Thomas Corbett was born in London England in 1832, immigrating with his family to the United States at age 7, and settling in Troy, New York. There he apprenticed to a hat maker, a profession he would hold off and on for the rest of his life.
19th century hat makers used an orange colored mercury solution to treat fur, and to make felt in a process called “carroting”. Mercury attacks the nervous system, causing drooling, hair loss, a lurching gait, difficulty in speaking, “brain fog” and a convulsive shaking called “hatter’s shakes”.
There were plenty of “Mad hatters,” in Lewis Carroll’s time, long before Alice’s Wonderland. Danbury Connecticut was once the hat making capital of the world, with 56 factories producing five million hats a year. By the time of the Civil War, mercury poisoning had reduced countless numbers of factory workers, to physical wrecks. Everybody knew the “Danbury shakes”.
Erethism mercurialis or “Mad hatter’s Disease”, goes a long way to understanding Thomas Corbett.
As a young man, Corbett married. It nearly broke him to lose his young wife in childbirth. He moved to Boston and continued to work as a hatter, but heavy drinking left him unable to keep a job for long and eventually, homeless. One night, Corbett was confronted by a street preacher, who changed his life.
He immediately quit drinking and became fanatically, religious. He was “the Glory to God man,” growing his hair long to emulate Jesus. The “local eccentric’ who took up his own street ministry and changed his name to “Boston” after the city of his re-birth.
“God has called on you to preach, my son, about four blocks, that way”.
Corbett was propositioned by two prostitutes in 1858, while walking home from a church meeting. Deeply troubled by his own temptation, he returned to his boardinghouse room and took up the Gospel, according to 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“. He knew what he needed to do. He castrated himself, with a pair of scissors. Then he ate dinner and went to a prayer meeting before seeking medical attention.
In the first months of the Civil War, Boston Corbett enlisted as a private in the 12th Regiment of the New York state militia. Eccentric behavior quickly got him into trouble. He would carry a bible with him at all times, reading passages aloud and holding unauthorized prayer meetings. He would argue with superior officers, once reprimanding Colonel Daniel Butterfield for using profane language and using the Lord’s name, in vain. That got him a stay in the guardhouse, where he continued to argue.
Corbett decided an arbitrary date, on which his enlistment would end. When that day arrived, he laid down his gun at midnight, and walked away. That got him court-martialled and sentenced to be shot, but the sentence was reduced. He was discharged in August, 1863, and re-enlisted the same month.
Harper’s Weekly of May 13, 1865 described the annoying habit of adding “er” to his words, as in “O Lord-er, hear-er our prayerer.” His shrill, sharp voice would shout out “Amen,” and “Glory to God,” whenever anything pleased him. He was often thrown in the guard-house, with a knapsack full of bricks as punishment. There he would be, Testament in hand, “preaching temperance, and calling upon his wild companions to “seek the Lord.””
On June 24, 1864, fifteen members of Corbett’s company were hemmed in and captured, by Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s men in Culpeper Virginia.
They were sent to the notorious prison camp in Andersonville Georgia, where he escaped once, but the bloodhounds put an end to that. Only two, ever returned. Starved and skeletal, his body wracked with scurvy, Boston Corbett was paroled on November 19, 1864.
Following the Lincoln assassination, a twelve-day manhunt led to the farm of Richard Henry Garrett near Port Royal, Virginia. The life of John Wilkes Booth came to an end in a burning tobacco barn in the pre-dawn hours of April 26, the bullet fired through a crack in the boards and entering his spine, just below the point where his own bullet had entered the President’s head.
The paralyzed, dying man was dragged from the barn, and onto the porch of the Garrett farmhouse. In his dying moments he asked that his hands be lifted where he could see them. John Wilkes Booth uttered his last words. “Useless. Useless”.
In his report to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger recommended that Sergeant Boston Corbett be punished for disobeying orders that Booth be taken alive, stating that Corbett had fired “without order, pretext or excuse.”
Corbett was treated like a conquering hero, despite Conger’s recommendation. He returned to making hats after the war, returning first to Boston and then to Danbury and finally, Camden New Jersey. He could never hold a job for long. Frequent pauses to pray for co-workers, did little to endear him to supervisors.
Women’s groups, tent meetings and Sunday schools clamored to hear from “Lincoln’s avenger”, but his speeches were wandering and incoherent. Nobody ever clamored to hear the man speak, a second time.
Corbett became increasingly paranoid over time, convinced that important men in Washington, were out to “get him”. Hate mail directed to Wilkes Booth’s killer, didn’t help. At a Blue & Gray reunion in 1878, Corbett pulled a gun on several former soldiers, during an argument over whether Booth still lived. He was hustled off before he could fire, but this was only one of several such episodes.
He moved to Kansas in 1878 and built a dugout home, and tried his hand at homesteading. That didn’t work out, either.
Corbett received an invalid’s pension in 1880 and the Grand Army of the Republic made him a doorman to the Kansas state legislature, seven years later. The man’s mental status was questionable before the war and put beyond dispute in 1887, when he entered the legislative chamber, with two loaded revolvers. Lawmakers dove for the exits and hid behind garbage cans and doors, as Corbett shot up the Kansas House of Representatives. Two guns, twelve bullets. It was a miracle that no one was hit.
The following day, a judge declared Corbett to be out of his mind, and remanded him to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane. On May 26, 1888, Corbett was marching along a road with other inmates, when he spotted a horse, tied to a post. Corbett dashed from the line and jumped into the saddle, and rode off into history.
Boston Corbett is believed to have died in the Great Hinckley Fire on September 1, 1894, a conflagration which killed more than 400 and destroyed over 200,000 acres of Minnesota pine forest, but there is no proof. The fate of the man who shot the man who shot Abraham Lincoln, remains unknown.