A wanted man is lying low on a farm in Virginia, trying to evade the law. However, flames begin to consume his hiding place and a band of soldiers are closing in. Among them is the troubled Boston Corbett – and he has his eye on the prize. Against orders, he fires his weapon. Little does he know it, but it will send his life onto a truly bizarre path.
Thomas Corbett was born on January 29, 1832, in London, England. When he was just a boy, Corbett’s parents decided to relocate the family to the United States. After moving around for a time in America, they eventually settled down in Troy, a city in the east of New York state.
There, Corbett began training for a career as a hatter. And at first, his career seemed to be going well. But after moving to New York City and getting married, he experienced a terrible tragedy. In fact, his wife and his first child – a daughter – both died during childbirth. Despondent, Corbett turned to drink.
Corbett soon moved to Boston, where, heartbroken, he continued to drink heavily. However, following a bout of heavy drinking, he came across a preacher in the street – and the experience made a big impression on the young man. Indeed, Corbett soon gave up alcohol and turned instead to the church.
As it turned out, Corbett was a natural. He soon became a street preacher himself and changed his name to Boston in honor of the city that had saved his soul. Corbett’s devoutness stretched to an alarming degree, however, and he soon came to be regarded by many as a fanatic. In fact, he went as far as to castrate himself with a pair of scissors in order to escape sexual temptation.
Corbett would also continue to pursue his career as a hat maker. By 1861, though, the American Civil War had begun, and Corbett found himself drawn to the military. And it wasn’t long before his zeolatry began to cause problems, leaving his superiors in a quandary.
Corbett was eventually court-martialed for insubordination and, though he was sentenced to death, he was merely discharged from the military. Nevertheless, he re-enlisted soon afterwards. Then, on April 9, 1865, the Confederate forces surrendered to the North. But just as things seemed to be calming down, an actor named John Wilkes Booth changed the course of history forever. He was a vocal supporter of the South’s independence and was opposed to the abolition of slavery.
With the Confederacy’s defeat appearing to be imminent, Booth had hatched a plan to kidnap Abraham Lincoln, the then-president of the United States. This plan failed to come to fruition, however. Then, while collecting his mail one morning, the 26-year-old fatefully learned that Lincoln was planning to attend a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C., just hours later that day.
On the evening of April 14, 1865, Booth snuck into the president’s private box. Pulling out a pistol, he fired a fatal shot into Lincoln’s head. He then jumped off the balcony and onto the stage below before beating a hasty retreat. In the confusion, he escaped, leaving a dying president behind him.
Some nine hours later, Lincoln passed away from his wounds, and the hunt for his killer was on. In their search for Booth, the authorities enlisted Corbett’s unit, the 16th New York Cavalry. Apparently, they had made a name for themselves during the Civil War, fighting a notorious Confederate colonel named John Mosby.
During the war, Mosby himself had been impressed by Boston Corbett and ordered that he should not be shot. Instead, Corbett was sent to Georgia’s infamous Andersonville prison, and while that might have been a death warrant itself, Corbett managed to beat the odds and survive.
He would be released in a prisoner exchange in November 1864 before being sent straight to a military hospital. By the time that Corbett was released, the war was drawing to a close. However, with the conflict over, the 16th New York Cavalry would be giveen the historic task of hunting down Lincoln’s killer. So, on April 24, Corbett boarded a steamer bound for Virginia and set out to catch the assassin.
Eventually, Corbett and his comrades tracked Booth and David Herold, his accomplice, to a farm close to Port Royal. There, they found the pair hiding in a barn. Booth had apparently broken his leg while jumping from Lincoln’s box, and the ailing assassin tried to negotiate with the troops from the barn.
Lieutenant Edward Doherty refused to cave in to Booth’s demands, however. Then, in an attempt to flush out the fugitives, one man set fire to the barn. As the flames began to creep up the walls, Corbett set his eyes on the man responsible for Lincoln’s death. And as he watched, Booth appeared to be readying himself for an attack, Corbett would later recall.
Even though the men had clear directions to take Booth alive, Corbett decided to make a stand. Against orders, he aimed his weapon and fired a bullet straight into the assassin’s spinal cord. And when his superiors questioned the decision, Corbett had a simple reply. “Providence directed me,” he is reported to have said.
Whatever Corbett’s motivations were, his actions earned him the opprobrium of his superiors. Although Booth was dragged alive from the flames, he passed away from his wounds soon after. And with Booth dead, many felt robbed of the opportunity to learn the full details of his shocking crime and of those who had assisted him.
At a trial held in May 1865 Corbett claimed that he had acted in self defence, believing that Booth was about to fire on the assembled men. The War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, apparently accepted Corbett’s claim, describing him as a patriot. But even though Corbett was initially feted as a hero, times would move on. Indeed, he eventually returned to Boston, where he went back to his work as a hatter.
However, on returning to his old life, Corbett’s mental health began to decline. Some believe that the change in his character was caused by exposure to mercury, which was used in his trade. Indeed, mercury poisoning is known to cause hallucinations and psychosis. Moreover, the frequency with which hatters succumbed to mental illness was the inspiration that lay behind Lewis Carroll’s character, the Mad Hatter.
One of the symptoms of Corbett’s illness was his belief that Booth had survived being shot. Increasingly paranoid, Corbett feared that Southern sympathizers – or even Booth himself – would seek revenge on him. He fled to Kansas, but his behavior only grew stranger. Eventually, he was committed to an asylum. Corbett’s story still had a few twists and turns to go, though. In fact, in May 1888, he stole a horse and escaped, seeking refuge with an old friend named Richard Thatcher.
However, the authorities would never catch up with Corbett. He had apparently headed for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, announcing his plan to make for Mexico. And apart from a scattering of possible sightings over the years, the man who shot Lincoln’s assassin was never seen again – a fitting ending for one of the era’s most enigmatic men.