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Posts Tagged ‘Boston Corbett’

Boston Corbett (1832-?) photographed in 1865

Boston Corbett (1832-?) photographed in 1865

The man who killed John Wilkes Booth was as mad as a hatter. His name was Boston Corbett. Actually, his name was not originally Boston Corbett, but Thomas T. Corbett. He became a reborn evangelical Christian while in Boston which he took as his new name. He began to wear his hair long like Jesus. He became a religious fanatic.  Those who knew him said he was “different.”  Boston Corbett was as mad as a hatter.

Boston Corbett was as mad as a hatter because he was a hatter – at a time when mercury was used in the felt hatmaking process. Hatmakers breathed the mercury vapors which caused mercury poisoning. Mercury damages the nervous system, producing symptoms such as drooling, twitching, paranoia, hallucinations, and agitation. It was probably mercury poisoning that caused the mental problems that dogged Corbett all his days.

"The Mad Hatter's Tea Party." ="Though he did not create the expression "mad as a hatter," author Lewis Carroll did create the eccentric character in his book, Alice in Wonderland (illustrations by Sir John Tenniel), first released in London in 1865, coincidentally, the year Lincoln was assassination. The hatter in the book is an eccentric fellow with wacky ideas and incoherent speech, attributes attributed to hatters of the day. Mercury was used in hatmaking and its poisonous vapors caused neurological damage on the hatters.

"The Mad Hatter's Tea Party." Though he did not create the expression "mad as a hatter," author Lewis Carroll did create the eccentric character of the hatter in his book, Alice in Wonderland (illustrations by Sir John Tenniel), first released in London in 1865, coincidentally, the year Lincoln was assassinated. The hatter in the book is an eccentric fellow with wacky ideas and incoherent speech, characteristics attributed to many hatters of the day, suffering from mercury poisoning. Mercury was used in hatmaking and its poisonous vapors caused debilitating neurological damage to the hatters, resulting in a complete mental breakdown.

As I was saying, Corbett’s job – daily breathing in the noxious mercury fumes while he made felt hats – was making him go insane. By July 16, 1858, Corbett had become so insane that he picked up a pair of scissors, took off his pants, and castrated himself. After doing the strange deed, he nonchalantly dressed again and went out to a prayer meeting, where he ate heartily and then took a walk. Corbett did, however, end up seeing a doctor to receive treatment for his self-mutilation. (1)

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Corbett enlisted in the Union army. He reenlisted three times and was made sergeant. In the days following President Lincoln’s assassination, he was selected as one of the 26 soldiers in the 16th New York Cavalry commissioned to pursue and capture the fugitive assassin John Wilkes Booth. On April 26, 1865, Corbett and the others cornered Booth and his coconspirator David Herold in a tobacco barn on Richard Garrett’s Virginia farm. Herold  gave himself up.

Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth

Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth

Booth refused to surrender, so the soldiers set the barn on fire, hoping to smoke him out. Corbett watched Booth through a large crack in the barn wall. As Booth moved about inside the burning barn, Corbett stuck his Colt revolver through the crack and aimed at the unsuspecting Booth, a full 12 feet away. Corbett’s bullet struck Lincoln’s killer in the neck, puncturing his spinal cord. Booth did not die at once.

When Corbett was questioned about his unilateral decision to kill rather than to capture Booth alive, he replied:

“God Almighty directed me.”

 
Back in Washington, Corbett was placed under technical arrest, but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton refused to prosecute the man many considered a hero. Stanton said, “The rebel is dead. The patriot lives.” Corbett collected $1653.85 in reward money.

Famous now, Corbett returned to the hat trade, first in Boston then in Connecticut and New Jersey. Further exposure to mercury caused his already volatile and erratic behavior to escalate. He got into frequent arguments which involved flashing his revolver in men’s faces.

He grew paranoid.

Then, in 1878, he made a radical life change. He moved to Kansas to live in a dugout; his home was nothing more than a hole in a hill with a stone front and a patchwork roof. He lived simply, sleeping on a homemade bed. He bought a flock of sheep. He began to give religious lectures that invariably turned into incoherent rants. He kept a number of firearms.

Improbably, in 1887, Corbett was appointed assistant doorkeeper to the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka. Shortly after his appointment, he got crosswise with some men, pulled out a gun, threatened them, and got arrested. He was declared insane and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane.

But he didn’t stay there. A little over a year later, he stole a horse that had been left at the asylum entrance and escaped. Little is known about where he went after that. Some say Mexico. He may have become a traveling salesman for a medicine company in Oklahoma Territory and Texas. No one knows what became of the man who killed John Wilkes Booth. That may forever remain a mystery.

(1) The actual hospital record can be read on page 59 of Lincoln and Kennedy: Medical & Ballistic Comparisons of their Assassinations by Dr. John K. Lattimer.

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John Wilkes Booth assassinates President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. The Confederacy had fallen five days earlier.

John Wilkes Booth assassinates President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. The Confederacy had fallen five days earlier.

John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Lincoln, 1838-1865. Born into a famous acting family, his father named him after an English rebel and encouraged in him an anti-establishment nature.

John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Lincoln, 1838-1865. Born into a famous acting family, his father named him after an English rebel and encouraged in him an anti-establishment nature.

For 12 days, Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth was a fugitive, successfully eluding Union manhunters who were combing the countryside south of Washington, D.C.,  in search of him. With a painful broken left leg, Booth rode and walked through Maryland, rowed across the Potomac River, and landed in Virginia. He hid in underbrush, Confederate safe houses, and pine thickets. But time was running out on him when he reached Virginia’s shores. Booth had committed the most foul crime, the murder of our president. Abraham Lincoln had been dead for 11 days then. The country was plunged into deep mourning. The people -from both the North and South – agitated for justice. The Union manhunters hot on Booth’s trail were not turning back, not until they’d brought in their prey – dead or alive.

They finally caught up with Booth and his assassination coconspirator Davey Herold at 2 a.m. on April 26, 1865. Union cavalry surrounded a tobacco barn at Richard Garrett’s farm outside Port Royal, Virginia, where Booth and Herold were inside sleeping. They were 60 miles south of Ford’s Theater in Washington.

Booth's escape route

Booth's escape route

Herold quickly surrendered, marching out of the barn and submitting to being tied to a tree. But Booth refused to come out of the barn. Gathering straw and brush, the soldiers set the barn on fire. Still Booth would not surrender. Through knotholes and cracks in the barn’s walls, the soldiers watched him moving around inside the barn, hobbling around on a crutch, holding a carbine. By sunrise, though, Booth was dead, killed by a shot fired through his neck by soldier Boston Corbett aiming through the barn walls and acting on his own accord. Booth did not die instantly but lingered near death lying on the grass near a locust tree. He was later moved to the porch of the Garrett farmhouse, where he died.

Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth was pronounced dead at 7:15 A.M. April 26, 1865. He was not killed instantly. He lingered near death on the grass then later on the porch of the Garrett farmhouse in Virginia (illustrated here). After his death, a search of his body turned up a pair of revolvers, a belt and holster, a knife, some cartridges, a file, a war map of the southern states, a spur, a pipe, a Canadian bill of exchange, a compass with a leather case, a signal whistle, an almost burned-up candle, photos of five women - four actresses (Alice Grey, Helen Western, Effie Germon, and Fanny Brown) and his fiancée, Lucy Hale (the daughter of ex-Senator John P. Hale from New Hampshire), and an 1864 date book kept as a diary.

Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth was pronounced dead at 7:15 A.M. April 26, 1865. After his death, a search of his body turned up a pair of revolvers, a belt and holster, a knife, some cartridges, a file, a war map of the Southern states, a spur, a pipe, a Canadian bill of exchange, a compass with a leather case, a signal whistle, an almost burned-up candle, photos of five women - four actresses (Alice Grey, Helen Western, Effie Germon, and Fanny Brown) and his fiancée, Lucy Hale (the daughter of ex-Senator John P. Hale from New Hampshire), and an 1864 date book kept as a diary.

By 8:30 a.m., Booth’s limp body was sewn into a horse blanket, placed on a plank serving as a stretcher, and loaded onto a wagon that was then driven to Belle Plain. From there, it was loaded onto a steamship then a tugboat and transported up the Potomac to the Washington Navy Yard. There  it was transferred to the anchored ship, the Montauk. Booth’s remains were laid on a bench. The horse blanket was removed, and a tarp was placed over the corpse. Many witnesses were gathered to identify the body:
140px-John_Wilkes_Booth_wanted_poster_new

One of these people was Dr. John Frederick May. Some time prior to the assassination, Dr. May had removed a large fibroid tumor from Booth’s neck. Dr. May found a scar from his operation on the corpse’s neck exactly where it should have been. Booth’s dentist, Dr. William Merrill, who had filled two teeth for Booth shortly before the assassination, pried open the corpse’s mouth and positively identified his fillings.

Charles Dawson, the clerk at the National Hotel where Booth was staying, examined the remains, saying “I distinctly recognize it as the body of J. Wilkes Booth – first, from the general appearance, next, from the India-ink letters, ‘J.W.B.,’ on his wrist, which I had very frequently noticed, and then by a scar on the neck. I also recognize the vest as that of J. Wilkes Booth.” …Seaton Munroe, a prominent Washington attorney who knew Booth, viewed the body and said that he “was very familiar with his (Booth’s) face and distinctly recognize it.” Alexander Gardner, a well-known Washington photographer, and his assistant, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, were also among those called to the Montauk to identify Booth’s corpse. (1)

As for the tattoo, it was on John Wilkes Booth’s left hand. His sister, Asia Booth Clarke, wrote about it in her published memoirs, The Unlocked Book, John Wilkes Booth, a Sister’s Memoir. Asia felt her brother possessed both great charm and physical beauty, including his hands:

“He had perfectly shaped hands, and across the back of one he had clumsily marked, when a little boy, his initials in India ink.” (2)

Though innocent of any crime, Asia’s husband was one of a hundred people rounded up and imprisoned after the Lincoln assassination, implicated by association with John Wilkes Booth. After her husband’s release from jail and exoneration from criminal activity, Asia, her husband, and their children (8 total, 2 of whom became actors) emigrated to England, away from the unwanted notoriety brought about by her brother’s heinous crime.

(1) Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination
(2) Steers, Edward, Jr. Blood on the Moon. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

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