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"Boston" Corbett

the man who killed President Lincoln's assassin

Boston Corbett

Thomas Corbett was born in London, England, in 1832; he emigrated to New York City, New York, with his family when he was seven years old. Little else is known about his early life except that he worked as a hatter in Troy, New York, and then Danbury, Connecticut, and that he was married while in Danbury but his wife died in childbirth.

After his wife's death, Corbett moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he underwent a deep religious conversion and changed his first name to Boston. It was also in Boston that Corbett began exhibiting an extremely eccentric side, wearing his hair long in emulation of Jesus and frequently reciting religious passages that became long rantings about the need for man to reform himself. In 1858 he used a pair of scissors to castrate himself, after which he went to dinner and took a walk before realizing he needed medical attention.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Corbett eagerly volunteered for the Union Army. He subsequently re-enlisted three times and became a Sergeant in the 16th New York Cavalry. After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Corbett was one of the men specifically chosen to pursue and capture assassin John Wilkes Booth. On April 26, 1865, Booth and one of his accomplices were discovered hiding in a tobacco barn belonging to Richard Garrett in Virginia. The accomplice surrendered to the posse, but Booth refused to come out of the barn, which was then set on fire in hopes that Booth would choose to surrender rather than burn to death. Despite orders to take Booth alive, Corbett, who had positioned himself at a large crack that allowed him to see into the barn, shot Booth once through the neck; he claimed at the time that Booth had raised his gun and was preparing to shoot his way out. The mortally wounded Booth was dragged out of the burning barn, and died a few hours later. Corbett was initially arrested for violating orders, but was later released under orders from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton; he subsequently received a $1,653.85 share of the reward money offered for Booth's capture.

After his discharge from the army, Corbett returned to being a hatter, first in Boston, then in Danbury, and finally in Camden, New Jersey. Having gained celebrity status for killing Lincoln's assassin, Corbett was mobbed almost everywhere he went. His status began to wane, however, when, instead of signing autographs, he began to write lengthy passages about the Almighty, and when began telling people that God had used him to punish Booth. Corbett was also hounded by people who hated him for killing someone they admired, and as hate mail began outpacing fan mail he became extremely paranoid and began carrying a gun everywhere he went.

In 1878, Corbett moved to Concordia, Kansas, where he lived like a hermit in a tiny dugout just outside of town and was known for greeting visitors with a rifle in his hand and for giving religious lectures that often became wild rantings. He seldom talked about his killing of Booth, and few townspeople dared ask for information. In 1887, he was named Assistant Doorkeeper for the Kansas House of Representatives, a job he took seriously. Despite his obvious eccentricities and paranoia, Corbett performed his job admirably until February 15, 1887, when he brandished his pistol, which he wore on his belt every day, in the State House Chamber because, he claimed, he was being threatened by a mob. Corbett was arrested and tried for his actions, but was declared insane and committed to the state hospital in Topeka. On May26, 1888, while taking a walk on the hospital grounds, he stole a horse and escaped. He turned up in Neodesha, about 100 miles to the south, a few days later, where he stayed with a friend before saying he was going to Mexico. Although he was supposedly sighted several times over the ensuing years, what happened to him after he left Neodesha has never been conclusively determined.

Corbett brandishing his gun in the House Chamber, as sketched by Albert T. Reid.
Corbett brandishing a gun in the State House


Abraham Lincoln Research Site
Kansas State Historical Society

See Also

Civil War
President Abraham Lincoln
John Wilkes Booth
Edwin Stanton

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The Robinson Library >> Abraham Lincoln's Administration, 1861-1865

This page was last updated on November 20, 2018.