Boston Corbett’s 15 minutes of fame proved both burden and blessing.
In April 1865, Corbett shot and killed John Wilkes Booth, the actor who days earlier had shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln.
The act brought Corbett, a member of a New York cavalry unit, love and hate in equal measure. Those pleased that he had avenged the slain president praised Corbett and invited him to preach (Corbett had conducted a street ministry before the Civil War). Others who resented his act sent him threatening letters or derided him in print.
It would take a person of strong emotional and mental make-up to successfully deal with all that. Corbett was not that person.
Corbett was “odd from the get-go,” says Scott Martelle, author of the new biography “The Madman and the Assassin.” Martelle speaks Wednesday at Rainy Day Books in Fairway.
What contemporaries called Corbett’s “peculiarities” ranged from mild to alarming. If an acquaintance uttered a sudden curse, Corbett sometimes would fall to his knees for a quick prayer of forgiveness. In 1858, in an act that he apparently believed would stem his libido, Corbett removed his testicles with a scissors.
“He was still a healthy young man with normal sexual urges,” said Martelle. “But he saw them as distractions from what he saw as his life’s mission.”
A month in a Boston hospital followed, but Corbett survived.
He would go on to his rendezvous with Booth. As part of a special patrol detailed to pursue the assassin, Corbett shot Booth as he was was trapped inside a rural Virginia tobacco barn that had been set on fire. Corbett later testified that, while watching Booth through the openings in the barn’s planks, the actor had picked up a gun and seemed to be preparing to fire. Booth died soon after being shot.
The national reaction followed Corbett from the East Coast to Kansas, where he moved in 1878 to work 80 acres near Concordia. Also, beginning in 1887, he served in the Topeka capitol as a doorkeeper at the Kansas House of Representatives.
That February, Corbett pulled a gun and threatened other statehouse employees. He said he thought his co-workers had been mocking and conspiring against him. Following a brief sanity trial in probate court, a judge ordered Corbett be admitted to a state asylum.
Corbett escaped in 1888. He boarded a train near Neodesha and told friends he was headed for Mexico. Although Martelle can’t provide details of Corbett’s final days, Martelle thinks Corbett represents a 19th-century victim of fame and celebrity.
“If Corbett had not fired that shot or the soldier next to him had, Corbett never would have become the celebrity that he was,” said Martelle, an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times. “The shot brought him fame and notoriety and, because he was a devout Christian and he loved to preach, he got a lot of invitations.
“On the other hand, he would not have received all those hate letters, and maybe his paranoia would not have been quite so pronounced.”
Martelle makes a cautious guess that, if modern physicians could examine Corbett, they might consider declare him a paranoid schizophrenic. Doctors might also consider Corbett’s exposure — as an apprentice hatmaker — to the mercury-based compounds used in the processing of felt. Hatmakers of the time who either inhaled or ingested mercury sometimes suffered slurred speech, unsteady balance or fits of paranoia. “Mad as a hatter” was the street diagnosis.
And yet, in at least one extreme circumstance, Corbett proved heroic. In 1864 he was taken prisoner and sent to Andersonville, the nightmarish Confederate prison in Georgia. There he thrived as a faith leader, leading services and serving as a source of light.
“In an almost ‘Lord of the Flies’ culture where inmates were preying on each other, Corbett held firm as a man of faith,” Martelle said. “History has kind of remembered Corbett as this religious zealot or even lunatic, but I came away from this project having much more sympathy for him. He was a person of deep faith, and he really tried to live his life by those beliefs.”
Scott Martelle speaks at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Rainy Day Books, 2706 W. 53rd St. in Fairway.