The assassination of Abraham Lincoln—the beloved 16th President of the United States—by John Wilkes Booth was one of the most significant moments in American history. Only, what relatively few know is that this horrific crime was just the beginning of the story.
There was another lesser-known, but essential, historical figure who played a role in the tale: Thomas “Boston” Corbett, the man who killed John Wilkes Booth. This enigmatic figure would eventually become integral to the greater story of Lincoln’s death, but what many don’t realize is that he had his own unbelievable backstory…
Born in 19th-century London, Thomas Corbett emigrated to the United States and settled in Troy, New York. At the time, he seemed fairly ordinary. What no one could’ve known at the time was that he’d go on to do something extraordinary: avenge the death of America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. But how?
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When Corbett came to America, he found success as a hatter and later married in New York City. Sadly, he lost both his wife and daughter during childbirth, leading him to become an alcoholic. From there, his life only became more strange…
Things started looking up for Corbett after he moved to Boston and met a street preacher. The roadside reverend proved so influential that he helped Corbett to quit drinking and dedicate his life to the church.
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Corbett—who changed his first name to “Boston” in honor of the city that saved his life—proved to be an adept street preacher. He was also quite a fanatic. Never was this more obvious than when, in an effort to help combat sexual desire, he castrated himself.
Corbett’s life changed significantly in 1861 with the outbreak of the Civil War. Compelled to join the fight, he enlisted with the Union, but his extreme and unusual devotion to his faith quickly proved problematic in dealing with his superiors.
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He was court-martialed for insubordination and even sentenced to be shot. Luckily, his sentence was reduced and he was discharged. Yet that didn’t stop him from reenlisting in the Army later that same month…
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Unfortunately, Corbett was quickly captured by Confederate soldiers and sent to Georgia’s infamous Andersonville prison. Nearly 13,000 prisoners-of-war died there from starvation, disease, and torture, but against all odds, he survived… barely.
Corbett had fallen ill, so he was sent to a hospital. Luckily, he was released as part of a prisoner exchange, and he rejoined his comrades. It was then that he discovered grim news that left the nation in mourning: just days after the Civil War officially ended, Abraham Lincoln was dead. This would lead to Corbett etching his name in the history books.
Corbett’s unit was tasked with apprehending those responsible for Lincoln’s death: John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice, David Herold. In no time, the assassins were tracked to a tobacco farm in Port Royal, Virginia.
Herold handed himself in, but Booth refused to give up, holing himself up inside a barn. Before he could be forced to surrender, an unknown man set fire to the barn, hoping to smoke out the infamous criminal…
In the hectic moments that followed, Corbett claimed he spotted the assassin load his gun and take aim. Defying his orders to take the criminal alive, Corbett fired a shot. With a bang, he’d done it: he’d killed John Wilkes Booth.
When his superiors reprimanded him for defying their orders, he reportedly responded, “Providence directed me.” One would think that Corbett would be forgiven—after all, he avenged the death of a beloved president—but that wasn’t what happened.
During his May 1865 trial, Corbett attributed his “transgressions” to self defense, believing that Booth was about to shoot. While this didn’t change the fact that he’d acted against orders, it seemed reasonable enough to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton…
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Even though Stanton himself had given the initial order to capture Booth alive, he accepted Corbett’s claim—going so far as to call him a patriot. Soon, others began to celebrate him as a hero. Amazingly, Corbett’s life would continue to take several surprising turns…
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After his famous actions in war, Corbett returned to the only true profession he’d ever known: millinery. Only, as was often the case with hatters at the time, Corbett developed severe mental health issues…
His health issues were believed to be the side effect of working with mercury. The notion of a “Mad Hatter” is actually rooted in the very real problem with hallucinations experienced by those suffering from mercury poisoning.
Whether it was psychosis caused by mercury poisoning or something else, Corbett started to believe that Booth still alive… and that he and his supporters would seek vengeance for Corbett’s actions.
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As if that paranoia wasn’t bad enough, Corbett’s mental illness grew even worse when he moved to Kansas, where he was eventually forced to live in the Topeka Asylum for the Insane. And his tale still wasn’t finished!
Pheelineerie / Wikimedia Commons
Once again, no one could hold Corbett down for long, as he escaped the asylum in May 1888 on the back of a stolen horse. After this daring getaway, he reportedly tried to find shelter with Richard Thatcher, an old friend and fellow Civil War veteran. And then…
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Corbett was never seen again. Despite reports that were eventually chalked up to imposters, Corbett was last seen on the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway making his way to Mexico. Even his Wikipedia page says that this “unhinged avenger of Lincoln” was merely “presumed” to have died sometime in 1894. The truth was that no one knew for sure…
While the story of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth is well known, most people don’t realize the truth about the man who avenged the president’s death. Still, one thing’s for sure: Boston Corbett truly lived one fascinating life!
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