I have a minor obsession with Abraham Lincoln. To be more exact, I have a minor obsession with the events surrounding his death by the bullet of an actor turned assassin. What really interests me is the stories of the people who found themselves mixed up in the story of Lincoln’s untimely death. Stories like the group of morons who tried to steal Lincoln’s corpse or of the man who went mad because he failed to stop John Wilkes Booth. We focus so much on Lincoln and Booth, that we rarely think of all the others who played a part in the story, like Boston Corbett, the Glory to God Man.
Thomas Corbett came to America from England when he was seven. After a series of quick moves, the Corbett family settled in Troy, New York. Thomas was a short man with black hair that matched his black eyes. He was, by those who remembered him, a nice enough man, and a hard worker. When he came of age, Thomas found employment as a hatter, and he was good at it. He married, and for a time, his life was simple and happy. Sadly, it wouldn’t last long.
When his wife went into labor, Thomas was excited. This would be the greatest day in his life, the day his first child was born. Instead, the perfect day became a nightmare when Thomas’ wife and child both died during the birth. Thomas buried his wife and his daughter, then headed to the nearest pub. For years, Thomas traveled around the East Coast, drinking and finding work as a hatter. One night in 1850, Thomas stumbled out of a pub in Boston and found himself face to face with a street evangelist preaching the word of God. Thomas stood there, drunkenly swaying in the cold night air, listening to the man speak. Something connected with him.
Thomas showed up the next night, and the evangelist was there. He came back the night after that, and the evangelist was there. Night after night, for weeks on end, Thomas showed up to listen to the street evangelist speak. Before long, he had given up drinking, putting all of his free time into learning the word of God.
In time, Thomas began to evangelize himself. With the encouragement of the other evangelicals, Thomas found a corner to make his own. Just 26 years old, Thomas knew what he had to do with his life; he had to give it over to God.
Thomas was baptized by a Methodist minister in 1858. Born again, he changed his name to Boston, so that he would never forget the city where he was saved. Along with his new name, Boston began to grow out his hair and beard so that he would more resemble Jesus Christ.
The saying “mad as a hatter” is based on a very real, very sad illness; mercury poisoning. Hatters like Boston would use mercury to treat the fur that they would turn into felt for hats. The mercury fumes, which hatters like Boston spent countless hours inhaling, would slowly damage the brain, leading to hallucinations and psychosis, and uncontrollable twitching. While no one can say for sure that this is what happened to Boston – some believe it was the loss of his wife and child that drove him mad – it is hard to ignore it when looking at the next set of major events in his life.
Boston stood on his corner, preaching to anyone who listened, and loud enough that anyone who wasn’t listening still had to hear him. Across the street stood a pair of prostitutes. Both Boston and the women were after the same thing; the attention of the men drunkenly leaving the pubs. As Boston preached, he watched the two women and something came over him. Out of his control, Boston found that he had become erect. His thoughts went to his wife and child. He thought of how disgusted they, and Jesus, would be to see him having such impure thoughts about these women. Overcome with anger, Boston went home, took a pair of scissors, and cut out his own testicles.
With his testicles gone, Boston headed to a prayer meeting, then headed off to have a meal. After he finished eating, Boston took a walk around the city. When he found himself outside Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston walked in and showed off his work.
Boston returned to New York looking for work as a hatter. During lunch, he would head to the Fulton Street YMCA to join others in prayer. For a while, Boston’s life returned to one of quiet simplicity. He worked. He prayed. He grew out his hair and beard even further, hoping to see Christ in himself. Still, a simple life was not in the cards for Boston Corbett.
Just before 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Captain George S. James of the new Republic of South Carolina ordered Lt. Henry S. Farley to start the bloodiest war in American History by firing a single 10-inch mortar round from Fort Johnson into Fort Sumter. Within 48 hours, the United States Army would surrender Fort Sumter to the Confederate Army.
When Boston Corbett heard that war had broken out, he knew what God would want him to do. Boston went to the YMCA to tell the others there that he would be joining the fight against the secessionists. He promised the women there that when he came upon the Southern army, “I will say to them, ‘God have mercy on your souls’—then pop them off.”
Boston gave up his long hair and beard for a blue uniform and a gun. Before he made it into the fight, Boston found himself on the wrong side of a jail cell. When the commander of the 12th New York Volunteer Infantry, Colonel Daniel Butterfield, let loose with a long string of curses, Boston couldn’t help himself; he spoke up, reminding the Colonel that above the laws of the United States were the laws of God.
Sitting in a military jail, Boston Corbett refused to stay silent. He screamed out hymns as loud as he could, filling the surrounding streets of New York City with his voice. After a time, Butterfield made an offer to Boston: apologize for what he had said to his commander and he would be released from his cell. Boston, being Boston 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 Butterfield ordered a court-martial. Boston was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad. Somehow, someone higher up felt pity for Boston, who the other soldiers mockingly called “Glory to God Man” because he would yell out the phrase so often. Boston’s sentence was reduced, and in 1863 he was discharged from the army.
As soon as he was released, Boston re-enlisted. To him, it was God’s will that he fight for his country, and nothing would stand in his way.
“Sic semper tyrannis!”
Those were the words John Wilkes Booth cried out as he ran off the stage at the Ford Theater, having just shot Abraham Lincoln in the head and escaping Henry Rathbone’s grasp. In the commotion, the killer fled into the night.
A week into the search for Booth, Boston Corbett led the congregation of the church he attended in a prayer. Corbett, filled with rage over the murder of the President, called out, “O Lord, lay not innocent blood to our charge, but bring the guilty speedily to punishment.” Following the mass, Boston left the church and joined other volunteers from the 16th Cavalry regiment to help hunt down the assassin.
Led by Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty, the 16th Cavalry headed to Belle Plain, Virginia. There, they picked up Booth’s trail and headed to Bowling Green. Shortly after 2 a.m. on April 26, 1865, the 16th Cavalry surrounded Richard Garrett’s tobacco barn. Inside sat an injured John Wilkes Booth and David Herold, who had attempted to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward at the same time Booth had killed Lincoln. Booth refused to come out of the barn, demanding that Doherty pull his men back fifty yards, explaining, “A cripple as I am with only one leg and cannot walk without a crutch. I would like a chance for my life.”
Doherty denied the request but he wasn’t willing to send in his men yet. He and Booth negotiated for an hour before Herold came out of the barn surrendering himself. Still, Booth refused to come out.
All the while, as Doherty and Booth talked, Boston watched Booth through a crack in the barn. A voice came to Boston, the voice of God. This, God told Boston, was his purpose. Only he could stop Booth.
Filled with the righteousness that I presume one can only gain from hearing the voice of God, Boston asked Doherty to allow him to go in the barn and bring Booth out himself. Doherty wanted to bring Booth in alive. He denied Boston’s request.
Everton Conger, a federal investigator, was not as patient as Doherty. With a handful of hay and a flint, Conger set the barn on fire hoping to force Booth to come out. As the flames grew, Boston moved closer, keeping his eye on Booth through the crack. Booth shuffled back and forth, gun in hand. This, Boston knew, was his moment.
Boston raised his gun and took aim. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet hit Booth in the back of the neck, piercing three vertebrae and severing the assassin’s spine. Booth was pulled out of the burning barn and brought to the front of Garrett’s home. Paralyzed, Booth begged to see his own hands. A soldier lifted Booth’s limbs so that he could make eye contact with them. Booth stared at his now useless hands and cried. By 7 a.m., John Wilkes Booth would take his final breath.
Boston was taken back to Washington and questioned. The War Department was furious; they needed Booth alive. No one knew how deep the conspiracy to kill Lincoln went, and many believed that Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate states, had ordered the assassination himself. With Booth dead, there was no way to find out if others were involved.
Boston’s reasoning, that God had told him to kill Booth, didn’t sit well with his superiors. Doherty wanted Boston court-martialed, but War Secretary Edwin Stanton knew better. Stanton knew that the American people would see Boston as a hero, the man who killed Lincoln’s assassin. To the outside world, Stanton praised Boston for his actions, but within his office, he made it clear to Boston that he could tell no one that it was God who told him to shoot.
For a time, Boston Corbett lived a hero’s life. He was awarded $1,653.85 and allowed to keep the horse he had been given during his time in the army. Mathew Brady, famous for his battlefield photographs during the Civil War, took Boston’s portrait. Boston traveled the country telling his tale at churches and schools. Within a year, though, the country had moved on, and Boston found himself penniless and alone.
Boston returned to his work as a hatter, breathing in more mercury fumes. In his free time, he would preach the word of God on street corners. As it still happens today, conspiracy theorists believed that the government had lied and Booth was still alive. These rumors enraged Boston, often leading to him lashing out and attacking people. When he would return home from evangelizing, Boston would be greeted by death threats from ex-Confederate soldiers. The CLEVELAND LEADER printed one of the death threats, which read:
HELL, September 1, 1874. —Boston Corbett, Nemesis is on your path. J. Wilkes Booth.
Driven further into madness from the death threats and mercury fumes, Boston Corbett was overcome with paranoid delusions. He was certain that not only did ex-Confederates want him dead but so did the War Department. Boston was sure that Edwin Stanton and others in the government were furious that he had taken their chance to look like heroes. That they wanted revenge on the man who stole their spotlight.
Boston left his home and headed to Cloud County, Kansas where he purchased 80 acres of land. In the center of his 80 acres, Boston dug a deep hole, which he lived in. Day after day, Boston sat in his hole, gun in hand, waiting for someone to come and try to kill him. If anyone came close, he would pop out and aim his pistol at them. On more than one occasion, he would fire a warning shot at children who came to see the mad man in the hole. On Sundays, Boston would leave his hole and head into town with his pony named Billy to attend church.
In 1882, Boston wrote to the War Department asking for disability benefits, “I don’t think I have been able to earn $20.00 during the whole time from 1877 to 1882 by manual labor.” He dug his own grave and left instructions that he be buried in an army blanket.
A swell of pity from others led to Boston being given a job as a doorkeeper at the Kansas State Legislature. He only held the position for a few weeks; during a dispute with a state senator, Boston pulled a gun from his boot. After calming down, Boston was sent to a mental institution in Topeka.
Two years into his stay at the asylum, Boston Corbett escaped. He headed to the home of Richard Thatcher, a friend he had made when during his time in the army. Thatcher was not there, but some of his family was. They brought Boston to Brooks station so he could catch the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway.
That was the last time anyone saw Boston Corbett.
Over the years, rumors spread of Boston’s demise. Some claimed that he was found by those still loyal to the Confederacy and killed. Some believe he died in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894. In the early days of the 1900s, an imposter tried to collect Boston’s pension. The first sign that he was not actually Boston was his height. The imposter stood six feet tall, a full eight inches than the real Boston Corbett.
In 1958, Boy Scout Troop 31 of Concordia, Kansas, traveled to Boston Corbett’s last home – the hole in the ground where he often shot at children – and built a memorial to Lincoln’s Avenger. They fenced off the hole, put up a plaque and embedded two revolvers into rocks on either side of the plaque.
Years later, the guns were stolen, leaving nothing but an imprint of what once was.