When Civil War came in 1861, Boston Corbett (above) was initially torn between patriotism and the teachings of Christ. At length, he reached a decision.
"I have prayed over it," he told Rev. Rogers, "and I must go."
"He thought it right to shoot traitors wherever they could be found and he had announced his willingness to ‘shoot men like dogs,'" revealed a friend. "He rejoined that the rebels deserved just that; he would first say to them: ‘God have mercy on your souls,' and then ‘pop them off.' "
Trouble began almost from the moment Corbett entered the army. When a colonel one day "cursed and damned" his men as they stood at attention, the new recruit was stirred to action.
Recorded a witness:
Corbett stepped out of the ranks and reproved him, saying that he had violated military regulations and the laws of God, and he considered it his duty to reprimand him. Corbett then took a Bible out of his pocket and read the commandment, "Thou shall not swear." The result was that Corbett was ordered into the guard-house for punishment. He went cheerfully, declaring on the way that he had done only what was right, and that he was willing to accept what should come of it. In the guard-house he sung psalms, disturbing the other prisoners. He was then directed by the officer in charge not to sing any more, but he would not obey, and did as he pleased.
This initial brush with military law would not be his last. "I have seen him often in the guard-house," recalled a comrade, "with his knapsack full of bricks as a punishment, with his Testament in his hand, lifting up his voice against swearing, preaching temperance, and calling upon his wild companions to ‘seek the Lord.' " Unlike other prisoners, Corbett would emerge from his numerous confinements smiling and happy, announcing that he had spent a "good time with his God and his Bible."
When the incorrigible soldier abandoned his post one night, declaring that his enlistment was up at midnight, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to be shot. The government settled on drumming the troublemaker out of the military, instead.
With his patriotism rekindled, Corbett reenlisted, this time with the Sixteenth New York Cavalry. In a fight with John Mosby's guerrillas in Virginia, Corbett found himself suddenly cut off from comrades. Although his predicament was dire, surrendering to rebels never entered his head.
"I faced and fought against a whole column of them," he later reminisced. Before his ammunition finally gave out, Corbett reportedly killed seven of the enemy, shouting
"Amen! Glory to God!" as each man fell. Soon overwhelmed, the defiant Yankee was packed off to the Andersonville prison camp in Georgia. After several months of captivity, Corbett was exchanged and returned to the North. Again, unlike other prisoners who managed to survive the hellish conditions at the prison and harbored only nightmarish memories of their captivity, upon his release Corbett could only give thanks and praise the Lord.
"There God was good to me, sparing my life," he said matter-of-factly. "But bless the Lord, a score of souls were converted, right on the spot where I lay for three months without any shelter."
After recruiting his health at a military hospital in Maryland, Corbett found himself in Washington on Black Friday, April 14, 1865. Like everyone else, the Sergeant lamented the slain president and longed to see the assassin caught and punished. Unlike most, though, Corbett prayed day and night that God might make him the instrument of his wrath by allowing him the honor of "popping off" the murderer. God heard and God delivered. In a bizarre turn of events, Corbett was on hand the very night federal cavalry surrounded a barn in which John Wilkes Booth was hiding. Despite orders not to fire, Corbett did.
"Why in hell did you shoot without orders?" demanded an angry officer as Booth lay dying on the ground.
Coming to attention and saluting, the strange little sergeant stared at his accuser for an instant, then pointed to heaven.
"Colonel, God Almighty directed me."
Seeing at a glance that he was not dealing with a balanced mind, the officer shrugged, then had the malefactor arrested.
When the column returned to Washington with Booth's body, a lieutenant marched Corbett directly into the War Department where the grim, bespectacled Edwin Stanton was waiting.
"Are you sure Corbett shot Booth?" stared the stern Secretary of War.
"I am," answered the lieutenant.
"You arrested him for firing without your order?"
"You did right," said Stanton as he turned to the sergeant. "Do you agree with the Lieutenant's story?"
"Yes," replied Corbett, "I shot without an order. . . . I think I did right."
After a brief pause to eye the strange little man, Stanton at last spoke: "The rebel is dead, the patriot lives; he has spared the country expense, continued excitement and trouble. Discharge the patriot."
Thus did Boston Corbett narrowly avert yet another court-martial. Even greater surprises were waiting outside, however. Accepting a lunch invitation from a War Department employee named Johnson, Corbett and his host were followed by a growing crowd eager to feast their eyes on the slayer of Booth. Once at the home, the throng became so noisy and its demands for a speech were so loud, that the hero was at last forced to step out onto the porch. When the cheers and applause finally faded, Corbett spoke.
"Fellows," shouted the sergeant. "I am glad to see you all. Johnson won't let me make a speech. Goodbye."
After lunch, Corbett's host led him through the streets toward Matthew Brady's studio where photographs of the now famous celebrity were scheduled. Again, surrounded by wild, cheering crowds, the sergeant was besieged by hundreds seeking his autograph. One man offered Corbett a thousand dollars for the revolver he used to kill Booth. Although his carbine had already disappeared while he was at the War Department, the little soldier refused the money, stating that the pistol was government property and not his to sell. Others in the throng merely wanted to hear Corbett speak and tell his tale. The hero was happy to oblige:
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."
From a religious crank and crazy fanatic, disobedience of orders and a single pistol shot had elevated Boston Corbett to an "eccentric" hero and man of the hour.
"He will live as one of the World's great avengers," praised a grateful editor.
For the next several weeks Corbett remained a popular, if curious, tourist attraction. Wherever he trod people were sure to stop and stare and swarming crowds were certain to follow. In keeping with his character, Corbett eagerly used his new notoriety to save souls and spread the Lord's mighty message. Wrote the sergeant in one admiring lady's album: "Andersonville, the blackest spot on earth was made bright and glorious by the saving presence of God. His providence also was manifest in delivering me from that place, and making me the agent of His swift retribution on the assassin of our beloved President, Abraham Lincoln." As Corbett soon discovered, however, fame had its price.
Despite persistent requests to buy his pistol, Corbett refused, insisting that it was not his to sell. And so, someone simply stole it. Also, the sergeant began receiving crank letters and hate mail. For the moment, Corbett was too preoccupied to trouble himself with death threats. Instead, he spent much of his time trying to secure his share of the $50,000 in reward money–of which he had not seen a cent–and using his sudden status to badger Edwin Stanton into granting him an early discharge from the army, a request the secretary refused. Soon, though, Corbett's concern for his personal safety became all-consuming. Increasingly, the famous sergeant considered himself a "marked man," imagining that mysterious figures were dogging his trail; men who definitely were not interested in his autograph.
"My life has been threatened in a most blood-thirsty manner, but God is well able to protect me," announced the hero in public. In private, however, Corbett began withdrawing from the limelight. When newspapers reported that he had been murdered near Baltimore, the sergeant saw it as a terrible omen and became even more neurotic. After pulling his new pistol on another sergeant who had angrily ordered him from a military stable, Corbett was court-martialed yet again. The defendant's only alibi–"I was on the alert for anyone that might molest me"–was not good enough; he was convicted and received a reprimand.
With his revolver capped and ready for action, Corbett turned in each night with the weapon under his pillow, expecting a visit from either stealthy assassins, the ghost of John Wilkes Booth, or the devil himself. Since those individuals still seeking his signature could expect a pistol pointed at their heads and a lengthy interrogation, autograph-seekers became fewer and fewer. Delusions, self-mutilations, dementia, orders from God–Boston Corbett could now add chronic paranoia to his growing list of mental maladies.
When Corbett finally received his cut of the reward money, it was a mere $1,653.95. Long before that, however, the destitute former soldier would have gladly swapped the money–most of which was soon stolen anyway–simply to still the demons within. Already haunted by visions and voices, after Corbett left the military he found himself ruthlessly hounded by them.
HELL, September 1, 1874 Boston Corbett: Nemesis is on your path. J. WILKES BOOTH
Hate letters from ill-wishers like that above which many famous people received, were pondered, then processed through Corbett's disturbed mind until they were transformed into dozens of stealthy assassins relentlessly dogging his trail. Fearing the wrath of "Booth's Avengers," the "Secret Order," and a host of other blood-thirsty organizations, Corbett remained ever-vigilant and kept his pistol handy at all times. More likely now than ever to pull his weapon on suspicious strangers–which included virtually everyone–fewer and fewer friends were willing to risk death by facing the fanatic's dangerous paranoia.
After scratching out the barest of living as a hatter and part-time preacher, the former army sergeant left the East for good in 1878 to stake a claim in the West. From a "little forlorn-looking house" in New Jersey, Corbett moved into a veritable hole in the ground here in Cloud County, Kansas. Unfortunately for the novice homesteader, the letters in the mail and the voices in his head that had plagued him earlier not only followed him to Kansas, but they greatly increased. As a result, Corbett began wearing two revolvers.
Almost immediately, the strange little man with the "wild look" caused trouble with his new neighbors. Whether it was warning trespassers from his land with a shotgun blast or whether it was waving his pistols at frightened youngsters who innocently played baseball on the Sabbath, the former soldier well-earned his reputation as a dangerous, crazy hermit. The few times Kansans coaxed Corbett from his muddy home to present lectures on Booth and Andersonville, the zealot spent the entire evening exhorting the crowds to repent of sin, uttering not a word of his famous exploits.
Finally, in a well-intentioned attempt to parade one of the state's most celebrated heroes, a local politician managed to appoint the recluse to the position of Third Assistant Doorkeeper at the Kansas Legislature in Topeka. The plan went well for nearly a month. On February 15, 1887, however, the voices in Corbett's head became louder than usual. Pulling his pistol and a knife, the little man ran wildly through the Capitol, sending legislators, clerks and janitors flying for cover. When the culprit was finally overpowered, he was hauled into court. County prosecutor, Charles Curtis, Kaw Indian and future vice president of the United States, needed only one look to satisfy himself that the defendant was utterly mad. Posthaste, at age fifty-five, Corbett was judged insane and led away several blocks to the state lunatic asylum.
For the next year, Corbett slipped in and out of delirium. The howls and screams of the other patients certainly did little to alleviate his paranoia or his reoccurring vision of assassins stalking the hallways. On May 26, 1888, while he and other inmates were enjoying their daily stroll outdoors, Corbett spotted an unattached horse. Before attendants realized what had happened, the former cavalryman had leaped on the animal and in a cloud of dust was last seen galloping south.
And thus, except for several reported sightings over the ensuing years, this was the last entry of Boston Corbett in the book of records. The famous slayer of Abraham Lincoln's assassin had come onto the world stage anonymous, and anonymous would he leave it.