things my way,” Barrett remembers. “I was never good in school, but I made sure I passed with just enough to get by. And my mom didn’t have a problem with that because she knew I was smarter than that because I found ways of getting around the system.”
After graduating from Open High, Barrett went off to Latrobe, Pennsylvania and studied automotive mechanics and was awarded an associate’s degree. “It got easier to do what I wanted to do and then by twenty-two I was self-sufficient,” he says. “I could always find a way to make money, painting cars, selling bricks, working on cars, flipping them.”
And then something happened that would crystalize everything in Barrett’s skull. He was working steady at Haynes JEEP as a mechanic and he saw a motorcycle he just had to have. A brand new 2007 Honda CBR600. A lightweight bike with plenty of power—one of the fastest things on two-wheels and Barrett got a loan and bought it right off the showroom floor for eleven grand. Just like that.
Three months later he was racing on a toll road through Chesapeake when he noticed flashing lights behind him. Now he’d had this bike up to 167 miles an hour and outrun police in the past so he decided to do it again. He sped right through the toll booth doing a wheelie with guns trained on him and then as he decelerated to about sixty miles an hour he realized he was at a dead end and crashed into an abutment. He hit ground, bounced once, and in an adrenalin trance climbed back on the bike, which was still running, and pulled up in someone’s front lawn and told them he was running from the cops. The owner of the house was a cop and a few minutes later the police in hot pursuit arrived. Barrett had cracked two ribs and was Medevaced to Norfolk General.
“They gave me two Vicodin and then they let me go on my way and I didn’t have to go to jail that day,” Barrett says. A couple of friends picked him and they spent two days at the beach. But this wasn’t over by a longshot. “I had to buy a lawyer,” he says. “Five thousand dollars down the drain. Medevac cost $8,000 and my bike was totaled.”
Barrett smiles. “But I got very lucky,” he says. “I was supposed to get 90 days in jail. I did 32 straight in Chesapeake Jail in the general population of 110 inmates. I could have got 90 days with a population of weirdos.“
There was something else though. Barrett had a kind of come-to-Jesus moment. He knew finally what he was going to do with his life. Didn’t know how. But knew he would.
“That’s when I figured out I have a skill but I need to learn how to use it,” he says. “I realized in the film industry I can do that. I can do a back flip; I can pull a wheelie; I can flip cars; I can drive a car on two wheels. I can even figure out how to build a car.”
All the funny, zig-zag pieces of his life started coming together. He understood a thing or two about pyrotechnics, and would learn more online. That would be easy. Barrett also knew how to fall. He’d been a gymnast for five years until he was eleven. “As a gymnast you learn how to fall without hurting yourself,” he says. “I was tenth in all-state regionals. I nailed a horse. I could do an iron cross. I could do a standing back full.”
Above everything else, Barrett was simply not afraid of doing physical harm to himself. He had customized a go-cart that he’s clocked at 134 miles an hour. A tiny thing, low riding with thick tires. ”It’s sitting out back,” says Barrett. “It’s a 120 horsepower go cart and weighs 250 pounds. Will go from zero to sixty in three seconds. I built it basically from scratch. I took an existing racing go cart, cut off the back of it and put a motorcycle engine on it.”
Speed thrills him. “I like to go fast and it’s not only an adrenalin rush,” Barrett says. “It’s a place where I can go to use my skill and it feels good to be able to think in milliseconds. If I turn, if I do anything at this time; it’s either life or death. The only reason I do it is that it feels good. I enjoy putting my life at risk. It just feels right in my head to do things like that. It’s like riding a rollercoaster, you know, you’re not going to die but you think you might.”
Barrett Snow had the right stuff. But he needed people to know it. So he began his own marketing campaign with testosterone and two hundred dollars. He’d ride his motorcycle or car guerilla-style and have a friend shoot the action with a cheap, second-hand steady cam. Then Barrett would post these videos on You Tube.
“To bust into the industry I would go rent a car and find a parking lot and do donuts in it,” he says. “And I would hone my craft. I would do one eighties, full three sixties. I could get the car to ride on two wheels. I would take this camera and I would take two cones and I would take two of my friends and we’d film it. We had proof of what I could do.”
He’d also record his ability to fall. “I would jump off cliffs,” says Barrett. “We would go to the Manchester Wall, which is sixty feet high. Out at the mill where we lived there was a big pit of saw mill shavings so it was a very nice landing area. I have one video of me actually do a running back flip off these saw mill shavings and into the back of a Gator.”
He compiled a short two-minute demo and posted it on everything in cyberspace. And it paid off. “I got a response from a guy called Kid Richmond,” Barrett tells me. “He is a stunt performer and stunt coordinator and is breaking his way into producing. He contacted me and asked if I had every worked on a film.” Barrett leveled with him but told him he knew how to do stunts. They talked on the phone about stunts and motorcycles over the next a month. “And then one night he said, ‘I want you to come fall off my house,’” says Barrett. So Barrett mounted a rickety deck on the roof top and fell three storeys into a 24-inch foam pit. “I did it once and he was like, ‘Great and now I want you to fall for a camera. I want you to flail and scream a little bit.’ I could do a flip, fall forward, backward, I nailed it instantly. Kid said, ‘You’ve got it.”
That was five years ago, and since then, under the wing of Kid Richmond, Barrett has worked in some thirty films, long and short, some of which will never be seen. But recently Barrett performed in the two Lincoln movies which were shot on location in Richmond.
In the Spielberg film he was an extra, but in “Killing Lincoln”, a Ridley Scott production for National Geographic, Barrett actually pulls the trigger and assassinates the Great Emancipator. That critical scene was shot at the Neil November Theatre (formerly the old Empire) on West Broad in downtown Richmond. It became Ford’s Theatre for the shooting.
As a double for Jesse Johnson, who plays John Wilkes Booth, Barrett appears with a moustache like a wooly caterpillar and a shock of unkempt black hair.
“Lincoln was in front of me, probably about five feet, and I would slowly raise the one-shot derringer and shoot him and then Rathbone comes over and tries to stab me and at that point I would leap over the balcony. I had to kick a picture of Washington on the way down and catch my foot in the flag and I did it ten times. It’s a lot to think about when you’re getting to jump off a balcony.”
Most recently he and Kid Richmond finished a shoot in Blacksburg for “Wish You Were Well”, a film based on a David Baldacci novel. “We face-crashed cars and did a mine explosion,” says Barrett. “I was Kid Richmond’s assistant coordinator and I got to do a close up stunt with Ellen Burstyn so you’ll probably see my face on the big screen.” And now the money is finally starting to come in and Barrett is ever-eager to work.
“I’m a professional stunt performer for the film industry,” says Barrett Snow. “I do a little bit of everything from fire burns to high falls, precision driving, and on motorcycles any type of stunt. You can check me out on IMDB.com. That’s where legit feature films are accredited. It takes some hard time to get there, but I’m getting there.”