Welcome to the latest show notes for Eccentric Earth, where I will include the research for each episode (essentially my script), along with a number of photographs and documents.
Episode Five - Boston Corbett
As a young man, Corbett began apprenticing as a hatter, a profession that he would hold intermittently throughout his life. As a hatter, Corbett was regularly exposed to the fumes of mercury nitrate, then used in the treatment of fur to produce felt used on hats. Excessive exposure to the compound can lead to hallucinations, psychosis and twitching, known as the 'hatter's shakes'.
After working as a hatter in Troy, Corbett returned to New York City. He later married, but his wife and child died in childbirth. Following their deaths, he moved to Boston.
|Boston, circa 1850.|
Corbett became despondent over the loss of his wife and child and began drinking heavily. He was unable to hold a job and eventually became homeless. After a night of heavy drinking, he was confronted by a street preacher whose message persuaded him to join the Methodist Episcopal Church. Corbett immediately stopped drinking and became devoutly religious. After being baptised, he subsequently changed his name to Boston, the name of the city where he was converted.
He regularly attended meetings at the Fulton and Bromfield Street churches where his enthusiastic behaviour earned him the nickname 'The Glory to God man'. In an attempt to imitate Jesus, Corbett began to wear his hair very long. He also became a regular at sidewalk churches around the city, peppering street preachers’ prayers with boisterous refrains of 'Glory to God!' and 'Come to Christ!'
In 1857, Corbett began working at a hat manufacturer's shop on Washington Street in downtown Boston. He was reported to be a proficient hatter, but was known to proselytise frequently and stop work to pray and sing for co-workers who used profanity in his presence.
The ministers eventually encouraged him to stake out a corner of his own, not so much because the young man had potential but to keep his annoying chorus at a distance. Corbett, now 26, took the advice. He began working as a street preacher and would sermonize and distribute religious literature in North Square. Corbett soon earned a reputation around Boston for being a 'local eccentric' and religious fanatic.
On July 16, 1858, Corbett was propositioned by two prostitutes while walking home from a church meeting. He was deeply disturbed by the encounter. Upon returning to his room at a boardinghouse, Corbett began reading chapters 18 and 19 in the Gospel of Matthew, 'And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee....and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake'.
Inspired by the words, and in order to avoid sexual temptation and remain holy, Corbett took a pair of scissors, snipped an incision under his scrotum, and removed his testicles.
He then ate a meal and went to a prayer meeting before going to hospital to seek medical treatment.
The soldiers of Company I of the 12th Regiment New
In April 1861, early in the American Civil War, Corbett needed to decide if he would become a pacifist or a soldier? After prayerful consideration, he chose soldier and enlisted in Company I of the 12th Regiment New York Militia to join the Union Army in the Civil War.
Corbett's eccentric behaviour quickly got him into trouble. He carried a bible with him at all times and read passages aloud from it regularly, held unauthorised prayer meetings and argued with his superior officers. Corbett would tell the women at his church that when he came eye to eye with his grey-suited enemies, 'I will say to them, ‘God have mercy on your souls’—then pop them off'.
Corbett also condemned officers and superiors for what he perceived as violations of God's word. During a drill in New York’s Franklin Square, Colonel Daniel Butterfield was livid at his troops’ improper formations and gave them a tongue lashing laced with profanities. Corbett, who had yet to see a second of fighting, barked back: 'Colonel, don’t you know you are breaking God’s law?'
He was sent to the guardhouse for several days but refused to apologise for his insubordination. Whilst in the guardhouse he proceeded to one-up his commanding officer by singing hymns at the top of his lungs. Butterfield sent a messenger to warn the impetuous prisoner to stop it or else. Corbett kept on singing.
When Butterfield finally offered to release Corbett in exchange for an apology, Corbett responded, 'No, I have only offended the colonel, while the colonel has offended God, and I shall never ask the colonel’s pardon until he himself has asked pardon of God.'
Colonel Daniel Butterfield was not
happy with Boston's shit.
Corbett re-enlisted later that month as a private in Company L, 16th New York Cavalry Regiment.
On June 1864, while hunting Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby's men in Culpeper, Virginia, Corbett had found himself cornered by the so-called Gray Ghost’s troops near Centreville. His fellow soldiers were “nearly all compelled to surrender,” according to Harper’s Weekly, but not Corbett. He “stood out manfully, and fired his revolver and 12 shots from his breech-loading rifle before surrendering. . . . Mosby, in admiration of the bravery displayed by Corbett, ordered his men not to shoot him.” Instead, Corbett was sent to Andersonville, the most notorious Civil War prison.
Corbett was held prisoner at Andersonville prison for five months. Nearly one-third of the 45,000 Union soldiers sent to Andersonville died there, but Corbett managed to survive his incarceration.
He was released in an exchange in November 1864 and was admitted to the Army hospital in Annapolis, Maryland where he was treated for scurvy, malnutrition and exposure. On his return to his company, he was promoted to Sergeant.
Corbett spent some time recuperating at a hospital in Annapolis, then rejoined his regiment. Within a few months, the war was over.
On the evening of April 14, 1865 President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Whilst attending a production of the play ‘Our American Cousin’ at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., Lincoln was shot in the head by the well known actor John Wilkes Booth.
On April 24, 1865, Corbett's regiment was sent to apprehend John Wilkes Booth, who was on the run since the assassination then days earlier. The detachment left Washington via steamer on April 24 and headed about 50 miles down the Potomac to a landing at Belle Plain, Virginia.
|Artists depiction of John Wilkes Booth shooting |
It was now midnight on April 26. After knocking on several doors there, Doherty’s men found Jett at a hotel and rousted him from bed. Jett wasn’t about to give up Booth and Herold, but Doherty informed him that he 'should suffer' if he didn’t do so. Jett agreed to lead them 12 miles to land near Port Royal owned by a farmer named Richard Garrett, where Jett had left the men two days earlier.
'Arriving at Garrett’s Farm', Corbett later wrote, 'the lieutenant said to me, ‘Mr. Booth is in that house, ride through the command, and see that every man’s pistol is in readiness for use'.’
When Doherty asked after the fugitives, Garrett claimed they were in the woods. Doherty didn’t buy it. So, as he later told the Washington brass, he 'seized this man by the collar, and pulled him out of the door and down the steps, put my revolver to his head and told him to tell me at once where the two assassins were; Garrett replied, ‘in the barn'.
It was after 2 AM by now. Doherty’s men descended on the tobacco barn and formed a ring around it, Corbett included. From inside, Booth was trying to talk himself out of the jam. 'Captain, draw off your men fifty yards!' Booth shouted, according to a soldier in the 16th Cavalry. 'A cripple as I am with only one leg and cannot walk without a crutch. I would like a chance for my life'. Doherty refused.
The back-and-forth between Booth and Doherty continued for an hour, until Booth yelled that there was 'a man here who wants to surrender awful bad'. Out came Herold, the accomplice. And Booth started talking again.
Concluding that their target was never coming out, a federal investigator named Everton Conger took a clutch of dry hay, lit it on fire, and stuck it through a crack in the barn. The barn was set on fire in an attempt to force him out into the open, but Booth remained inside.
|John Wilkes Booth dies of his wounds on the Garrett's porch.|
Booth was carried to the front porch of the Garrett house and placed on a makeshift mattress. 'Kill me', he whispered later. He asked to see his hands, so one of the soldiers lifted his paralysed limbs. 'Useless, useless', Booth muttered. He died around 7 am.
Lt. Colonel Everton Conger initially thought Booth had shot himself. After realising Booth had been shot by someone else, Conger and Lt. Doherty asked which officer had shot Booth. Corbett stepped forward and admitted he was the shooter. When asked why he had violated orders, Corbett replied, "Providence directed me". He was immediately arrested and was accompanied by Lt. Doherty to the War Department in Washington, D.C. to be court martialed.
When questioned by Edwin Stanton about Booth's capture and shooting, both Doherty and Corbett agreed that Corbett had in fact disobeyed orders not to shoot. However, Corbett maintained that he believed Booth had intended to shoot his way out of the barn and that he acted in self-defense. He stated, 'Booth would have killed me if I had not shot first. I think I did right.' Stanton paused and then stated, 'The rebel is dead. The patriot lives; he has spared the country expense, continued excitement and trouble. Discharge the patriot'.
Upon leaving the War Department, Corbett was greeted by a cheering crowd. As he made his way to Mathew Brady's studio, the most famous photographer of the era, to have his official portrait taken, the crowd followed him asking for autographs and requesting that he tell them about shooting Booth. Corbett told the crowd:
|Boston Corbett's portrait Mathew Brady's studio.|
Eyewitnesses to Booth's shooting contradicted Corbett's version of events and expressed doubts that Corbett was responsible for shooting Booth. Officers who were near Corbett at the time claimed that they never saw him fire his gun (Corbett's gun was never inspected and was eventually lost). They claimed that Corbett came forward only after Lt. Colonel Conger asked who had shot Booth. Richard Garrett, the owner of the farm on which Booth was captured, and his 12-year-old son Robert also contradicted Corbett's testimony that he acted in self-defense. Both maintained that Booth had never reached for his gun.
While there was some criticism of Corbett's actions, he was largely considered a hero by the public and press. One newspaper editor declared that Corbett would, 'live as one of the World's great avengers.' For his part in Booth's capture, Corbett received a portion of the $100,000 reward money, amounting to $1,653.84 (equivalent to $26,000 in 2017). His annual salary as a U.S. sergeant was $204 (equivalent to $3,000 in 2017).
Corbett received offers to purchase the gun he used to shoot Booth. He refused stating, 'That is not mine-it belongs to the Government, and I would not sell it for any price.' Corbett also declined an offer for one of Booth's pistols as he did not want a reminder of shooting Booth.
After his discharge from the army in August 1865, Corbett went back to work as a hatter in Boston and frequently attended the Broomfield Street Church. When the hatting business in Boston slowed, Corbett moved to Danbury, Connecticut to continue his work and also "preached in the country round about." By 1870, he had relocated once again to Camden, New Jersey where he was known as a Methodist lay preacher.
Corbett's inability to hold a job was attributed to his fanatical behaviour; he was routinely fired after continuing his habit of stopping work to pray for his co-workers. In an effort to earn money, Corbett capitalised on his role as 'Lincoln's Avenger'. He gave lectures about the shooting of Booth accompanied by illustrated lantern slides at Sunday schools, women's groups and tent meetings. Corbett was never asked back due to his increasingly erratic behavior and incoherent speeches.
R.B. Hoover, a man who later befriended Corbett, recalled that Corbett believed 'men who were high in authority at Washington at the time of the assassination' were hounding him. Corbett said the men were angry because he had deprived them of prosecuting and executing John Wilkes Booth themselves. He also believed the same men had gotten him fired from various jobs.
In a letter appearing in the Cleveland Leader, a soldier named Private Dalzell, surmised to be a friend of Corbett’s, claimed that Corbett was 'pursued by threatening letters every day' and received 'no less than a dozen' along the lines of one that read: 'HELL, September 1, 1874. —Boston Corbett, Nemesis is on your path. J. Wilkes Booth.'
Corbett's paranoia was furthered by hate mail he received for killing Booth. He became fearful that 'Booth's Avengers' or organisations like the "Secret Order" were planning to seek revenge upon him and took to carrying a pistol with him at all times. As his paranoia increased, Corbett began brandishing his pistol at friends or strangers he deemed suspicious.
While attending the Soldiers' Reunion of the Blue and Gray in Caldwell, Ohio in 1875, Corbett got into an argument with several men over the death of John Wilkes Booth. The men questioned if Booth had really been killed at all which enraged Corbett. He then drew his pistol on the men but was removed from the reunion before he could fire it.
In 1878, Corbett moved to Concordia, Kansas where he acquired an 80 acre plot of land through homesteading. He built a one-room hovel with a wooden floor and rocked walls. Suspicious of anyone who ventured near his dugout, fearing that someone, perhaps Booth’s avenger, was out to get him, Corbett presented his pistol to most who approached. He even shot at children who got too close.
During this time he continued working as a preacher and attended revival meetings frequently. On Sundays, he rode into town to attend church astride his only friend, a pony named Billy. At the end of the sermon, he’d tell the preacher, 'The Lord wants me to say a few words.' Then he’d remove a pistol from each boot, place the guns on either side of the Bible, and hold service.
Topeka Asylum for the Insane.
Due to his fame as "Lincoln's Avenger", Corbett was appointed assistant doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka in January 1887. On February 15, he became convinced that officers of the House were discriminating against him. He jumped to his feet, brandished a revolver and began chasing the officers out of the building. No one was hurt and Corbett was arrested.
The following day, a judge declared Corbett insane and sent him to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane.
On May 26, 1888, as the inmates were exercising, Corbett spied a delivery boy tethering his horse in front of the asylum. He broke away from the group, jumped on the horse, and took off on horseback. He then rode to Neodesha, Kansas where he briefly stayed with Richard Thatcher, a man he had met while they were prisoners of war. Whilst there he tied a note to his “borrowed” horse, explaining who its rightful owner was, and set it free. When Corbett left, he told Thatcher he was going to Mexico.
It is unknown if Corbett ever reached Mexico, though some believe that rather than going to Mexico, Corbett settled in a cabin he built in the forests near Hinckley, in Pine County in eastern Minnesota. He is believed to have died in the Great Hinckley Fire on September 1, 1894. Although there is no proof, the name 'Thomas Corbett' appears on the list of dead and missing.
In the years following Corbett's presumed death, several men came forward claiming to be 'Lincoln's Avenger'. A few years after Corbett was last seen in Neodesha, Kansas, a patent medicine salesman in Enid, Oklahoma filed an application using Corbett's name to receive pension benefits. After an investigation proved that the man was not Boston Corbett, he was sent to prison. In September 1905, a man arrested in Dallas also claimed to be Corbett. He too was proven to be an impostor and was sent to prison for perjury, and then to the Government Hospital for the Insane.
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