Boston Corbett : biography
Thomas P. "Boston" Corbett (1832 – presumed dead 1894) was an American Union Army soldier who shot and killed Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. He disappeared after 1888, but circumstantial evidence suggests that he died in the Great Hinckley Fire in 1894, although this remains impossible to substantiate.
Corbett was born in London, England. His family emigrated to New York City. He became a hatter in Troy, New York. It has been suggested that the fumes of mercury used in the hatter’s trade caused Corbett’s later mental problems.
Family and "rebirth"
Corbett married, but his wife died in childbirth. Following her death, he moved to Boston, and continued working as a hatter. He joined the Methodist Episcopal Church and changed his name to Boston, the name of the city where he was converted.Harper’s Weekly, May 13, 1865 In an attempt to imitate Jesus, he began to wear his hair very long. On July 16, 1858, in order to avoid the temptation of prostitutes, Corbett castrated himself with a pair of scissors. He then ate a meal and went to a prayer meeting before he sought medical treatment.Swanson, p. 329
Enlistment in the Union army
In April 1861, early in the American Civil War, Corbett enlisted as a private in Company I of the 12 Regiment New York Militia. He was discharged in August, at the end of the regiment’s 3 month enlistment. Corbett re-enlisted in September 1863 as a private in Company L, 16th New York Cavalry Regiment. Captured by Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby’s men at Culpeper, Virginia on June 24, 1864, Corbett was held prisoner at Andersonville prison for five months, when he was exchanged. On his return to his company, he was promoted to sergeant. Corbett later testified for the prosecution in the trial of the commandant of Andersonville, Captain Henry Wirz.
Pursuit of John Wilkes Booth
Corbett was a member of the 16th New York Cavalry Regiment sent, on April 24, 1865, to apprehend John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, who was still at large. Two days later the regiment surrounded Booth and his accomplice, David Herold, in a tobacco barn on the Virginia farm of Richard Garrett. The barn was set on fire in an attempt to force them out into the open. Herold surrendered, but Booth remained inside. Corbett was positioned near a large crack in the barn wall. Corbett claimed in an 1878 interview that he saw Booth aim his carbine. At that point, Corbett shot Booth with his Colt revolver despite Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s orders that Booth should be taken alive. Eyewitness Lieutenant Edward Doherty, the officer in charge of the soldiers who captured Booth and Herold, stated that "the bullet struck Booth in the back of the head, about an inch below the spot where his shot had entered the head of Mr. Lincoln." His spinal cord was severed, and he died two hours later. (Quoting Lieutenant Edward Doherty, officer in charge of the soldiers who captured Booth) Corbett was immediately arrested for violation of his orders, but Stanton later had the charges dropped. Stanton remarked, "The rebel is dead. The patriot lives." Corbett received his share of the reward money, amounting to $1,653.84.Swanson, p. 358
In his official statement, Corbett claimed he shot Booth because he thought Lincoln’s assassin was preparing to use his weapons. This was contradicted by the other witnesses. When asked later why he did it, Corbett answered that "Providence directed me".Swanson, p. 340
Corbett’s later years
Immediate post-war life
After his discharge from the army in August 1865, Corbett went back to work as a hatter, first in Boston, later in Connecticut, and by 1870 in New Jersey. His life was marked by increasingly erratic behavior. In 1875, he threatened several men with a pistol at a soldier’s reunion in Caldwell, Ohio. In 1878, he moved to Concordia, Kansas.
In 1887, because of his fame as Booth’s killer, Corbett was appointed assistant doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka. One day he overheard a conversation in which the legislature’s opening prayer was mocked. He jumped to his feet and brandished a revolver. No one was hurt, but Corbett was arrested and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane. On May 26, 1888, he escaped from the asylum. He went to Neodesha, Kansas, and stayed briefly with Richard Thatcher, whom he had met when they were both prisoners of war. When he left, he told Thatcher he was going to Mexico. His "madness" may have been the result of exposure to mercury, an element commonly used in hat manufacturing. It is so well known for this side effect that it has given rise to the expression "mad as a hatter".
Rather than going to Mexico, Corbett is believed to have settled in a cabin he built in the forests near Hinckley, in Pine County in eastern Minnesota. He is believed to have died in the Great Hinckley Fire of September 1, 1894. Although there is no proof, the name "Thomas Corbett" does appear on the list of dead and missing.Lincoln Herald, Volume 86, Lincoln Memorial University Press., 1984, pp 152–155Kubicek, Earl C, "The Case of the Mad Hatter", Lincoln Herald, Volume 83, Lincoln Memorial University Press, 1981, pp 708–719
In 1958, Boy Scout Troop 31 of Concordia, Kansas, built a roadside monument to Boston Corbett. It is on Key Road in Concordia. A small sign also was placed to mark the dug hole where Corbett for a time had lived.
In popular culture
In its next-to-the-last episode titled "The Unmasked" (June 17, 1962), the ABC/Warner Bros. western television series Lawman, starring John Russell and Peter Brown, presents an entirely fictitious portrayal of Corbett. Played by character actor Dabbs Greer, Corbett is living under the name "Joe Brockway" and is depicted as a hotel owner in Laramie, Wyoming. In the story line, two former Confederate soldiers from Georgia, played by Barry Atwater and Charles Maxwell, arrive in Laramie in search of "Brockway"; they claim he is the key to the settlement of an estate to which they are all a party, but they have actually been sent to kill him for his role in the death of Lincoln’s assassin.