FEBRUARY 2008 – NO. 21
The troubled life of the man who shot Lincoln's killer.
"When the assassin lay at my feet," he said to a fervent throng eager to hear him speak in Washington, D.C., "and I saw the bullet had taken effect about an inch back of the ear, and I remembered that Mr. Lincoln was wounded about the same part of the head, I said: 'What a God we have! God avenged Abraham Lincoln!'" The dead assassin was, of course, John Wilkes Booth. God's avenger, now but a footnote in history, was a sharp shooting religious fanatic, Thomas "Boston" Corbett, sergeant of the Sixteenth New York Cavalry.
A hero he was. It was he, with a couple dozen Union soldiers, who surrounded a tobacco barn on Richard Garrett's farm in Virginia. Booth and an accomplice, David Herold, were inside after 12 days on the lam following Lincoln's assassination. Harold surrendered. Booth did not. They lit the barn on fire to roust him out. A reporter for The World wrote, "They bathed the murderer's retreat in a beautiful illumination, and while in bold outline his figure stood revealed." Booth, crippled from his fall at Ford's Theatre, pitched for the door, flames rising. Corbett, through a hole in the barn's wall, shot Booth dead.
Booth was to be taken alive were the official orders. "Why in hell did you shoot without orders?!" demanded an officer as Booth lay dying, struggling to say the words, "Tell mother I die for my country," blood seeping out of him.
"Colonel, God Almighty directed me," Corbett answered.
It was God who directed Corbett in most everything he did. Born in London, England in 1832 his family immigrated to New York City when he was a boy. He eventually took the trade of hatter in Troy, New York. There is some speculation that the mercury used in hat-making contributed to his mental decline in later life.
Corbett married, but his wife and child died in childbirth. After the tragedy, he moved to Boston, drunk, defeated and in debt. One night he stumbled into a street evangelist. Corbett heard, for the first time, the voice of God. A "miracle" occurred. He was born-again, a new person with a new outlook on life, changing his name from Thomas to Boston. He was to revel in the Lord God. He wrote soon after, "We (Corbett and an associate) often kneel together and besiege the throne of Grace, and bless God. He makes us happy in His love."
With purpose, he grew his hair long so he could look more like Jesus. One hot summer's night in 1858, walking along the streets of Boston, he came upon some prostitutes. In horror over the thoughts kindled because of them he went home, grabbed a pair of scissors and proceeded to castrate himself. He ate a "fine meal," went to a prayer meeting, and then sought medical attention, checking himself into Massachusetts General Hospital.
With the start of the Civil War Corbett eagerly joined. He re-enlisted three times and eventually rose to the rank of sergeant. His mental stability was beginning to be questioned, however. His conscience guided his decisions, not outranking officers. He prayed constantly in the corner of his tent. He preached to his fellow soldiers temperance and beseeched them to seek the Lord. He reprimanded a colonel for swearing, taking a Bible from his pocket, reading aloud the Commandments. He was court-martialed more than once.
During the war, his outfit had a skirmish with Confederate guerillas. He was captured and sent to the infamous Andersonville prison. He wrote in an adoring fan's album after he shot Booth and was being hailed nationwide, "Andersonville, the blackest spot on earth was made bright and glorious by the saving presence of God."
Fame came swiftly to him after Booth's death, but fame left him just as quickly. Receiving $1,653.84 in reward money and the adulation of a nation (one newspaper editor stated "He will live as one of the World's great avengers") he returned to the hatter's trade. Death threats, however, and crank letters followed him.
Paranoia grew. He became delusional. Dementia set in. He feared the wrath of "Booth's Avengers" and carried a pistol with him wherever he went, waving it at anyone who looked like they might do him harm. He was dangerous. Eager to escape the "Secret Order" of men eager to kill him, he left the East in 1878. Corbett went west, bringing his demons with him to, literally, a hole in the ground.
His new home was Cloud County, Kansas where he dug a hole in the side of hill and lived in it, his behavior becoming increasingly erratic and alarming. He came upon some kids playing baseball on a Sunday. Outraged, he pulled a pistol on them. The game quickly ended. The sheriff came to see him soon after and informed him that he'd have to stand trial for the incident. He pulled a pistol on him, too. The meeting quickly ended. He appeared in town days later to stand trial because he said God told him to. Halfway through the proceedings he pulled a pistol, waving it about. Court recessed quickly.
Some time later, he was given a chance to redeem himself in Topeka, Kansas. He was hired by the state legislature as an assistant doorkeeper. On February 15, 1887 Corbett overheard the legislature's opening prayer being mocked. Outraged, he pulled a pistol and knife and ran through the legislative building raving, sending scared innocents looking for cover and safety.
No one was hurt but he was sent back to court. Immediately judged insane he was sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane. He was 55-years-old. It had been 23 years since he had killed Booth. Famous then but now lost not only to history but to himself.
In the spring of 1888 the inmates at the asylum were enjoying the day out-of-doors. Corbett, amongst them, spied an unattended horse. He sprung onto it, galloping south in a cloud of dust. He escaped, never to be heard from again.
There were reports he stayed briefly with Richard Thatcher, a man he had met at Andersonville. Corbett told him he was heading for Mexico. The rest of his life is an utter mystery, save for this .…
Years later, during the fall of 1894, there was a great fire in Hinckley, Minnesota. Started after a long drought, it raged into a firestorm, taking hundreds of lives. On a list of the dead and missing was one Thomas Corbett. Was it he, living in the rugged forests of Minnesota? Did he, as some speculate, become a traveling salesman of medicines throughout the Oklahoma territory? Or was he traipsing through the desolation of Mexico on a stolen steed? No one will ever know. And now what is the one memorial for this man? This avenger of the ages? A weather-beaten monument in Kansas, standing by that hole in the ground he used to live in.
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