The Life of Boston Corbett in Pictures

Abraham Lincoln’s Avenger

In Episode 60 of the podcast, “Abe’s Avenger: Boston Corbett”, we take a look at the fascinating life of Thomas “Boston” Corbett. He was the man that shot and killed John Wilkes Booth. Some thought he was a hero. Others were disappointed that he’d taken away the chance for a public trial and hanging.

Who was Boston Corbett?

Thomas H. Corbett was born in London, England on January 29th, 1832. At the age of eight, his family immigrated to New York City. Once in the States, the Corbett’s moved often before finally calling Troy, New York their home.

Corbett soon began an apprenticeship as a milliner or hat maker. In the early 1850’s, Corbett left Troy and returned to New York City. There he met his wife. Little is known about her, other than the fact that she died while giving birth to what would have been their first child together. Sadly, the baby didn’t make it either.

The Civil War Begins

On April 12th of 1861, Confederate forces successfully attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina and so began the Civil War, the bloodiest war in American History. Boston Corbett immediately enlisted in the northern army and became a private in Company I of the Union Army’s 12th New York State Militia. He’d make it known that while he was serving his country, he served God first. He cut his shoulder length hair and joined the fight.

Corbett Captured

In late August, Corbett re-enlisted as a private, this time in Company L, 16th New York Cavalry Regiment. On June 24th, 1864, while hunting Confederate Commander John S. Mosby’s regiment, they were ambushed in Centerville, Virginia. The ‘Gray Ghost’ as Mosby was famously known, watched as Corbett’s fellow soldiers surrendered one by one, but not Corbett. Boston Corbett stood in the middle of the battlefield and emptied his revolver and rifle at the Commander’s men. Mosby, impressed by Corbett’s bravery, ordered his men to stand down and apprehend Corbett alive. He respected him. Corbett was sent to the most notorious Civil War prison known as Andersonville.

Andersonville Prison saw its first prisoners arrive in February 1864. By the time Corbett and his unit arrived, the prison was taking in an average of 400 men a day for a total of 26,000 prisoners. 26,000 prisoners inside a prison built for 10,000. By August that number was at 33,000. Since the Confederate government was unable to provide the prisoners with adequate housing, food, clothing, and medical care, prisoners suffered tremendously with more and more dying every day. Poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, and exposure, led to the deaths of thirteen thousand Union soldiers. From Corbett’s unit alone, he was one of two to make it. Boston Corbett was released from Andersonville as part of a prisoner exchange in November of 1864. He was rushed to a military hospital in Annapolis, Maryland where they treated him for scurvy, malnutrition, intermittent fever, rheumatism, and dysentery.

President Lincoln Assassinated

The Civil War came to an end after the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital, on April 2nd, 1865. Twelve days later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The president and his wife were attending the play, “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. when John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Lincoln died the following morning in the Petersen House across the street. As a nation mourned, the hunt was on for John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators. Booth’s plan was to revive the Confederate cause by taking out the Secretary of State, William H. Seward, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and President Lincoln. Only Booth succeeded.

Booth on the Run

Boston Corbett’s regiment left Washington via steamer on April 24th and traveled 50 miles down the Potomac river to Belle Plains, Virginia. The volunteer soldiers searched for a day without any luck before receiving a tip from a local fisherman and his wife. They’d seen two men matching the description of Booth and his accomplice David Herold and they’d seen the two men with a local soldier named Willie Jett.

The regiment located Jett who led them to Richard Garrett’s farm near Port Royal. Led by Lieutenant Edward Paul Doherty, they arrived at Garrett’s Farm at 2:00 AM. After a brief interrogation, the farm owner gave up Booth’s position in the barn behind his home. The soldiers reached the tobacco barn and formed a ring around it. Lt. Doherty and John Wilkes Booth talked back and forth for the better part of an hour before Booth yelled out, “there’s a man in here who wants to surrender awful bad.” David Harold then exited the barn with his hands raised and was apprehended by soldiers. Booth tried everything he could think of to talk his way out of surrendering. He asked for a head start at one point or at least for an opportunity for a fair fight.

Boston Corbett eliminates Booth

Corbett aimed down the barrel of his gun, found his target and pulled the trigger. 

“What on earth did you shoot him for?” Yelled someone nearby.

“God Almighty directed me to.” Answered Corbett. 

The orders from Washington were to take Booth alive. They wanted a chance to interrogate Booth. They needed to know how far up the Confederate ranks the conspiracy to kill the top three officials in Washington went. On top of that, the public wanted to watch him pay for what he’d done. John Wilkes Booth died at 7:00 AM. Boston Corbett was arrested and escorted to Washington, D.C. by Lt. Doherty. 

The Trial of Henry Wirz

In May of 1865, the Commandant of Andersonville Prison, Henry Wirz was arrested by a contingent of the 4th U.S. Cavalry. His military tribunal began in August and ran until October 18th. Boston Corbett was one of 145 people who testified for the prosecution. In the end, Wirz was found guilty of war crimes and was hanged at 10:32 AM on November 10th, 1865. Sadly, his neck did not break from the fall, and the crowd of 200 spectators watched as he slowly strangled. Wirz’s level of guilt and responsibilities for the atrocities at Andersonville are something that’s still debated today.

Post War Boston Corbett

Corbett sent to (and escaped from) Topeka State Hospital

Lawmakers in Kansas felt bad for “Lincoln’s Avenger” and offered him the position of assistant doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives in January of 1887. Within a month of working there he became convinced that officers of the House were discriminating against him. In the middle of a February meeting he pulled out his revolver and began chasing the officers out of the building. Luckily no one was hurt and Corbett was arrested. The next day a judge declared him insane and ordered him to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane. On May 26th, the following year, Corbett was out in the asylum yard, exercising with his fellow inmates when he spotted an opportunity. A young delivery boy was tethering his horse in front of the asylum. He took off running, jumped on the horse, and escaped.

Boston Corbett Impersonators

In the years following his presumed death, there were numerous instances of people applying for his pension benefits. In September of 1905, a man was arrested in Dallas, TX claiming to be Corbett. He wound up in the Government Hospital for the Insane. A few years before that a patent medicine salesman in Enid, Oklahoma, filed an application. He was sent to prison.

Odds and Ends

Corbett spent much of his life worker as a milliner (or hatter). Some linked Corbett’s behavior to a well known children’s book from that time. Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and made the country familiar with the “Mad Hatter”. The phrase “mad as a hatter” actually comes from Mad Hatter disease, better known as mercury poisoning. Erethism or mad hatter syndrome, is a neurological disorder affecting the whole central nervous system. It’s characterized by behavioral changes such as irritability, low self-confidence, depression, apathy, shyness, and in some extreme cases with prolonged exposure to mercury vapors, by delirium, personality changes and memory loss.

On July 16, 1858, Corbett left a church meeting and was walking towards his boarding house when a pair of prostitutes propositioned him. The stirring in his loins that resulted disturbed him so deeply that he went home to read the bible. Corbett turned to chapter 19 in the Gospel of Matthew and read verse 12, a passage about eunuchs. He’d have done anything to follow the word of the lord. In order to avoid temptation he secured a pair of scissors and successfully castrated himself. He then ate a large meal and left for a prayer meeting before finally seeking medical treatment. A Dr. Hodges fixed him up as best he could and sent him to a nearby hospital where he stayed until he was discharged on August 15th.

A Lasting Tribute

In 1958, Boy Scout Troop 31, of Concordia, Kansas, built a roadside monument to Corbett near the location of his bunker-like home. The sign held two pistols embedded in the cement. They have since been stolen.

Listen to Episode 60 – “Abe’s Avenger: Boston Corbett”

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