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The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 shocked the nation and sparked an intense manhunt for his killer. A detachment of twenty-five Union soldiers led by Lieutenant Edward Doherty pursued John Wilkes Booth and fellow fugitive David Herold across Maryland and eventually tracked them to a farm in Virginia. On April 26, troops set fire to the barn were Booth and Herold were hiding. While Herold eventually surrendered,Booth was fatally wounded in the spine and died three hours later.
Despite attempts to take Booth alive, Sergeant Boston Corbett, the soldier who had fired the fatal shot, claimed that he saw Booth taking aim at one of the other soldiers and shot him without orders. While his version of events was disputed by others at the scene, the charges against Corbett were later dropped by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton himself. Killing Booth meant that Corbett's place in the history books was assured (the bullet he used is still on display at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.) but the rather unusual life that he had before and after Booth's death is not as well known.
Born in London, England in 1832, Thomas Corbett and his family immigrated to the United States seven years later. His early life seemed uneventful and he became a hatmaker in New York. Only after the death of his wife in childbirth did things start to change. Corbett moved to Boston and became a devout Christian evangelist while continuing to work as a hatmaker. As a result of being "born again", he chose the new name of "Boston" for himself (after his adopted city). Friends and family took note of his increasingly eccentric ways including wearing his hair long "to be like Jesus Christ".
Corbett's strangeness took a more alarming turn on July 16, 1858. Becoming worried about giving in to the temptation offered by the prostitutes in Boston, he castrated himself with a pair of scissors. He then went to a prayer meeting and ate a full dinner without letting on what he had done. It was only when complications set in that Corbett forced himself to see a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 changed Corbett's life even further. He was a troublesome solder who frequently disobeyed orders that violated his religious beliefs and narrowly avoided a court-martial. While he was later captured and sent to the notorious Andersonville prison in 1864, a prisoner exchange returned him to his unit and he eventually became a Sergeant in the New York Cavalry. His service record was one of the reasons that he was picked to take part in the Booth manhunt. Killing Booth was the highpoint of Corbett's military career and he later returned to civilian life with his share of the reward money ($1,653.84 US was a tidy sum in those days).
Corbett became restless in Boston and moved his business to Connecticut and New Jersey but his behaviour grew increasingly bizarre. Once, at a reunion with fellow soldiers in Ohio, he overheard someone questioning whether he had actually killed Booth (there were already wild rumours that Booth had faked his death and fled to England). Corbett reacted by jumping to his feet and flashing his gun in the offending person's face.
In 1878, Boston Corbett relocated to Concordia, Kansas to live as a recluse and became a strange sight to his few neighbours. His home was basically a dugout in a hill with a brown stone front and a makeshift roof where he lived with his numerous firearms, a homemade bed, and a flock of sheep that he tended. Corbett's skill with guns and celebrity status made him a local legend and he often gave incomprehensible religious lectures. One of these lectures was at a local sporting event where he drew his gun and sternly rebuked the players for holding their baseball game on a Sunday (he later stood trial over this but was never convicted).
Largely based on his fame as Booth's killer, Corbett was appointed assistant doorkeeper at the House of Representatives in Topeka, Kansas in 1887. He didn't last long in that position. On February 15 of that same year, he overheard mocking comments about the legislature's opening prayer. Corbett pulled out his gun, jumped to his feet, and began threatening the "heretics" (some accounts say that he opened fire but nobody was hurt). He was arrested and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane
Boston Corbett managed to escape the asylum on May 26, 1888 after spotting a horse that had been left near the asylum entrance. Aside from a brief stay in Neodesha, Kansas with a fellow veteran (and arranging for his stolen horse to be returned to its owner), he mentioned that he was thinking about going to Mexico. Nothing more is known about him although there is some evidence that he may have been killed in a massive forest fire in 1894 (Thomas Corbett is listed as a casualty from that blaze). No definite proof of his death exists and the final fate of Thomas "Boston" Corbett is still a mystery.
Diagnosing a historical figure based on limited information is always tricky. Although it has been speculated that the mercury exposure from Corbett's work as a hatmaker may have played a role in his mental problems ("mad as a hatter" is not just a figure of speech), his bizarre religious fanaticism and emotional instability can fit other mental disorders as well. There are still monuments in Kansas marking where he spent much of his later life and Corbett continues to be one of those colourfully eccentric figures that tend to be remembered fondly.
Once they're safely dead, of course.
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