The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is well documented and a story every American knows. But most people don’t know the second part of the story: how his killer, John Wilkes Booth, was finally brought justice. That came at the hands of a man by the name of Thomas “Boston” Corbett.
Corbett was born in London but eventually emigrated to New York. He found a home and a career as a hat maker. Eventually, he was married and his wife became pregnant. But tragedy struck when he lost both his wife and his child in childbirth. He couldn’t handle the grief and became an alcoholic. But this man’s fascinating life was just getting started.
He moved to Boston. It’s there that he met the street preacher that saved his life. The preacher convinced him to stop drinking, Corbett changed his name to “Boston” in honor of his new life there, and he even became a street preacher himself. In fact, he was so committed to the cloth, that he eventually castrated himself.
But then everything changed with the beginning of the Civil War. Corbett was compelled to do his part and join the Union army. He was eventually captured by the Confederates in battle and ended up in the Andersonville prison. Upwards of 13,000 prisoners died there of various causes over the years. But somehow Corbett survived.
Eventually, Corbett was released from the prison as part of a prisoner exchange and went right back to fighting for the Union. Then the unthinkable happened: Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. This would be the catalyst for Corbett’s name being etched into history forever.
Corbett’s unit was given the task of capturing the cowards that murdered Lincoln: John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. After only a few days, they tracked them to a tobacco farm in Port Royal, Virginia. Herold turned himself in quickly, but not Booth.
They had him surrounded in a small barn when one of the soldiers set it on fire in an attempt to smoke him out. It’s then that Corbett caught a glimpse of Booth loading his gun. That’s all the motive he needed. Corbett fired a shot, directly disobeying orders as Booth was to be brought in alive, and killed him then and there. He had avenged the death of our great president, but he had broken command in the process.
He was sent to trial for his transgressions in May of 1865. He claimed that he acted in self-defense, as he believed Booth was about to open fire on them. Amazingly this worked, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton accepted Corbett’s plea of self-defense and even called him a patriot. The story spread and Corbett quickly became a national hero.
But that wasn’t the end of the amazing story that was his life! He went back to what he knew best, making hats. But at this time hat makers were still using mercury. And exposure to too much mercury can literally drive a man insane. This is where the term “mad hatter” comes from. Corbett became convinced that Booth was still alive and coming after him.
He eventually moved to Kansas, where he was forced to live in the Topeka Asylum for the Insane. But that didn’t last long. Corbett escaped on a stolen horse and, amazingly, Corbett was never seen again. He’s thought to have died in 1894, but no one knows the truth for certain.
What an incredible story for the man who avenged the murder of one of our greatest presidents ever!