Conflict Period:
Civil War (Union) 1
Army 1
1832 2
London, England 2
01 Sep 1894 2
Hinckley, Pine County, MN 2

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Personal Details

Full Name:
Boston Corbett 1
Also known as:
Thomas P Corbett 2
1832 2
London, England 2
01 Sep 1894 2
Hinckley, Pine County, MN 2

Civil War (Union) 1

Army 1
L 1
Discharge Rank:
Sergt 1
Enlistment Rank:
Pvt 1
Military Unit:
16th Cavalry 1
New York 1

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  1. Civil War Service Index - Union - New York [See image]
  2. Contributed by bruceyrock632


The Man Who Shot the Man Who Shot Lincoln

For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb; and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men; and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
—Matthew 19:12

One morning in September 1878, a tired traveler, five feet four inches tall, with a wispy beard, arrived at the office of the daily Pittsburgh Leader. His vest and coat were a faded purple, and his previously black pants were gray with age and wear. As he stepped inside, he lifted a once fashionable silk hat to disclose brown hair parted down the middle like a woman’s. Despite the mileage that showed in his face and clothes, he was well kept, and spoke with clarity. He handed the editor a note from an agent at the Pittsburgh rail depot, which said: “This will introduce to you Mr. Boston Corbett, of Camden, N.J., the avenger of Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Corbett is rather bashful, but at my solicitation he concluded to call on theLeader editor as an old soldier.”

The newspaperman realized that this was no joke. He remembered the photographs of this man, spread across the North after he shot the assassin John Wilkes Booth 13 years earlier, in April 1865. He invited him to sit and talk. Corbett told him that he was homeless, almost penniless, and headed to Kansas to stake a claim. The railroad agent had suggested that he come to the newspaper to tell his story, on the chance that someone would help him on his way.

Asked what had happened since he entered history by shooting Booth that early morning in Virginia, Corbett said that despite his fame, he had nothing. The photographer Mathew Brady had taken his portrait, and published it by the thousands, but all the hero got in return was a few copies. He had worked at his trade of hat finisher in New York, then lived in Camden while employed in Philadelphia. He showed the editor his credentials as a guard at the great Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Now his luck had run out. He lost his job in Philadelphia and could not find work, so decided to head for wide-open Kansas, determined to get there if he had to walk. So far he had paid $4.21 for rail fare, but had come on foot much of the way to Pittsburgh. That morning he had sought out the local manager of the Pennsylvania Railroad, without success. He was going back that afternoon.

The editor of the Leader did not say how long they talked, or record how much Corbett told him about his earlier life. But Corbett was always willing to tell how he got his name:

Born in London in 1832, he came to America with his family when he was seven. They settled in Troy, New York, where he learned the hat trade, soon becoming a journeyman and taking his skills to other cities around the East. The beaver hats then so much in style were made of animal furs matted and repeatedly washed in a solution containing mercury nitrate, a process called carroting because it turned the fur a distinct shade of orange. Hat finishers like Corbett labored in close quarters, inhaling vapors laden with mercury. A year after he married, his young wife died with their stillborn daughter. He was despondent, and began wandering, working by day and drinking by night. Adrift in Boston, he underwent a born-again experience inspired by a Salvation Army evangelist. He felt a calling. It shook his life so profoundly that he decided to change his name to honor the place where he first saw the light, as Christ had changed the names of Saul and Simon when he called them. Since then Corbett’s first name had been not Thomas, but Boston.

There was much more to his story: In Boston, he let his hair grow long in imitation of Jesus, became a street-corner preacher, and harangued his fellow workers for cursing and wenching. But the streets were still full of sin, and he was young, only 26, and lonesome. One night in July, two women mocked him and beckoned him down from his soapbox. He was tempted. Fearful that he could not resist such strumpets, he went to his room, took a pair of scissors, and carefully castrated himself. Then he proceeded to a prayer meeting, had dinner, and took a walk before seeking emergency aid at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In his own mind, he had done as the Bible said: he had made himself a eunuch “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” He said years later that he felt divinely instructed; he wanted to “preach the gospel without being tormented by animal passions.” The grisly experience may have removed him from sexual temptation, but the rest of his life proves that it did not remove his manhood.

After weeks recovering, he moved to New York and became a loud and constant presence at the Fulton Street Meeting, a lunchtime prayer gathering in lower Manhattan organized by the Young Men’s Christian Association. He was too fervent for his co-worshipers, who called him a fanatic. When he testified or led prayers, he added an emphatic “er” to his words, saying “Lord-er hear-er our prayer-er.” In his loud shrill voice, he shouted “Amen” and “Glory to God!” to approve anything he liked. Those around him tried to shush him, but failed.

Corbett was living in this emotional fever when war came in 1861, and he enlisted in the 12th New York Volunteers two days before the regiment sailed for Washington. He was eager to get at the Rebels: “I will say to them, ‘God have mercy on your souls’—then pop them off.” Morning and night, he prayed in the corner of his tent, despite the jeers of rough fellow soldiers. His resistance to military au­thor­ity, to any authority below that of Christ, got him into the guardhouse, and sometimes had him marching back and forth with a knapsack full of bricks. Even then he kept his Bible in hand, ranting at his comrades for their sins.

He was not afraid of the highest brass; in parade formation in Washington’s Franklin Square, when colonel and future general Daniel Butterfield cursed the regiment for misbehavior, Corbett stepped forth and defied him to his face. He was punished, but not repressed. He an­nounced that he would quit the army when his first hitch was up, no matter what. When the hour came, he was on picket duty, but laid down his weapon and marched off. A court martial fined him two months’ pay, yet he kept reenlisting. The 12th New York Volunteers were among the 12,500 Union troops captured, then paroled by Stonewall Jackson’s Confederates at Harper’s Ferry just before the battle of Antietam in September 1862. The following year, Corbett switched to Company L of the 16th New York Cavalry, a regiment that spent much of its time chasing John Mosby’s Confederate raiders on the outskirts of Washington.

By mid-1864, U. S. Grant had marched the great Federal army from its winter camps along the Rapidan River to the suburbs of Richmond, a hundred miles south of the Union capital. But behind the lines, Mosby’s partisan horsemen still harassed Federal outposts and communications, striking and then disappearing into the northern Virginia countryside, tying down many times their own numbers and keeping Washington on edge.

That June, Mosby’s riders surprised Corbett and a detachment from Company L who were looking for them near Centreville. Official records say the Union troopers were loafing about after a meal and unprepared when the Rebels struck; Corbett’s version was: “I faced and fought against a whole column of them, all alone, none but God being with me, to help me, my being in a large field and they being in the road.” Harper’s Weekly would make him a hero, reporting that the Yankee cavalrymen “were hemmed in . . . and nearly all compelled to surrender except Corbett, who stood out manfully, and fired his revolver and 12 shots from his breech-loading rifle before surrendering, which he did after firing his last round of ammunition. Mosby, in admiration of the bravery displayed by Corbett, ordered his men not to shoot him, and received his surrender with other expressions of admiration.”

But when Corbett was out of Mosby’s hands, he got what turned into a death sentence to thousands of other captives—he was sent first to Lynchburg, then to the pine woods of Georgia, into the hellhole of Andersonville prison. Soldiers of both sides suffered in prison camps North and South, but Andersonville was the worst of the horrible lot. Although it existed for barely a year, about 45,000 captured Union troops were sent there, and of these nearly 13,000 died of disease, malnutrition, and exposure to the elements. Corbett endured, preaching, praying, and comforting his fellow inmates. “Bless the Lord,” he said later, “a score of souls were converted, right on the spot where I lay for three months without any shelter.”

After the war, he would testify for the prosecution in the long-running trial of Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the camp, the only Confederate soldier executed for war crimes. Corbett told of seeing prisoners dragging ball and chain in the sun; he said the place “was in a horrible condition of filth”; the swamp around the stream that flowed through the stockade “was so offensive and the stench so great that he wondered that every man there did not die; the maggots were a foot deep”; prisoners dug roots and dried them to eat; men who carried the dead out to be buried were allowed to bring back firewood, only to hear taunts of “That’s right; sell off a dead man for wood!” from fellow sufferers. When Corbett himself was sent out to gather firewood, he managed to slip away, but within hours was tracked down by hounds and brought back.

Then, after Corbett had been held for five months, General Grant allowed the resumption of prisoner exchanges. Because Corbett was suffering with scurvy, diarrhea, and fever, he was among the emaciated but lucky hundreds sent back north, a skeleton on crutches. Of 13 other Yankees captured with him, only one survived.

Corbett stayed in an Annapolis hospital three weeks, until he was strong enough to take 30 days’ leave. He had reason to be deeply vengeful as he rejoined his regiment at Vienna, Virginia, 10 miles west of Washington. Writing to a woman who had tended soldiers returning from Andersonville, he said the thousands of their comrades lying under Georgia soil were “monuments of the cruelty and wickedness of this Rebellion—the head of all the rebellions of earth for blackness and horror. Those only can feel the extent of it who have seen their comrades, as I have, lying in the broiling sun, without shelter, with swollen feet and parched skin, in filth and dirt, suffering as I believe no people ever suffered before in the world.”

On April 15, the morning after John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, the 16th New York deployed into a cordon thrown about Washington in hopes of snaring the attacker before he could escape to the South. The troopers did not realize the president had died until they approached the capital and saw flags at half-mast. The regiment split into detachments that rode out to follow every rumor of Booth’s whereabouts. Between these sorties, Corbett was asked to lead prayer one night at Washington’s Wesley Chapel. “O Lord,” he intoned, “lay not innocent blood to our charge; but bring the guilty speedily to punishment.” The regiment had the honor of riding in the president’s funeral procession on April 19, a solemn procession along Pennsylvania Avenue between thousands of mourning citizens and buildings draped in black.

For another five days, Corbett and his detachment continued their vigil until a bugle sounded “Boots and Saddles” and brought them running to their stable. They mounted up, and with Lieutenant Edward Doherty leading, they clattered to the office of Lafayette C. Baker, chief of War Department detectives, across from Willard’s Hotel at 14th and Pennsylvania. Doherty went in, emerged with two other detectives, and rushed with 26 cavalrymen to the Sixth Street wharf to board the steamer John S. Ide. They set out down the Potomac toward Fredericksburg in pursuit of the assassin.

Booth and David Herold, one of his accomplices, had escaped into southern Maryland, where they hid at Dr. Samuel Mudd’s house, then in swamps and barns until they borrowed a rowboat and slipped across the wide Potomac into Virginia. Following a tip, Doherty’s troopers came ashore at Belle Plain on Aquia Creek at about 10 o’clock that Monday evening and spread across the country, rapping farmers out of bed for questioning. The next day they tracked Booth to the Rappahannock River, and they shuttled over it on a rude scow that carried eight men and horses at a time. That night they traced him to the Garrett farm, just west of Port Royal. After a detective threatened the reluctant Garrett with hanging, the farmer’s son pointed to the barn where the fugitives were hiding. That is where Corbett picked up the story three weeks later, when he testified before the military court trying the remaining conspirators.

He told how the soldiers surrounded the barn, and Lieutenant Doherty and the detectives carried on a long back-and-forth conversation with Booth, trying to persuade him to give up. “He positively declared he would not surrender, saying, ‘Well, my brave boys, you can prepare a stretcher for me. . . . Make quick work of it; shoot me through the heart.’” But Booth said his accomplice wanted to come out, so Herold emerged and was quickly searched and tied up. Immediately after that, detective Everton J. Conger set fire to hay in the barn.

Corbett said, “The position in which I stood left me in front of a large crack—you might put your hand through it, and I knew that Booth could distinguish me and others through these cracks in the barn, and could pick us off if he chose to do so.” He could have shot Booth easily, but “as long as he was there, making no demonstration to hurt any one, I did not shoot him, but kept my eye on him steadily.” Then he saw Booth “taking aim with the carbine, but at whom I could not say. My mind was upon him attentively to see that he did no harm, and when I became impressed that it was time that I shot him, I took steady aim on my arm, and shot him through a large crack in the barn.”

When Booth’s body arrived at the Washington Navy Yard, Corbett was immediately proclaimed a hero by the public. He sat for photographer Brady, in several poses alone and in one standing with Doherty. The newly promoted captain towers over him, but Corbett stands at ease with his forage cap tilted over his eyes, his pistol holster huge on one hip, his other hand grasping his saber, his boots tall and polished. His cavalry brothers found him, this strange little sergeant, “cheerful and heroic under circumstances of intense suffering and great provocation.”

But Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, detective chief Baker, and others were not interested in Corbett as hero; they were furious that he had shot Booth before he could be captured. They wanted the assassin alive, to question him and to conduct a show trial, trying to prove that the conspiracy involved Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who had not yet been caught. Some charged that Corbett had acted against orders, others that he fired without orders. He insisted that he pulled the trigger only when he saw the assassin raise his carbine.

On the scene, Corbett had explained simply that “Providence directed my hand.” Days later, he wrote a letter, published by The New York Times, refuting “many false reports in the papers charging me with violation of order, &c.” Lieutenant Doherty had cleared him of blame, he said, and commended him to General Grant for his action. Corbett wrote that “when I saw where the ball had struck him—in the neck, near the ear—it seemed to me that God had directed it, for apparently it was just where he had shot the President.”

Corbett was offered one of Booth’s pistols as a keepsake, but declined it. When someone offered him $100 for the pistol with which he had shot Booth, he also declined, saying it belonged to the government. But if the government wished to reward him, he said, it might let him keep his little horse. It was not worth much, but he had become attached to it after riding it through so much history.

The Committee on Claims conducted more than a year of hearings before deciding to award Lafayette Baker and the detective, ex-colonel Conger, $17,500 each from the $75,000 reward posted by the Federal government. That generated so much public protest that the committee’s report was disapproved. But after it was revised, the biggest single share still went to Conger, while the enlisted cavalrymen who chased Booth down, including the sergeant who shot him, got precisely $1,653.85 each.

That did not sustain Corbett long; by some accounts, he was robbed of his share soon after he got it. He returned to New York, back at the downtown prayer meetings where he had spoken before the war. He preached temperance to shipyard workers, and ventured onto the lecture circuit. But that career fizzled because his advertised lectures invariably turned out to be raging sermons instead. In 1869 he found work as a hatter in Philadelphia and became pastor of a Methodist mission across the Delaware River in Camden. Stacked in one corner of his kitchen there, he kept half-a-dozen rough benches for use by the worshipers who came to hear his nightly sermons. When a reporter asked him about John Wilkes Booth, he said: “I felt I was doing my duty to my God and my country. To this day I feel justified in my course. Were the ghosts of 20 assassins to arise against me, they could not disturb a calm Christian spirit.”

Corbett was Christian, but not calm. Losing his job was not the only reason he left Philadelphia and headed west. He was not pursued by the ghosts of 20 assassins, but he had received threatening letters; he suspected that he was targeted by Confederate sympathizers bent on revenge. He stayed briefly with an ex-comrade in Com­pany L, who wrote that Corbett had “been driven from pillar to post,” that “he preaches with a pistol in his pocket,” that “after he says his prayers he lies down at night with a loaded revolver under his pillow,” that “he moans pitifully” in his sleep. “It almost seems my house was haunted while he was there.”

Although Corbett was “a good man, a pure and devout Christian of spotless life,” his friend went on, “I declare I was glad when he was gone, he was so unhappy, so uneasy, so strange. He is no lunatic. He is no fool. He is a good man in every way. But wherever he goes he says Nemesis pursues him, and the troubled spirits of revenge will not let him rest. He is in constant fear of assassins.”

Corbett made it to Cloud County, Kansas, and homesteaded 80 acres on seemingly worthless land 18 miles southeast of Concordia. He was convinced that admirers of Booth had created a secret order sworn to avenge him. He built himself a sod and stone dugout, with holes in the walls so he could fire out at interlopers. He lived as a recluse, wandering the countryside on his cherished little black horse Billy. A friend said he always had a “watchful, wary countenance . . . he always seemed to be on the lookout for something.”

Often when he saw someone approaching, he dismounted, drew his pistol and lay waiting in the grass until he saw who it was. He was a deadly marksman—one Kansan alleged that he had seen him bring down a barn swallow with his pistol. Neighbors said he fired warning shots if they happened to ride across the borders of his claim. Such behavior brought him before a hearing in Concordia, where he whipped out his gun and shouted “Lie, lie, lie!” But because it was Corbett, the authorities sent him back to his shanty with just a warning. He was active with the local Salvation Army, and a friendly judge tried to help him by arranging lectures, but as before he drove audiences away with his “shouting, ranting, street preacher religion—‘Repent and ye shall be saved!’” A Presbyterian minister invited him to talk about his war experiences, and Corbett took the occasion seriously, even buying a new coat and shirt. But what he delivered was another shouted “disconnected exhortation.”

Other war veterans sympathized with Corbett; an old cavalryman and legislator arranged a job for him as a doorkeeper in the Kansas House of Representatives at Topeka. This worked out for a few months, but each day his piety was offended by the doings of the prairie politicians around him. Eventually, on February 15, 1887, he could stand it no more. Just after the morning prayer, he drew his pistol and threatened the speaker of the House, abruptly adjourning the legislature. He kept the floor, waving his weapon and threatening legislators, reporters, and staff. There are many versions of exactly what provoked him; one says he was disrespected by the House staff, another that he exploded when he heard pages mocking the opening prayer. As he raged, lawmakers hid under desks and spectators scattered; he held the floor until police crept up behind him, grabbed his pistol, and took him away.

After long testimony, a probation judge in Topeka declared Corbett “hopelessly insane” and committed him to the state asylum. A reporter recalled his shooting of Booth, and said sadly that the “bloody deed, which so effectually blighted his life . . . has finally followed him into a straight-jacket.”

Sadly, but not finally: Occasionally Corbett threw fits of anger at the asylum, but at other times he was a model patient and was allowed to join his fellow inmates in outdoor exercises. But on May 26, 1888, when a friend of the superintendent’s son came visiting and tied his “smart Indian pony” near the gate, the old cavalryman saw his chance. Dawdling behind his group, pretending to admire the spring blossoms, he leaped into the saddle and galloped away. The patients he left behind shouted excitedly, but this was not unusual at the asylum, so at first attendants did not realize what had happened. They spotted Corbett when he was half a mile down the road, “whipping that pony at every jump” with the rawhide whip the boy had left hanging on the saddle. “To all appearance the only reason that pony was running was because he couldn’t fly,” said a witness. “At a turn in the road, Corbett looked back and swung his straw hat around his head, and thus waved farewell to the hospital and his late companions.” A few days later, a letter came saying the horse could be reclaimed at Neodesha, Kansas, 75 miles south. Corbett had spent two nights there with an old soldier who had suffered with him at Andersonville. He borrowed train fare, covering it with a draft on the $15 he had left in a Concordia bank. Then he departed, saying he was headed for Mexico.

What happened to him after that is not known, but widely rumored. Every few months some newspaper out west reported that he had appeared in a neighboring county, or was working in the gold fields of Nevada, or had died in a Minnesota forest fire. In 1900, a Topeka patent medicine magnate said a certain John Corbett had been peddling his products up and down Texas and Oklahoma for several years, always being careful not to step over the Kansas line. He was convinced that this Corbett was really Boston. But among other discrepancies, this Corbett stood six feet and weighed 188 pounds; after extensive interviews and depositions, he was convicted of perjury in trying to collect Boston’s abandoned property and $1,300 in accumulated government pension. In 1913, after chasing rumors for a quarter century, state officials concluded that “it is safe to say that no one in Kansas knows the whereabouts of Boston Corbett.” In 1958, Boy Scouts erected a stone monument on Corbett’s homestead, decorated with a plaque and a pair of big pistols.

The phrase “mad as a hatter” was already familiar more than 150 years ago; it had appeared in Edinburgh’s Blackwood Magazine in 1829, and Thackeray used it in Pendennis in 1850, when Corbett was learning the hat trade at which he worked for two decades or more. Through the years, doctors began to recognize the poisonous side effects of the mercury used in many medical treatments and in industrial procedures. Among the victims’ symptoms they listed irritability, nervousness, fits of anger, anxiety, insomnia, low self-control, exaggerated response to stimulation, fearfulness, and violent behavior. The worst damage to humans came from mercury made airborne into tiny droplets and breathed into the lungs—exactly what had happened to Boston Corbett.

On December 1, 1941, the U.S. Public Health Service banned the mercury process in hat making.





The Insane Story of the Guy Who Killed the Guy Who Killed Lincoln Meet Boston Corbett, the self-castrated hatmaker who was John Wilkes Booth's Jack Ruby.

The fire in the tobacco barn was starting to rage, and inside was the most wanted man in America: John Wilkes Booth, the traitor who had shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre 12 days earlier.

Nursing a broken leg, Booth had made it 73 miles to Port Royal, Virginia, with federal troops in pursuit. Now the last of his accomplices had deserted him and he was cornered in the barn, surrounded by Union Army veterans hungry for vengeance. He had two choices: shoot his way out or surrender and face his crime.

A soldier by the name of Boston Corbett would decide the matter for him.

Corbett was watching Booth intently from his unit’s formation around the barn. Through the cracks in the wall, he could see the fugitive shift in and out of view, a gun in hand. As the flames rose, Corbett trained his pistol on the image, even though the word from Washington was clear—Booth was to be taken alive.

Corbett, you see, wasn’t the kind of soldier who followed orders easily, unless they came from God. He was a fervent Christian, and his faith had seen him through four years of battle, not to mention a punishing stint in one of the harshest Civil War prisons. He was ready for the fight to end.

He walked closer to the fire, which a comrade had lit in an attempt to shake the fugitive loose, and stopped just paces away from the barn. Then he watched as Booth appeared to make up his mind by pointing his gun outside toward the Union troops, as if to fight his way out.

That was all Corbett needed to see. He defied Washington’s orders and pulled the trigger. Booth fell to the ground, and hours later he was dead. Boston Corbett thus became Lincoln’s Avenger: the man who killed the man who killed the President.

As positions of historical prominence go, it’s a rarefied one. Three US Presidents were murdered after Lincoln, but only one of the assassinations—John F. Kennedy’s—was followed by a similar (and much more storied) reprisal. Two days after Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963, Jack Ruby killed Oswald with a .38 snub-nosed revolver on live television.

Ruby was a loosely mobbed-up nightclub owner who claimed he’d done it to save Jacqueline Kennedy from having to endure the pain of a long murder trial. Corbett had a less shady but still unorthodox past—he was a hat maker with a strong religious streak who claimed God had commanded him to bring Lincoln’s killer to justice. Ruby went to prison; Corbett didn’t.

But a peek at the pages of history—into old newspaper clippings, correspondence, and records held at the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka—reveals how much the assassins’ assassins had in common. Like Ruby, Corbett ended up vilified after his unilateral action denied the public the chance to learn the full truth about the plot to kill the President. And Corbett, too, became fodder for conspiracy theories that followed him to his own strange end.

• • •

Boston Corbett’s curious life began ordinarily enough. As a young man named Thomas Corbett, smallish with black hair and black eyes, he toiled in the hat trade in the Northeast, an honorable profession for a first-generation American in the mid-19th century. But the arc of Corbett’s future shifted dramatically when his wife and first child died during the girl’s birth.

Corbett became unhinged, seeking solace in the bottle. He staggered up and down New England, until one night in the late 1850s when he happened upon an animated scene on a Boston corner. A street evangelist was holding court, and Corbett was mesmerized by the message of God. He became a regular at sidewalk churches around the city, peppering street preachers’ prayers with boisterous refrains of “Glory to God!” and “Come to Christ!”

The ministers eventually encouraged him to stake out a corner of his own, not so much because the young man had potential but to keep his annoying chorus at a distance. Corbett, now 26, took the advice. He would swear off liquor and grow his beard and hair long, styling himself in the image of Jesus. He also surrendered himself to a baptism by a Methodist minister—and was born again as Boston, in recognition of the town that saved him from the drink.

His rash tendencies exhibited themselves in strange ways. One day while he was ministering in the summer of 1858, Corbett was ogled by a pair of prostitutes, and the lower half of his body responded invitingly. He went home, took a pair of scissors, snipped an incision under his scrotum, and removed his testicles, then headed out to a prayer meeting.

In the Bible, Matthew 19:12 quotes Christ as saying “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Corbett made himself a eunuch and didn’t check himself into Massachusetts General Hospital until he’d finished his prayers, had a full dinner, and taken a light stroll through the city that evening.

• • •

Weeks after healing, the castrated hat maker moved to New York City and resumed his trade. He remained a zealot, often attending the lunchtime prayers of the YMCA’s Fulton Street meetings. Corbett’s pious impulses were also what drew him into uniform. In 1861, amid the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Corbett enlisted in the Northern army, telling the women at his church that when he came eye to eye with his gray-suited enemies, “I will say to them, ‘God have mercy on your souls’—then pop them off.”

His Jesus locks shorn, Corbett managed to conform to the military’s uniform and grooming standards and was by most accounts a decent shot. But he never put country before God—and his religious rebelliousness was no match for even the hardest of commanders. During a drill in New York’s Franklin Square, Colonel Daniel Butterfield (famous for composing the military taps) was livid at his troops’ improper formations and gave them a tongue lashing laced with profanities. Corbett, who had yet to see a second of fighting, barked back: “Colonel, don’t you know you are breaking God’s law?”

Astonished, Butterfield sent Corbett to the guardhouse jail, where the soldier proceeded to one-up his commanding officer by singing hymns at the top of his lungs. Butterfield sent a messenger to warn the impetuous prisoner to stop it or else. Corbett kept on singing.

When Butterfield finally offered to release Corbett in exchange for an apology, Corbett responded, “No, I have only offended the colonel, while the colonel has offended God, and I shall never ask the colonel’s pardon until he himself has asked pardon of God.”

Exasperated, Butterfield sent his last order: Release Corbett from jail.

• • •

Four years of war later, as the North was celebrating the South’s surrender, a stage actor and Rebel sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth snuck into Lincoln’s box in the balcony of Ford’s Theatre in Washington. The President and his wife were watching a comedy, Our American Cousin. Booth grabbed his .44-caliber derringer pistol and shot Lincoln in the back of the head.

“Sic semper tyrannis!”—Thus ever to tyrants!—Booth shouted in Latin as he stole for the exit. After an overnight vigil, the President died early in the morning. By then, Booth had escaped into the night.

Even half crippled—he had leapt from the balcony to the stage, caught his spur on the bunting, and broken his leg—Lincoln’s killer eluded capture. Ten days after the assassination, the assailant was still nowhere to be found. To hunt the traitor, the government turned to the 16th New York Cavalry, the men who’d battled the infamous Confederate colonel John Mosby’s raiders. It was Boston Corbett’s unit.

Corbett was by now a hardened combat soldier. He had reenlisted three times, surviving traumatic events that had felled other men. Back in June 1864, while hunting Mosby’s men, Corbett had found himself cornered by the so-called Gray Ghost’s troops near Centreville, Virginia. His fellow soldiers were “nearly all compelled to surrender,” according to Harper’s Weekly, but not Corbett. He “stood out manfully, and fired his revolver and 12 shots from his breech-loading rifle before surrendering. . . . Mosby, in admiration of the bravery displayed by Corbett, ordered his men not to shoot him.” Instead, Corbett was sent to Andersonville, the most notorious Civil War prison.

Andersonville, in south-central Georgia, was built for 10,000 captives but held some 32,000 at its peak—almost a third of the men who ended up in the disease-ridden prison never made it out. When he was paroled in November of 1864, Corbett and another Union fighter were the only POWs from their unit to survive the ordeal. And barely so. Corbett left with scurvy and intermittent fever, rheumatism, and “bloody flux,” otherwise known as dysentery, a wartime ailment deadlier than combat.

Corbett spent some time recuperating at a hospital in Annapolis, then rejoined his regiment. Within a few months, the war was over. Lincoln was dead, his killer on the loose, and officials in Washington were apoplectic. During a church service several days into the dragnet, the head of the congregation asked Corbett to lead the flock in a blessing. “O Lord, lay not innocent blood to our charge,” the 33-year-old sergeant prayed, “but bring the guilty speedily to punishment.”

Not long afterward, volunteers from the 16th Cavalry regiment, led by Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty, prepared to go south into Virginia and hunt down John Wilkes Booth. Corbett was one of them.

• • •

The detachment left Washington via steamer on April 24 and headed about 50 miles down the Potomac to a landing at Belle Plain, Virginia. After a day of fruitless searching, the volunteers received a tip from a fisherman and his wife that men fitting Booth’s and his accomplice David Herold’s descriptions had crossed the Rappahannock River and were headed toward Bowling Green in Virginia’s Caroline County. The same informants suggested that the men were aided by a soldier named Willie Jett, who happened to be sweet on the daughter of a certain innkeeper in Bowling Green.

It was now midnight on April 26. After knocking on several doors there, Doherty’s men found Jett at a hotel and rousted him from bed. Jett wasn’t about to give up Booth and Herold, but Doherty informed him that he “should suffer” if he didn’t do so. Jett agreed to lead them 12 miles to land near Port Royal owned by a farmer named Richard Garrett, where Jett had left the men two days earlier.

“Arriving at Garrett’s Farm,” Corbett later wrote, “the lieutenant said to me, ‘Mr. Booth is in that house, ride through the command, and see that every man’s pistol is in readiness for use.’ ”

When Doherty asked after the fugitives, Garrett claimed they were in the woods. Doherty didn’t buy it. So, as he later told the Washington brass, he “seized this man by the collar, and pulled him out of the door and down the steps, put my revolver to his head and told him to tell me at once where the two assassins were; [Garrett] replied, ‘in the barn.’ ”

It was after 2 AM by now. Doherty’s men descended on the tobacco barn and formed a ring around it, Corbett included. From inside, Booth was trying to talk himself out of the jam. “Captain, draw off your men fifty yards!” Booth shouted, according to a soldier in the 16th Cavalry. “A cripple as I am with only one leg and cannot walk without a crutch. I would like a chance for my life.” Doherty refused.

It was dark, but there were cracks in the barn walls, and from his position, Corbett claimed to have eyes on their shifty target—he wanted to charge the barn himself. But when he asked for permission to try flushing the assassin out into the open, he was denied.

Meanwhile, the back-and-forth between Booth and Doherty continued for an hour, until Booth yelled that there was “a man here who wants to surrender awful bad.” Out came Herold, the accomplice. And Booth started talking again.

Concluding that their target was never coming out, a federal investigator named Everton Conger took a clutch of dry hay, lit it on fire, and stuck it through a crack in the barn. As the flames climbed toward the night sky, Corbett made his move toward the barn for a better look and pulled the trigger.

• • •

“What on earth did you shoot him for?” yelled Lafayette Baker, another government detective, as he rushed to yank Booth out of the burning barn.

The orders from Washington were not to take the fugitive dead or alive—the War Department wanted Booth in the flesh. His motives for killing Lincoln were still a mystery, and officials knew they had a conspiracy to root out—possibly even one orchestrated by Confederate president Jefferson Davis. They needed their target to talk.

Booth was carried to the front porch of the Garrett house and placed on a makeshift mattress. “Kill me,” he whispered later. He asked to see his hands, so one of the soldiers lifted his paralyzed limbs. “Useless, useless,” Booth muttered. He died around 7 am.

The government detectives immediately cast aspersions on Corbett, the trigger-happy sergeant who had just deprived the nation of a trial for the President’s murderer. All because, he said, “God Almighty directed me to.” Instead of the assassin, it was Corbett who was sent back to Washington to be questioned.

• • •

In the end, Corbett was spared a court martial. Rather than punishing him, War Secretary Edwin Stanton declared him a patriot. “I did not fire the ball from fear,” Corbett testified at the trial for Booth’s conspirators in May of 1865, “but because I was under the impression at the time that he had started to the door to fight his way through, and I thought he would do harm to my men if I did not.”

Corbett collected his small share— $1,653.85—of the $50,000 reward and asked to keep his horse. “He isn’t very valuable,” he told the New York Tribune. “But I’ve got so attached to him that I would like to take him home.”

Corbett became a folk hero. He was photographed by Mathew Brady, the most famous photographer of the era, and the images of him in dress fatigues were duplicated on photograph cards. He even went on a publicity tour, telling his tale at meetinghouses and Sunday schools.

But before long, the country was eager to move on. Corbett went back to ply his trade as a silk-hat finisher. Later, he worked as a lay preacher, making $250 a year. As his notoriety and income diminished, he became erratic and moody. By 1874, he was increasingly tormented by conspiracy theories that Booth was actually still alive and by rumors that Southern sympathizers wanted to kill Corbett in the assassin’s name.

In a letter appearing in the Cleveland Leader, a soldier named Private Dalzell, surmised to be a friend of Corbett’s, claimed that Corbett was “pursued by threatening letters every day” and received “no less than a dozen” along the lines of one that read: “HELL, September 1, 1874. —Boston Corbett, Nemesis is on your path. J. Wilkes Booth.”

Dalzell wrote that Corbett was “insulted wherever he appears in public. . . . [H]e is hated by one-half of the American people and despised by the other half for the only crime ever yet alleged against him—that . . . he robbed the haughty officers of a play where they would all have been star actors.”

Having spent much of his life in the hat industry, Corbett could have been succumbing to mercury poisoning. The ill effects of the mercury vapors used in finishing, Corbett’s specialty, had become public by this time, even part of folklore after Lewis Carroll introduced the country to the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865.

By 1878, Corbett had had enough. He hitched a black pony to a wagon and headed west. Along the way, he stayed with a soldier from Company L, who later wrote that “wherever [Corbett] goes he says Nemesis pursues him, and the troubled spirits of revenge will not let him rest. He is in constant fear of assassins.”

Corbett, then in his mid-forties, finally settled 1,500 miles from home, in Cloud County, Kansas, and homesteaded 80 acres. He built a one-room hovel with a wooden floor and rocked walls. Suspicious of anyone who ventured near his dugout—fearing that someone, perhaps Booth’s avenger, was out to get him—Corbett presented his pistol to most who approached. He even shot at children who got too close.

On Sundays, he rode into town to attend church astride his only friend, a pony named Billy. At the end of the sermon, he’d tell the preacher, “The Lord wants me to say a few words.” Then he’d remove a pistol from each boot, place the guns on either side of the Bible, and hold forth.

• • •

Corbett was deteriorating. “I have been very bad for the last six years,” he stated in 1882, pleading for more disability benefits he thought he was owed for serving in uniform: “I don’t think I have been able to earn $20.00 during the whole time from 1877 to 1882 by manual labor.” At one point, he actually dug his own grave and told a neighbor that when he died, he should be buried in a new Army blanket.

In 1886, a veterans’ organization took pity on the old codger and offered him the assistant doorkeeper’s post at the Kansas State Legislature in Topeka. The job didn’t last long. One day, after some kind of dispute—accounts of the day vary wildly—Corbett brandished his gun inside the statehouse. That was it. Kansas officials shut him away in a mental asylum in Topeka.

But that wasn’t the end of Boston Corbett. On May 26, 1888, as the inmates were exercising, Corbett spied a delivery boy tethering his horse in front of the asylum. He broke away from the group, jumped on the horse, and took off.

Corbett rode to Neodesha, Kansas, to the home of fellow Andersonville inmate Richard Thatcher. There he tied a note to his “borrowed” horse, explaining who its rightful owner was, and set it free. Then a relative of Thatcher’s took him to Brooks station, a train stop on the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway. He said he was going to Mexico, but no witnesses remembered anyone matching Corbett’s description boarding the train.

He was never heard from again.

Still, rumors trickled in: Corbett drowned in the Kansas River. One theory had him targeted by ruffians still bitter over the Bloody Kansas battles. Another had him moving to Hinckley, Minnesota, and later perishing in the Great Hinckley Fire of September 1, 1894. The best evidence of that hypothesis came from a survivor named Frank Haney, who in 1954 wrote an account of the conflagration and recalled an older Boston man named Tom Corbett, who was good with a rifle and was hired to hunt game for the crew at Gus Sexton’s Minnesota logging camp in 1890. In this version of his demise, the real Corbett wasn’t able to keep up with the younger men who escaped the flames by foot.

In the early 1900s, the federal pension bureau heard about a Boston Corbett who claimed he was alive and well and wanted his pension checks. But an investigation shed some doubt on the claim. The weathered old fellow, who went by the nickname Old Trapper, gave only vague details about Booth’s killing, professing he couldn’t think straight. It was also noted that the new Corbett stood six feet tall—a full eight inches taller than the original. The imposter, a onetime patent-medicine salesman named John Corbett, was jailed.


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