John Wilkes Booth knew his time was about to run out. The actor-turned-assassin had been on the run for 12 long days after shooting and killing President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Now, in the early morning hours of April 26, 1865, Booth was trapped in a tobacco barn on a farm in Virginia, surrounded by Union troops.
The orders from Washington were clear: Booth was to be taken alive. Authorities wanted to question the 26-year-old Booth to find out how extensive the assassination conspiracy was and who exactly was involved.
Booth was attempting to bargain for his life from inside the barn when a Union troop lit the structure on fire. As flames engulfed the barn, a soldier named Boston Corbett, who could see Booth through a crack in the barn, asked permission from his superiors to rush the barn and flush Booth out. He was denied.
A short time later, Corbett claimed he saw Booth point his gun at the troops outside, so he fired his weapon. Corbett said, “I did not fire the ball from fear, but because I was under the impression at the time that he had started to the door to fight his way through, and I thought he would do harm to my men if I did not.”
Corbett’s bullet struck Booth in the neck, paralyzing him. Lincoln’s assassin expired a few hours later.
John Wilkes Booth was dead, and with him died any information he might have had – information that could have altered our understanding of one of America’s most defining moments.
But who was the man who defied orders and killed Booth? It turns out the story of Boston Corbett is a fascinating tale, often untold, and every bit as interesting and mysterious as the other events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination.
The man known as Boston Corbett was actually born Thomas Corbett in England, in 1832. His family immigrated to the United States when he was 7-years-old. When he was a young man, Corbett found work as a hatmaker, a job he would perform on and off throughout his life (it should be noted that the job of hatmaker was notorious for the mental illess associated with it, largely because of frequent close contact with mercury). Corbett led a largely routine life until tragedy struck: his wife and child both died during childbirth.
Corbett was devastated. He moved to Boston and descended into alcoholism, to the point where he became homeless. One night in the late 1850s, Corbett watched an evangelist preach on a street corner, and he became mesmerized with the Word of God. He began to attend “sidewalk churches” on a regular basis, quit drinking, became a born-again Christian, and changed his first name to Boston, after the city where he was reborn.
Corbett himself started to preach on street corners, and he became known in Boston as an eccentric, religious fanatic. In fact, Corbett was so fanatical that when, in July 1858, he was propositioned by two prostitutes, he decided there was only one course of action to take: he castrated himself with a pair of scissors after reading chapters 18 and 19 in the Gospel of Matthew. One verse in particular stuck out to Corbett: “…and there are eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.”
Corbett relocated to New York City and volunteered to join the Union forces soon after the Civil War began in April 1861. Corbett’s religious beliefs continued in the military, and he was seen as a zealot by his fellow troops and officers. He re-enlisted three times, becoming a hardened soldier over the course of the war.
Corbett’s life took a dramatic turn in June 1864 when he was captured and sent to Andersonville, one of the most notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camps. By the time he was released in a prisoner exchange in Novemeber 1864, only Corbett and one other POW from his unit were still alive. Corbett left the prison camp with a number of ailments, including scurvy and rheumatism.
Two days before Booth’s murder, the government tapped Corbett’s unit, the 16th New York Cavalry, to pursue the assassin. After Corbett fired the fatal shot into Booth’s neck, he was asked why he defied orders. His response: “Providence directed me.” Neither four long years of war nor prison could deter Corbett’s faith.
With the war over, Corbett collected his share of the reward money for Booth’s capture, and he went back to work as a hatmaker and a preacher. He also attempted to cash in on his newfound celebrity, and he embarked on a publicity tour, referring to himself as “Lincoln’s Avenger.” He even sat for famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.
But as time went on, Corbett’s behavior became increasingly erratic. He started to believe that Booth might still be alive, and that assassins were after him. Corbett also regularly received hate mail, which did not help his state of mind. In 1878, Corbett decided he’d had enough, and he headed west. He built a small dugout house on 80 acres of land in Cloud County, Kansas, where he thought he could finally be at peace. But peace eluded him, and Corbett continued his slide into madness and paranoia.