Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett

Sergeant Boston Corbett, photographed by Matthew Brady

Sergeant Thomas Patrick Corbett, also known as “Boston” Corbett, is famous for killing John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Corbett lived in Camden for several years, residing at 308 Mechanic Street and later on Pine Street below South 4th Street. He also briefly served as a pastor of the Memorial Methodist Protestant Church on Broadway below Kaighn Avenue.

While many accounts describe Corbett as mentally unstable, a more personal and accurate account can be found in Byron Berkley Johnson’s book, Abraham Lincoln and Boston Corbett, with Personal Recollection of Each, published in 1914. The book includes extensive quotes from Corbett himself.

Corbett started as a hat maker in New England, primarily in and around Boston, Massachusetts. While there, after watching the death of his wife and child during childbirth, he had found God—and booze—and began preaching in the street. Not afraid of a fight, Corbett would fight anyone when he was criticized or confronted. Eventually, the nearby ministers grew tired of his chanting and suggested he find his own street corner—and, without fighting them, he did. He swore off drinking and grew out his hair and beard—imitating Jesus. He was baptized by a Methodist minister and renamed himself from Thomas Corbett to Boston Corbett—thankful for the town that helped him find his way.

Perhaps it was from the alcohol, perhaps religion, Boston began taking things to a more extreme level. From the Washingtonian, Boston Corbett had some rather unconventional ways of dealing with his improprieties:

His rash tendencies exhibited themselves in strange ways. One day while he was ministering in the summer of 1858, Corbett was ogled by a pair of prostitutes, and the lower half of his body responded invitingly. He went home, took a pair of scissors, snipped an incision under his scrotum, and removed his testicles, then headed out to a prayer meeting.

This was due to the Book of Matthew, which instructs: "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." Corbett chose a literal interpretation of the book and castrated himself. Without hesitation, he went to a prayer meeting and then had a full dinner and took a walk, until he eventually had to go to Massachussetts General Hospital, where he was treated by Dr. R. N. Hodges. This hospital record still exists on page 59 of Dr. John K. Lattimer’s book Lincoln and Kennedy: Medical & Ballistic Comparisons of Their Assassins.

In 1861, he would join the military—serving as a private in the 12th Regiment, New York State Militia—only to be court-martialed and expelled for scolding his fellow soldiers (including superiors) for their sinful behavior. He would rejoin in 1863.

Corbett was, by all accounts, a good shooter and before firing a shot would mutter, “May God have mercy on your souls.”

In August 1863, at the age of 31, Corbett re-enlisted as a Private in Company L, 16th Cavalry Regiment New York. He was promoted to Full Corporal but was later demoted to Full Private. He was taken prisoner at Centreville in Virginia in June 1864 and sent to the infamous Andersonville camp, from which he briefly escaped. He was paroled on November 19 and returned to his regiment after recovering from an illness he contracted at Andersonville. Corbett was promoted to Full Sergeant on October 31, 1864.

On April 25, 1865, Sergeant Corbett was part of a detail commanded by First Lieutenant E. P. Doherty that was tasked with arresting John Wilkes Booth, who had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln a few days prior. Although orders had been given to capture Booth alive, Sergeant Corbett shot and killed the assassin. In doing so, Corbett defied direct orders to bring Booth “preferably” alive, likely so that there could be a public trial and execution making it a newsworthy event and “celebration” of sorts.

In killing Booth, Boston Corbett’s recounted:

I aimed at his body. I did not want to kill him… I think he stooped to pick up something just as I fired. That may probably account for his receiving the ball in the head. When the assassin lay at my feet, a wounded man, and I saw the bullet had taken effect about an inch back of the ear, and I remembered that Mr. Lincoln was wounded about the same part of the head, I said: "What a God we have…God avenged Abraham Lincoln.”

Boston Corbett, on the killing of John Wilkes Booth

Doherty’s report of the incident praises Corbett:

I would call the attention of the commanding general to the efficiency of Sergt. Boston Corbett, Company L, Sixteenth New York Cavalry, who was untiring in his efforts to bring the murderers to justice. His soldierly qualifications have been tested before this occasion, and, in my judgment, are second to none in the service.

First Lieutenant E. P. Doherty

Corbett was placed under technical arrest, with the charges later being dropped by the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. He was provided $1,600 in reward money and was discharged.

After his encounter with John Wilkes Booth in April of 1865, Sergeant Corbett mustered out with Company L, 16th Cavalry Regiment New York on August 17, 1865 at Washington, DC.

In 1875, at a soldiers’ reunion in Ohio, Corbett pointed his revolver at fellow solderis who felt that Booth was never killed by Corbett. This event was preceded by newspaper accounts that Corbett pulled his pistol and threatened to shoot some boys playing a baseball game, on the sheriff, and even in court. For anyone who Corbett thought was suspicious, friend or foe, they often found themselves looking down the barrel of Corbett’s pistol.

According to George Reeser Prowell’s History of Camden County, New Jersey, Corbett served as the second pastor of Memorial Methodist Protestant Church on Broadway below Kaighn Avenue until 1867, after which he stayed in Camden until 1878. The 1870 Federal Census shows Corbett living with Isaac Boggs, Boggs’ wife Sarah, and their daughter Anna in South Camden, where he worked as a preacher and a hatter, his pre-war occupation.

In 1877, a news article in the West Jersey Democrat reported that Corbett was living on Pine Street below South 4th Street. By 1878, he had become the pastor of the Independent Methodist Church at 328 Pine Street, where he also lived. That year, he moved to Cloud County, Kansas, where he struggled as a farmer on an 80-acre homestead.

In March 1880, Corbett was granted an invalid’s pension for his Civil War service.

In 1887 Corbett was appointed assistant doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka by the G.A.R. In the state house, on Tuesday, February 15, 1887, feeling paranoid after being threatened by several men in Topeka, he saw some Corbett pulled out his revolver, made some threats, and waved his weapon in the air. No one was hurt. Corbett was arrested, declared insane, and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane.

On May 26, 1888, Corbett jumped on a horse that had been left at the entrance to the asylum's grounds and escaped. He went to Neodesha, Kansas, and stayed briefly with Richard Thatcher, a man he had met during his imprisonment at Andersonville during the Civil War. He said he was heading for Mexico.

Boston Corbett vanished from public record soon after. Nobody knows what ultimately happened. Several theories exist regarding his whereabouts, including dying in fires in Minnesota and Kansas, leaving the United States for Mexico, or spending his last days in Oklahoma. Over the years, many imposters came forward claiming to be Corbett, but all were eventually exposed as frauds.

Note: many hatters were known to have mental instability, caused by the use of mercury and related mercury poisoning. Many developed symptoms of chronic mercury poisoning, including psychosis, excitability, hallucinations, aggressiveness, neurological disorders, and tremors. These symptoms became so common in hatters that the phrase "mad as a hatter" was born. Mercury Poisoning—Erethrism—(aka Mad Hatter Disease) is related.


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