Mad as a hatter – The Bostonian that Killed John Wilkes Booth
Portrait by renowned Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, courtesy of New England Historical Society
Corbett was known as the “Lincoln Avenger.” Against orders from the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, Thomas P. Corbett executed John Wilkes Booth, the identical way John Wilkes[i] had killed Abraham Lincoln. The outline of his life below tracts an ignoble story that implies the reason he disobeyed orders. To others, the inconclusive end of his life led to alternate theories of his motives.
Thomas Corbett was born in London England in 1832
His family arrived in New York City in 1839 and settled in Troy, NY
He was devastated as his wife and daughter died in childbirth
He moved to Boston in 1857
He began drinking heavily
He became homeless
A Methodist Episcopal preacher confronted him in the streets and ended his binging
He changed his name to Boston in honor of his rebirth
Boston’s first job in Boston was as an apprentice: making felt hats
Hat felt making released mercury nitrate fumes, well known as a compound that led to hallucinations, psychosis and twitching called the “hatter’s shakes"[ii]
He regularly attended the Bromfield Street Church in downtown Boston[iii]
He was often seen distributing religious literature in the North End
One night prostitutes confronted him. His arousal surprised and scared him
He retired to his room and used a knife to remove his genitals
He attended church, returned to his place for dinner prior to seeking medical help at Mass. Gen. Hosp
As soon as the Civil War began he enlisted in the New York Militia
His disruptive religious proselytization led to insubordination charges and a court-martial
Execution was the sentence soon reduced to a general discharge
In 1864, he re-enlisted in the 16th New York regiment.
He was captured in Virginia by the famous Mosby’s Raiders after discharging all of his ammunition
Mosby admired his courage sparing his life, but sent him to the infamous Andersonville Prison in Georgia
Thirteen-thousand Union soldiers died in Andersonville
His life was saved in an exchange of prisoners in November of 1864
He was cured of scurvy and malnutrition and returned to his regiment as a sergeant
Scurvy often led to or worsened mental health conditions, particularly psychosis
Corbett testified against Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville, subsequently leading to the Captain’s hanging in November 1865
Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth April 14, 1865
Twelve days later Corbett’s platoon was sent to surround John Wilkes Booth at the Garrett Farm, Port Royal, Virginia
Booth’s accomplice, David Herold, surrenders. Booth refused
The Union soldiers set the barn on fire to literally, “smoke him out”
Corbett shot Booth in the back of the head penetrating the left eyeball
Corbett, upon questioning by his officer, admitted to killing Booth
He was arrested for disobeying orders to take Booth alive
Boston Corbett was removed to Washington D.C., to be court-martialed
He met with Secretary of War Stanton and claimed Booth would have killed him if he did not defend himself.
Stanton suggested that Corbett had done the nation a favor. “"The rebel is dead. The patriot lives. . . [v]
Eyewitnesses, including Richard Garrett the owner of the farm, did contradict Boston Corbett’s specific claim of self-defense
Corbett received a portion of the reward money equal to $26,000 in today’s currency
Corbett was honorably discharged from the army and returned to work in Boston as a hatter
Business slowed, and he moves to Danbury, CT
His next move five years later was to Camden, NJ, as a lay preacher
He lectured about the assassination, but his erratic behavior diminished his celebrity status
Due to his insubordinate nature, he repeatedly lost lay religious jobs
Paranoia seeped into every occurrence as he claimed to have received hate mail about killing Booth
In 1875 at a soldiers reunion he threatened Blue and Gray veterans with a gun
He moved to Kansas in 1878 and acquired land through homesteading
He built a dugout, possibly reflecting back on conditions at Andersonville
He was appointed a ceremonial doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives
Psychosis returned to him at the state house, and he pulled his revolver and threatened the representatives
He was committed to the Topeka Asylum for the insane
He escaped from the asylum on horseback
Corbett next settled in Hinckley, Minnesota
The Town of Hinckley lost 200,000 acres to a firestorm in 1894
Of those that outran the fire, some claim Boston Corbett was just a little too slow
Dozens of unknown victims are buried in a mass grave
Boston Corbett was never heard from again
To top off the historical insanity of Corbett’s life, an imposter in Oklahoma attempted to gain Corbett’s military pension but was arrested and sent to prison. Years later, in 1905, another impersonator in Dallas claimed to be Corbett, also applying for his pension. He was detained, sent to jail and then to the hospital for the insane.
Thomas Boston Corbett died without, a penny, family, the pistol used to kill John Wilkes Booth or a monument to his passing.
Goodrich, Thomas 2005, The Darkest Dawn: Lincoln, Booth and the Great American Tragedy. Indiana University Press
Kauffman, Michael W. American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln conspiracies. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2005.
[i] John Wilkes Booth’s family often referred to him as John Wilkes reflecting on the irascible Irish member of the British Parliament [ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Corbett [iii] Across from the Granary Burial Ground. [iv] Per Michael Kauffman, American Brutus and the Lincoln Conspiracies, Random House p. 310=311, 385 [v] Goodrich, Thomas 2005, The Darkest Dawn: Lincoln, Booth and the Great American Tragedy. Indiana University Press P. 228
9/5/2017 Hi Sheila,
I just wanted to tell you and Mitch how very much I enjoyed today. Mitch is passion for history comes through loud and clear in his delivery.
I learned new facts about Paul Revere that I had never known before.
Mitch was so well-prepared including all of the pictures and it was obvious that heput a lot of time and effort into this tour and the presentation.
So thank you so much for the invitation He did a great job! leslie b, Natick
10/18/2017Hi Mitch, finally getting to say thank you for such an enjoyable day and tour of Paul Revere etc.. I truly learned so much and loved walking through so much of historic Boston! PHYLIS, nh
9/5/2017 Hi Beth, Thanks for asking us to go on your tour, Mitch, of Boston’s historic sites. Your enthusiasm and love of history is contagious. You made history come alive. Sorry I had to leave early. I bet the tour of the North End was equally exciting! You put your all into it. sarah r. Wellesley
6/15/2017 firstname.lastname@example.org Comment 6/1/2017, Your remarks about John Hancock really painted a historical image of the man. 6/1/2016 Hi Mitch, resume services reviews has just posted a comment on your blog post, Why Did Paul Revere Become a Coroner at the Age of Sixty-two? : This is a very interesting piece of historical information. I was never aware of this information before. I didn't even know how relevant Paul Revere is in the history of Boston. It seems that he is a very important figure on Boston's foundation. I'm definitely going to dwell further into matter and research more about him.Comment actions:
6/3/2017 GS, SNHU,edu, Mitch your remarks about John Hancock really painted an historical image of the man.
10/15/2016 Thank you so much for the Boston Massacre Tour. I never knew it was such a complicated affair. I particularly liked the incidental historical stops about Colonial Boston. I hadn't been downtown for years. You opened up so much for me. June, Natick Ma.
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