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Boston Corbett moved to Kansas after John Wilkes Booth shooting

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, at 11:54 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, at 8:35 a.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.”

He was the man who mortally wounded President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin – and was perhaps one of the most colorful and certifiably insane figures to emerge in Kansas history.

Thomas “Boston” Corbett’s life was indeed complicated.

With recent popularity of the movie, “Lincoln” and its nomination for 12 Oscars, it seems fitting to look at the story of murder and mystery and how it eventually included Kansas connections.

Corbett was born in London in 1832. His family moved to New York in 1839, and as a boy, he learned how to be a hatter.

There is a theory that the mercury used in the hatter’s trade may have caused some of the Corbett’s mental problems as he aged. Some of the symptoms associated with mercury poisoning include irritability, exaggerated responses to stimulation, emotional instability, and fits of anger with violent often irrational behavior.

In 1858, Corbett had moved to Boston.

He had been married but his wife died during childbirth. And that’s when he turned to religion for solace.

Corbett became an evangelical Christian during a Boston revival and started growing his hair long to look more like Jesus. He changed his first name to Boston to celebrate his baptism.

He became an itinerant street corner preacher.

And when the 26-year-old Corbett was mocked and tempted by local prostitutes, he first studied the Bible (the 18th and 19th chapters of Matthew), before taking out a pair of scissors and castrating himself.

After performing the operation, Corbett then went to a prayer meeting, ate a hearty meal and then walked awhile before seeking medical attention.

Boston Corbett’s medical records from Massachusetts General Hospital indicate Corbett was hospitalized from July 16 through Aug. 15, 1858, where he recovered from his self-imposed injury.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Corbett enlisted first in the 12th New York Volunteers and then to Company L of the 16th New York Cavalry. In mid-1864, he was captured by Confederates and held five months in Andersonville, one of the deadliest prison camps of the war. He was eventually released but not before his fellow prisoners periodically complained about the loud prayers that came from his tent each evening.

When he was released, he was emaciated and suffered from scurvy, diarrhea and fever.

After spending three weeks in an Annapolis hospital recovering, he rejoined his regiment in Virginia.

On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.

The next day Corbett was selected with 26 other cavalrymen to pursue Booth.

On April 24, 1865, the soldiers cornered Booth in a Virginia tobacco barn. Federal officials wanted to take Booth to court.

A fire was set to the barn to flush Booth out. But as the president’s assassin moved inside the barn, a shot rang out and as the barn doors were opened, the soldiers found Booth dying of a wound to the neck.

Corbett claimed to have shot Booth through a crack in the barn boards, although people at the scene said it couldn’t have been him.

Corbett said he had seen Booth raise his pistol, and shot. Corbett was charged with disobeying orders but freed by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who was quoted as saying, “The rebel is dead. The patriot lives.”

Corbett would later say, “Providence directed my hand.” And the nation’s media turned him into a hero. He was photographed by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.

He received more than $1,600 in reward money but then immediately was discharged from the Army.

In 1878, Corbett moved to Concordia following a mental breakdown. For a time, he lived in a dugout on 80 acres and kept to himself. Some said he lived in fear of being assassinated.

There were instances recorded by local newspapers that claim Corbett pulled his pistols threatening to kill local boys playing a baseball game, on the sheriff and when he was brought to court.

When acquaintances believed Corbett had been slighted recognition by the government for killing Booth, they found a job for him in Topeka.

In 1887, Corbett was appointed assistant doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka.

On Feb. 15, 1887, after a prayer, Corbett – believing the prayer had been mocked – pulled out his revolver and waved it. He was arrested, declared insane and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane.

He escaped a year later, briefly visited a friend in Neodesha and was never heard from again.

A monument to Corbett stands near Concordia in a pasture.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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