Sunday, April 6, 2014

Thomas "Boston" Corbett - The Man Who Killed John Wilkes Booth

  Thomas "Boston" Corbett was born in London England in 1832. At the age of 7 his family moved to Troy New York. Corbett learned to be a hatter while still a child. Eventually he married but his wife died in childbirth while delivering a stillborn child. Thomas took to drinking and became a drifter moving from town to town. He was converted to Christianity while listening to a street preacher in Boston. He began calling himself Boston after the city where he was converted. He began trying to look like Jesus by growing a beard and wearing his hair long. He joined a Methodist Church  and was very demonstrative in the way that he worshiped. He would shout "Glory to God" at weird times, which bothered other church members. In July 1858 he lusted after two prostitutes walking down the street and he felt so bad about it afterwards that he took a pair of scissors and clipped off his testes, castrating himself. He then went to a prayer meeting, took a walk and had dinner before he sought medical help from a doctor. At the beginning of the Civil War he joined the Union Army. The night before he left for the army he preached a sermon in which he said he would have no mercy on Southerners and would shoot them all on sight. Corbett would dress down his officers when they cursed asking "don't you know that you are breaking God's law?" And he refused to return to the ranks until he received an apology. He was eventually sent to the guard house for insubordination. Boston was on picket duty one night and returned to camp without his rifle. He announced that he only signed up for three months and his enlistment ended at midnight. At first he was arrested and condemned to death by firing squad but soon his sentence was commuted to discharge from the army. Corbett reenlisted in September 1863. He joined the 16th New York Cavalry. It was reported that every time he killed a Confederate soldier he would shout "amen, Glory to God". His unit one day was chasing the "Gray Ghost" John S. Mosby and part of Boston's unit was cut off. Mosby's men killed or captured most of Boston's comrades but he would not surrender. He held off 26 Confederates until he ran out of ammunition and then he fought them off with a club. Mosby was impressed with Corbett's tenacity and sent him to Andersonville. I have been to Andersonville and that placed was a hell hole. In less than a year 13,000 men died there of starvation, disease and abuse. Corbett escaped once and was hunted down by bloodhounds and recaptured. After five months he was released and he rejoined his unit. 

  After the war he testified against Captain Henry Wirtz, who was the Confederate commandant at Andersonville. He would be the only Confederate to be executed for war crimes. When Abraham Lincoln was shot the 16th New York Cavalry was sent South to hunt for John Wilkes Booth. They caught up with him in Richard Garrets tobacco barn in Virginia. They set the barn on fire trying to flush him out. David Herald, one of Booth's fellow conspirators surrendered but Booth was prepared to fight. Boston saw Booth through a large crack in the side of the barn and shot Booth in the back of the head, not far from the same spot in his head that Lincoln had been shot in. The bullet clipped Booth's spinal cord. Booth, barely alive and paralyzed, was dragged out of the burning barn to die later on Garrets front porch. Corbett was arrested for disobeying orders. Their orders were to take Booth alive. The charges were soon dropped by order of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Boston received his share of the reward money of 1,653.85 and became a temporary celebrity. Corbett remained a religious fanatic and because of that people lost interest in him. He went back to making hats and displaying more and more signs of erratic behavior. At a Grand Army of the Republic reunion in 1875 he pulled a gun on two men who he overheard saying that they didn't believe he killed Booth. The public soured on him so he moved to Concordia Kansas. He bought 80 acres of land but never built a house. Instead he lived in a hole in the ground. People sought him out to lecture on the death of Booth but each time he would give a fire and brimstone sermon instead. He became a recluse and only came out at night. On one occasion he showed a female neighbor the grave that he had dug for himself and the blanket that he wanted to be buried in. After many incidents in which he threatened people with his pistol and displaying erratic behavior he was committed to the Kansas State Mental Asylum. He escaped on May 26, 1888. A friend gave him a horse on the provision that he head to Mexico and never come back. After June 1, 1888 he was never officially seen again. He may have gone to Mexico but there is circumstantial evidence that he died in a huge fire in Hinckley Minnesota in 1894 because a Thomas Corbett was listed as one of the dead. The fact that Boston was a hatter may explain his insanity and erratic behavior. Mercury was used in the process of making hats and he had been breathing the vapors since he was a child. This is where the phrase "mad as a hatter" comes from.


         

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