On April 16, 1865, the 16th New York Cavalry regiment surrounded John Wilkes Booth, who had fatally shot President Abraham Lincoln, and an accomplice, David Herold, in a tobacco barn in Virginia.
Herold surrendered to the soldiers. When Booth refused, the barn was set on fire in an attempt to force him out, but Booth remained inside.
John Wilkes Booth, public domain photo,
Library of Congress
Lt. Edward P. Doherty, the officer in charge of the soldiers said the bullet struck Booth in the back of the head, similar to the spot in which Lincoln was shot. Booth died two hours later.
Corbett was arrested for disobeying orders, but he was later released and became a hero to the public.
No one knows for sure what became of Corbett afterward, but several clues have been found, and these have led to theories of his fate.
Corbett was born in London, but moved to New York with his family in 1839. He apprenticed as a hatter, which had dire consequences later in his life.
He lived in Troy, New York, and later New York City. He married, but his wife and child died. He began drinking heavily and became homeless. However, he encountered a preacher who appears to have had a profound influence on him. Corbett joined a Methodist Episcopal church, was baptized, and became devoutly religious. He became known in the city as an eccentric and a religious fanatic.
In April 1861, he enlisted as a private in Company I of the 12th Regiment New York Militia. He got into trouble with his superiors by arguing with his officers,
from a Bible at odd times, and holding unauthorized prayer meetings. He let his
superiors know when he thought they were violating God’s word. He rebuked a
colonel for using profanity and was sent to the guardhouse. He refused to
apologize. Due to disruptive behavior and insubordination, he was
court-martialed and sentenced to be shot. However, the sentence was reduced and
he was discharged from the army in August 1863.
Boston Corbett in 1865
public domain photo
Later that month, Corbett re-enlisted as a private in Company L, 16th New York Cavalry Regiment. He was captured by Confederate soldiers in Virginia and held prisoner in the notorious Andersonville prison for five months. In November 1864, he was released as part of a prisoner exchange. He was admitted to the Army hospital in Annapolis, Md., and was treated for scurvy, malnutrition, and exposure. He was able to later return to his company and was promoted to sergeant.
After President Lincoln was assassinated, Corbett's regiment went in pursuit of John Wilkes Booth, and twelve days later Corbett took the fatal shot that brought Booth down. Because he had disobeyed the order to bring Booth in alive, Corbett was court-martialed. He claimed he feared Booth was about to shoot him and that he acted in self-defense.
A lot of controversy surrounds the shooting of John Wilkes Booth. Eye witnesses dispute whether Booth was going to fire a weapon, or whether Corbett was actually the one who shot him. However, Corbett stuck with his story. His gun was not examined.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton told the court, "The rebel is dead. The patriot lives; he has spared the country expense, continued excitement and trouble. Discharge the patriot." And Corbett went free.
Outside the building, Corbett told the crowd he did not mean to kill Booth, but the man stooped just as he fired, and instead of hitting him in the body, the bullet hit him in the head. He said God avenged Abraham Lincoln. He received part of the reward money that had been offered for Booth’s apprehension.
What happened to Corbett after he left the army in August 1865? First he went back to work as a hatter in Boston. Again, he was in the occupation that may have drastically affected his physical and mental health.
We’ve all heard of Lewis Carroll’s “Mad Hatter.” The thing is, it’s not funny. People who made hats back then were constantly exposed to mercury fumes. Mercury nitrate was a chemical they used in treating fur and felt while making
hats. Repeated exposure has been found to lead to
hallucinations and psychosis. A characteristic twitching has become known at
“hatter’s shakes.” Many historians believe the mental issues Corbett exhibited,
and I’ve only touched lightly on them here, could have been caused by this
Mad Hatter illustration by John Tenniel,
He had trouble keeping a job, and he began speaking on his role as “Lincoln’s Avenger.” His speeches became more incoherent, and he manifested paranoia,
that authorities in Washington were persecuting him and getting him fired from
various jobs because he had taken away their opportunity to prosecute and execute
John Wilkes Booth themselves. He began carrying a pistol all the time and
pulling it when people acted in what he considered a suspicious manner.
In 1878, Corbett moved to Concordia, Kansas, ostensibly to homestead. He continued preaching and attending revival meetings. In January 1887, he was appointed doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives, based on his fame as Lincoln’s avenger. But on Feb. 15, he brandished a revolver in the House and made some threats. No one was hurt, but he was arrested and sent to an insane asylum.
Corbett’s bizarre story does not end there. More than a year later, he escaped the asylum by stealing a horse left outside. He stayed for a short time with a man he had met while a prisoner of war. When he left, he told his friend he was headed for Mexico.
No one knows whether Corbett actually went to Mexico or not. It is believed he went to Minnesota and built a cabin in the forest there. Circumstantial evidence suggests he died in the Great Hinckley Fire in Minnesota on Sept. 1, 1894. There’s no proof, but the name “Thomas Corbett” appears on a list of people dead and missing in the fire.
In the years that followed, several men claimed to be Corbett. Some were
proven to be impostors and arrested. In 1958, Boy Scout Troop 31, of Concordia, Kansas built a roadside monument to Corbett located on Key Road. A small sign was also placed to mark where Corbett had lived for a time on his homestead.
For the last five years, I’ve enjoyed talking history on this blog each month. This will be my last post for hhhistory.com, and I will miss it. As a parting gift, I’m offering two books to my commenters this month: The Outlaw Takes a Bride (choose paperback, e-book, or audio disk) and The Captive Brides Collection, a novella collection that contains my story “The Suspect Bride.” Comment below and leave your contact information to enter the drawing for one of these books.
Susan Page Davis is the award-winning author of more than eighty novels and novellas in the historical, romance, mystery, and suspense genres. She’s always interested in unusual events of the past. A Maine native, she now lives in western Kentucky. You can visit Susan’s web page and contact her at www.susanpagedavis.com.