Friday, April 26, 2013

The Man who Murdered the Assassin

The Enigmatic Boston Corbett – killer of John Wilkes Booth

On this date, April 26, 1865, John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, was surrounded by federal troops in a barn near Port Royal, Virginia and shot to death. Legends persisted for decades – starting almost from the time the fatal shot was fired and continuing to this day --- that Booth was not the man who died in that barn. Allegedly, he lived on for many years, only to eventually die in Enid, Oklahoma… but that’s a story for another time (see my book INTO THE SHADOWS).

For this anniversary of Booth’s accepted death, we will be taking a closer look at the man who killed him – a very strange gentleman named Boston Corbett, who may have been part of a larger conspiracy himself.

Boston Corbett is largely considered to have been the Jack Ruby of his day – the man who killed the killer of the President of the United States. Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24, 1963, in the basement of the Dallas, Texas jail was witnessed by reporters, police officers and a national television audience. But Boston Corbett’s shooting of John Wilkes Booth on April 26, 1865, at a tobacco barn near Port Royal, Virginia was hardly witnessed by anyone – and it attracted controversy from the beginning. While he was celebrated for a short time as Booth’s killer, his real place in the Lincoln assassination remains in question after all of these years.

Sergeant Boston Corbett had been assigned to Lieutenant Edward Doherty, one of the Federal officers that had been given the task of tracking down Lincoln’s assassin. The soldiers found several witnesses who recognized Booth and eventually discovered sympathizer Willie Jett, who had arranged lodging for Booth at the tobacco farm where he was later discovered.

Boston Corbett

It was Corbett who fired the fatal bullet that killed Booth and it is at this point that many conspiracy theories about him begin. Among the theories is the idea that Corbett was under different orders than the other soldiers. Some believe he was actually told to silence Booth so that Edwin Stanton could not be implicated in a plot against the president. It is unlikely that this was the case, however, as Corbett is not believed to have had contact with Stanton before leaving Washington. He did act on orders to kill Booth, however, if not orders from government officials, then from a higher authority.

He shot Booth on direct orders from God.

He was born Thomas H. Corbett in London in 1832 and immigrated with his parents to Troy, New York seven years later. As a young man in the 1850s, Corbett went into the hat-making industry at a time when the dire occupational hazards of the trade had yet to be discovered. As he worked, he was exposed to large quantities of mercury, which often caused insanity (thus, the expression “mad as a hatter”). The inescapable inhaling of the vapors from the mercury affected the brain and caused hallucinatory episodes, twitches and tics and outright psychoses and his work as a hat-maker was certainly the root of Boston Corbett’s madness.

He worked in the trade in Troy and Albany, in Richmond, Virginia and in Boston and New York City for several years. He is said to have married during this period, losing his wife and a baby during childbirth. After this tragedy, he became homeless and began drinking. He eventually strayed into religion after attending a revival meeting in New York.

In 1857, while working in Boston, Corbett was baptized, apparently into the Methodist Church, and the experience so moved him that he adopted the name of the city where he found his faith as his own. He was by now a local eccentric. He wore his hair long because images of Jesus showed him with long locks and he preached to any passerby who paused in curiosity.

Corbett’s religious fanaticism, loud but harmless, took a violent turn in the summer of 1858. After a revival meeting at a Boston church, he was propositioned on the street by two prostitutes. The experience so disturbed him that he returned to the boarding house where he lived and castrated himself with a pair of scissors. He was treated at Massachusetts General Hospital from the middle of July to the first weeks in August for his self-inflicted wound.

What happened to Boston Corbett over the course of the next two years is unknown, but at some point, he returned to New York and in April 1861, enlisted as a private in Company I, Twelfth New York Militia. Behavioral problems marred his record from the start. They began when he heard Colonel Butterfield, commander of the militia regiment, using profanity toward his new recruits. Corbett reprimanded the Colonel for using the Lord’s name in vain and for this, was marched off to the guardhouse. A few days later, Butterfield offered to release him if he apologized, but Corbett refused.

Corbett later re-enlisted, this time in Company L, Sixteenth New York Cavalry, where he was promoted to corporal and later rose to the rank of sergeant. This was in spite of the numerous disciplinary problems that he had over his demand that officers not use profanity and his condemnation of fellow soldiers who drank. New York cavalrymen remembered their odd comrade for his periodic punishment tours where he carried a knapsack filled with bricks around the guardhouse but his commanders saw him as a fierce and resolute fighting man. He fought bravely in battle, although his odd and erratic behavior often made his superiors wary of using him for some assignments.

 In June 1864, Confederate raiders under John Singleton Mosby cornered a squad of Union troopers, including Corbett, at Culpepper Courthouse in Virginia. Corbett refused to surrender, found cover and opened fire on Mosby and his twenty-six raiders. He only gave up after his ammunition ran out. Mosby was impressed.

Corbett and his comrades were sent to the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia and endured five months of incarceration there, three of them in an outdoor compound. He was released during a prisoner exchange in November 1864 and was sent to an Army hospital in Maryland to recover from exposure, malnutrition and scurvy. By the early spring of 1865, Corbett had returned to his unit and in April was the first man to volunteer for service in the pursuit of President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

John Wilkes Booth

Corbett was among the men who cornered Booth and David Herold at the Port Royal tobacco barn and he was stationed at a point on the building’s perimeter when it was set on fire. Through a gap in the barn’s siding, he saw a lone figure inside. He stated at the conspiracy trial one month later that he had never seen Booth before but the man in the barn had a broken leg and made “desperate replies” to the Federal officers who demanded his surrender. He gave a statement on May 1, 1865 that read:

I saw [Booth] in the act of stooping or springing, and concluded he was going to use his weapons. I immediately took steady aim upon him with my revolver and fired – shooting him through the neck and head. He was then carried out of the barn before the fire reached him; was taken to the Piazza of the house… Lt. Doherty, and the detective officers who were in front of the barn, did not seem to know that I had shot him, but supposed he had shot himself, until I informed Lt. Doherty of the fact – showing him my pistol which bore evidence of the truth of my statement, which also confirmed by the man placed at my right-hand who saw it.

 Corbett’s shot was an extraordinary one considering the distance, the weapon, the smoke and fire in the barn and the confusion that was occurring outside of it. The bullet struck the man inside in the back of the head – almost at the same place where Booth’s bullet struck Lincoln – and severed his spinal cord.

The assassin was dragged from the burning barn and placed on a mattress from the nearby Garrett house. He was scarcely recognizable as the handsome actor. The man was filthy, his hair in tangles, and eleven-day growth of beard on his emaciated face. He died a few minutes after being taken from the barn.

After the shooting at the farm, Corbett was placed under arrest by Colonel Conger, Doherty’s superior officer in the search party. The charge against him was a breach of military discipline “in firing without Doherty’s order and in defiance of Gen. Baker’s order” and Corbett was placed under guard along with David Herold and returned to Washington. When they arrived, Corbett was imprisoned, awaiting court martial. However, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, upon hearing the story of the incident, ordered Corbett to be released. He announced theatrically, “The rebel is dead, the patriot lives – the patriot is released!”

Corbett mustered out of the Army on August 17, 1865 and moved to Danbury, Connecticut. There, he found work, again in the hat trade, and supplemented his income with occasional lectures, accompanied by lantern slides, on his exploits as “Lincoln’s Avenger.”

But, was he really? Even those who did not question the idea that the assassin died at the Garrett farm, they did wonder whether or not Corbett actually fired the fatal shot, or whether Booth committed suicide or escaped. Some believed that Colonel Conger fired the shot from the corner of the barn (he received a suspiciously high $15,000 of the combined $75,000 reward offered for Booth and Herold’s capture). Others believed that Lieutenant Doherty had done the shooting and pointed out that he received $5,250 of the reward money and was never questioned during the conspirator’s trial. Corbett’s shot was almost impossible and many believed that he simply could not have done it. In 1903, an early Lincoln assassination researcher, David M. DeWitt, wrote that Corbett was at least thirty feet from the barn when the shot was fired that killed Booth.

In the end, Corbett received $1,653.85 as part of the reward for bringing Booth to justice. His petition for a federal pension for his service in the Army, specifically for his work as a volunteer in the search for Lincoln’s assassin, came through in 1882. He was granted $7.50 a month in appreciation for his “service” to the United States.

Corbett eventually gave up work as a hat-maker and showed up in the late 1860s, in Camden, New Jersey, where he worked as a minister. He later went west and ended up in Kansas in the 1870s, showing signs of a deteriorating mental state. He lived as a reclusive farmer for years, occasionally working as a “fire and brimstone” evangelist. In November 1885, he was arrested after threatening some boys playing baseball on the Sabbath with a pistol. The case was dismissed by the county attorney.

A year after this incident, through the efforts of the Grand Army of the Republic and a state legislator from Cloud County, where Corbett lived, he was hired as an assistant doorkeeper at the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka. He reported for duty in January 1887, but only lasted a month before his insanity got the better of him.

Corbett, in his madness, believed that the other doorkeepers and the politicians were laughing at him behind his back. This led to him threatening a janitor with a knife and then pointing a revolver at the House sergeant-in-arms. He broke into the House gallery with his weapons, causing the lawmakers, staff and workers to flee for their lives. Corbett was quickly arrested and taken before a judge the next day. A quick verdict was pronounced and he was sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane.

He failed on his first attempt to escape but on May 26, 1888, he succeeded. Walking around the grounds of the asylum with other inmates that day, Corbett saw a pony that belonged to the young son of the superintendent tied up in front of the hospital office. He hurried over, stole the horse, and rode away.

A week later, with flyers posted about him around the state, Corbett surfaced in Neodesha in the southeastern part of the state. There, he met a local schoolmaster named Richard Thatcher and Irwin Ford, the son of a soldier who had been imprisoned with Corbett at Andersonville. The two men supplied Corbett with a fresh horse, food and money. They said that Corbett told them that he had been “shamefully treated” and intended to flee to Mexico.

He may have done just that, although we’ll never know for sure. He was in good health when he escaped from the hospital and Mexico was the perfect place for him to do just what he did – disappear.

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