Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Mad Hatter

Of all the crazy characters I have run across in my research, Boston Corbett (above) may be the craziest. This nut from Cloud County, Kansas, rewrote the book on odd behavior.

O, Lord, lay not innocent blood to our charge but bring the guilty speedily to punishment.

Similar words were uttered in other churches throughout the land on that day, April 19, 1865. In this case, the words were not so very important so much as how they were said and by whom they were spoken. Leading this prayer in a Washington church four days after the murder of Abraham Lincoln was a small, slight man in a blue sergeant's uniform. With his long hair tied back, the newcomer soon warmed to his subject and began stalking among the pews. As the shocked church members watched in disbelief, the shouting stranger soon steered the services away from a eulogy of the dead president to a common revival rant on the wages of sin. With a shrill fervency in his cries of "Glory to God" and "Come to Jesus," anyone who peered into the man's wild eyes could see at a glance that his elevator didn't go all the way to the top.

Like many another late-comer to God (my Grandma Goldie and my Great Grandma Brown, included), Thomas Corbett was determined to recover lost ground with fanatical intensity. Soon after emigrating from England with his parents at the age of seven, the boy apprenticed as a hatter. While still very young, Corbett took a wife. Several years later though, the woman died during childbirth. Despondent over this loss and deeply in debt, the young man soon turned to drink, which only accelerated his plunge. One night in Boston, the drunk stumbled up to a street evangelist. Despite his reeling brain, Corbett heard for the first time in his life the voice of God. And with those words echoing in his head, a miracle occurred. Casting off his old life, including his name, the reborn Christian became a crusading missionary on the spot.

"In Boston I was converted; and there met my Redeemer," said the grateful man simply, "and Boston is the only name I wish to be called by."

In addition to reading the Bible day and night, Boston Corbett allowed his hair to grow long and parted it in the middle, in imitation of Christ. He also took his Savior's message to heart by sharing his meager resources with any less fortunate. Taking his religious verve further and further, the young man also refused to work for any employer whom he considered "un-Godly." And even when he did find a boss that measured up, Corbett's habit of halting work to kneel and pray for profane co-workers insured that the crusader would find himself habitually unemployed.

Moving to New York City, Corbett quickly joined a Methodist church. It was not long, however, before the newest member began to "greatly annoy" others in the flock with his peculiar brand of religion. According to one account:

He took part frequently, and in his prayers was in the habit of adding "er" to all his words, as "O Lord-er, hear-er our prayer-er." When anything pleased him he would shout, "Amen," "Glory to God," in a sharp, shrill voice, to the great horror of the Dutchman who controls the meeting. All remonstrance was in vain, and he shouted to the very last.

When the newcomer was especially aroused he would whoop and scream like an Indian, startling to a panic the more sedate parishioners. Boston Corbett's missionary work was not limited to the temple. Like John the Baptist of old, he took his message into the field. Remembered the Reverend J. O. Rogers:

He often visited the docks, and places of toil, where he would mount some box or chair, and speak to the rough natures around him of Christ and the resurrection. He was frequently threatened with mischief, and on one occasion a burly Irishman succeeded in banding a considerable force for the purpose of compelling him to leave. Corbett was not in the least dismayed. "Now you cannot scare me. I am not made of any such stuff as you suppose. You may bring all Ireland with you, and it won't frighten me in the least."

Although he and God may have faced down Irish mobs, inwardly Corbett was troubled by his own demons. One night, after his return to Boston, Corbett discovered two young women watching him closely with a gleam in their eyes that was anything but Godly. Frightened by the "animal passions" rising within, the desperate young man–-now in his mid-twenties–-had a vision right there on the spot. Racing home, Corbett reached up to a shelf, grabbed a pair of very sharp scissors, lowered his trousers, then promptly castrated himself. Once purged of the devil, the fanatic thereupon went to a prayer meeting that same night and followed it up with a "hearty dinner." 

(continued tomorrow)