The Mad Hatter Who Killed John Wilkes Booth
Detective Lafayette Baker had obtained information that led he, Detective Everton Conger and a detachment from the 16th NY Cavalry to the Garrett farm in Caroline County, Virginia. There they threatened to hang Richard H. Garrett unless he told them where the assassin John Wilkes Booth was hiding. To save his father Garrett’s son pointed to the tobacco barn where Booth and an accomplice named David E. Herold were hold up.
Lt. Edward Doherty, who led the detachment of the 16th NY Cavalry, and the two detectives talked with Booth inside the barn for some time. They made a significant effort to convince him to come out and surrender. Herold quickly surrendered was searched for weapons and then tied up. Booth, however, told them from inside the barn he would never surrender, and “to prepare him a stretcher and put another stain on the glorious banner.”
Chief of Detectives Baker was in charge of the Union Intelligence Service having taken over from the Pinkerton Agency. Subsequent to this mission he would go on to become a brigadier general. He also received a generous portion of the reward offered for the capture of the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. Baker though died a mysterious death in 1868, which was found more than a century later by Professor R. A. Neff of Indiana State University to have been caused by arsenic poisoning. After Lafayette’s death his wife produced Booth’s diary, but eighteen crucial pages were missing. Baker’s wife said the War Department was behind her husband’s death. Even today, some Lincoln conspiracy theorists believe Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was somehow involved.
Just as Detective Conger set fire to the barn, Sgt. Boston Corbett, watching Booth through a large crack in the wallboards, saw him aim his rifle. Sgt. Corbett, fearing that Booth would injure or kill a member of his detachment, took aim and  shot Booth in the back of the head. The wound was almost exactly in the same place where Booth had shot President Lincoln. Though mortally wounded Booth did not die immediately but rather was pulled from the burning barn by Lt. Doherty. Booth lived for a little over two hours after Sgt. Corbett shot him. When shot Booth’s belongings included a diary, a rifle, two pistols, a compass, a bowie knife, and a draft on Canada for 60 pounds.
It had been twelve days since John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. The massive manhunt that took place for that twelve-day period saw multiple arrests of co-conspirators and encompassed several states. In a way the diminutive Sgt. Corbett had saved John Wilkes Booth from the agony of a fiery death inside Garrett’s burning barn. His intent though was not to save Booth from anything, but rather to prevent a member of his unit from injury or death in Booth’s final act of vengeance. Later in a letter to the New York Times Sgt. Corbett stated that he believed it was “Providence that directed his hand that day.”
Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett was born in 1832 near London, England. His family immigrated to Troy, New York in 1840. Corbett became a hatter at a young age in Troy, New York, and practiced his trade for many years. Hatters used mercuric nitrate daily in their profession to form animal fur into felt hats. Mercuric nitrate has been found to cause dementia and erethism. Erethism is characterized by psychotic reactions, hallucinations, excitability, and or delirium. The phrase “mad as a hatter” had been in common use since the early 1800’s, and was comically depicted in the book Alice In Wonderland written by Lewis Carroll.
Corbett was married while he lived and worked as a hatter in Danbury, Connecticut, but his wife died giving birth to a stillborn daughter. After losing his wife Thomas Corbett moved to Boston to continue working as a hatter. During his early time in the city of Boston Thomas Corbett was very despondent over the loss of his beloved wife and their child. He drank heavily and was known around town as a drunkard. One night while out on the town he encountered a street preacher who reached out to him. The preacher’s message was straightforward and profound, and it changed Corbett almost immediately into a religious fanatic. He had been searching for something, and now found great solace in his new religious beliefs.
Thomas P. Corbett changed his name to Boston Corbett as a tribute to being converted and now “reborn.” Corbett let his dark hair, which was parted in the middle grow long like Jesus. As time went on he grew more and more radical in his religious beliefs and actions. He would wander around Boston at night preaching, and he started adding “er” to the end of words such as “Oh Lord-er.” His actions and demeanor alienated almost everyone in his church. He confronted dockworkers for their wicked ways by scolding and preaching to them. When they threatened Corbett he was not frightened. He told them if they all came against him at once he would not be afraid. He was known during this period around Boston as the “Glory to God Man.”
On the evening of July 16, 1858 Corbett saw two prostitutes walking down the street. They were attractive young women on the way to ply their trade and they spoke to him. He felt guilty about the feelings of lust he experienced from this chance meeting. He went home and read the following Bible passage from the book of Matthew.
For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men; and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
After reading the above passage Boston Corbett took out a pair of scissors and cut a slit in his scrotum, pulled out both of his testicles and then cut them off. Following his self-imposed medical procedure he ate dinner, took a walk, and then went to a prayer meeting. Later he sought medical help after his scrotum filled with blood and turned black and blue. A local physician named Dr. R. N. Hodges drained the blood from his scrotum, and then had him admitted to the Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Hodges treated Corbett there and within a few weeks the hatter made a full recovery, so to speak.
Boston Corbett joined the Union Army when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Corbett’s behavior caused trouble between he and his superiors from the very beginning of his enlistment. On one occasion, Corbett reprimanded his commanding officer, Colonel Butterfield, for cursing his men during an exceptionally bad inspection at Franklin Square, New York. Corbett was sent to the guardhouse for insubordination and remained there for a period of time. He refused to apologize for chastising the colonel, and stated that Colonel Butterfield should apologize to God.
A major offense took place when Corbett abandoned his post one night, insisting that his three-month enlistment was up at midnight. The Army did not agree. Their position was that your enlistment is up when we say it is up. Corbett was arrested and put on trial for abandoning his post during a time of war. A military court convicted him of this very serious offense, which carried a death sentence. Corbett was extremely fortunate in that the Army decided to just expel him rather than execute him.
In August of 1863 he rejoined the Union Army this time joining Company L of the 16th New York Cavalry. In June of 1864 John Singleton Mosby’s Confederate Raiders attacked Corbett’s unit. Company L had been assigned to find Mosby and his raiders, who had been harassing troops around the area for some time. Even though separated from his unit and alone in a field Corbett continued to fire at the enemy. As he always did with each round he fired Boston shouted, “Amen! Glory to God!” Mosby was impressed with the little soldier’s courage, and rather than allow him to be killed wanted him captured alive. When Corbett’s ammunition ran out, he agreed to surrender. Mosby sent him to Lynchburg, although from there he was sent to Camp Sumter at Andersonville, GA.
Boston Corbett suffered as all prisoners did at Andersonville from starvation, cold, scurvy, dysentery, and disease. Of the 45,000 men sent to Andersonville during an eighteen-month period, 13,000 died. Corbett stated though, that he felt good about bringing the Lord’s comfort to the souls of sick and dying men. Corbett managed to escape for a short time but was recaptured with the use of bloodhounds. He spent approximately 5 months in Camp Sumter, and was released as part of a prisoner exchange.
Boston Corbett then spent almost a month in a Maryland hospital recovering. After he recovered Corbett rejoined Company L of the 16th New York Cavalry having been promoted to sergeant. After the Civil War ended Sgt. Boston Corbett testified at the trial of Capt. Henry Wirz, commandant of the prison at Andersonville. Wirz was convicted of war crimes and executed, the only Confederate official executed for war crimes after the Civil War.
Following the events at Garrett’s barn, Sgt. Boston Corbett initially was labeled a hero. But that status did not last long and he soon asked for an early release from the Union Army. The Union Army under the direction of Secretary Edwin Stanton refused his request. Detectives Baker and Conger sought to have Corbett court-martialed for disobeying an order to take Booth alive. Under oath at Corbett’s trial both detectives testified they never actually heard Lt. Doherty give that order. Lt. Doherty also testified he never gave that order and eventually Sgt. Corbett was exonerated of all charges.
Boston Corbett spent a good deal of time and energy trying to get his share of the $100,000 reward for the capture of John Wilkes Booth. After much effort he finally received his share of the reward money, which was $1,653.85. Every man in his unit received the same amount. The largest shares of the reward money had gone to Detectives Baker and Conger.
When his enlistment ended Corbett went back to making hats again. Initially he worked once again at Samuel Mason’s hat shop in Boston, then moved back to Danbury, Connecticut, and finally worked in Camden, New Jersey. The mercuric nitrate combined with his paranoia about being assassinated by Booth sympathizers made his mental problems worse. Booth’s avengers known as the “Secret Order” had made threats against Corbett. He began sleeping with a loaded pistol under his pillow at night.
Corbett became a full time minister for the Siloam Methodist Episcopal Church in Camden, New Jersey sometime around 1869. Things did not go well for Corbett in the next few years having financial problems and not being able to find work. So in early 1878 he decided to move to Kansas and left for the long trip to Cloud County, Kansas. On the way to Kansas he reportedly stopped at the Pittsburgh Leader Daily Newspaper where he talked with the daily editor. Boston told the editor how he had been a guard at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. But was now down on his luck with very little money left and unable to find any kind of employment. A good portion of his reward money had been stolen from him shortly after receiving it.
Corbett recounted how the famous Civil War photographer Matthew Brady took a number of photographs of him including several with Doherty who by then had been promoted to captain. Boston told the editor that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Chief of Detectives Lafayette Baker were angry that he had shot Booth. They wanted the political capital from arresting Booth and putting him on trial for Lincoln’s assassination. They also wanted Booth to implicate Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the assassination plot.
When he arrived in Kansas Boston Corbett decided to homestead 80 acres of land just outside the town of Concordia. He built a dugout style house of stone and sod with holes in the walls so he could shoot at his enemies if necessary. Corbett had always been an excellent marksman with either rifle or pistol, and now carried at least one pistol at all times. In 1882 he petitioned for and received a federal pension, which totaled $7.50 a month. While he had left the east coast behind him, he still felt that assassins from the “Secret Order” were looking to avenge John Wilkes Booth death.
Corbett’s neighbors were afraid of him because he would fire warning shots if they came near his property. Although one neighbor, a Mrs. Randall, had more contact with Corbett than the others because she sold him eggs, butter, and milk. He showed her and one of her female friends a grave he had dug for himself on his property. Corbett also gave them instructions about him being wrapped in a special blanket for burial.
A significant incident known to locals as the “baseball incident” caused a good deal of turmoil for he and his neighbors. Boston was driving his buckboard and reading his Bible on a Sunday morning when he came upon some local boys playing baseball. He found this to be disrespectful and impious that these boys would be playing baseball on the Lord’s Day. Stopping his horse, Corbett took out his pistol and threatened them if they did not stop. The boys were terribly frightened and ran away immediately as did the adult bystanders who had been watching the game.
The local Justice of the Peace issued a warrant for Corbett to stand trial for the incident. As was expected almost the whole town showed up for the trial. Corbett showed up on time and carrying two pistols. When one of the adults who had been watching the game testified that Corbett threatened the boys, Boston stood up and called the man a liar in open court. He then pulled his pistols and stated that he would shoot anyone telling lies about him. The courtroom immediately cleared as witnesses and spectators nearly ran over each other running for the doors. Court officials managed to calm Corbett down and decided no further legal action would be forthcoming for the incident.
Following the “baseball incident” some well-meaning people from Kansas got Corbett a job at the Kansas State House in Topeka. For a short time Corbett was something of a local hero and celebrity, and he actually stuck to the details of his job. Tourists always wanted to see the little man who had avenged the assassination of beloved President Lincoln by killing John Wilkes Booth. But on February 15, 1887 the mad hatter went off in truly psychotic fashion.
One account of the event indicated that Corbett overheard irreverent remarks being made during the session’s opening prayer. No one really knows what set him off that day. He reportedly began running around the capitol building ranting, raving, and waving his pistol at people. He threatened the Speaker of the House, who then immediately adjourned the session. Boston was eventually overpowered when local police officers snuck up behind him, grabbed his pistol and tackled him. Following a medical examination, Topeka Probate Judge Quinton declared him incurably insane. He was ordered committed and subsequently sent to the Kansas State Insane Asylum.
The mercuric nitrate coupled with and exacerbated by the real life threats he had received proved too much for Corbett. Over time his psychotic episodes had become more frequent and increasingly more dangerous. At the asylum, the little hatter would sometimes throw fits of anger, and then would wind up in a straightjacket until he calmed down. Medications were not very advanced for the treatment of mental illness during this period. Asylums used a variety of  treatments such as being fastened to a device known as a “tranquilizer chair” for long periods of time. Other methodologies included wrapping patients in sheets, and submersing them in water for long periods.
At other times though Corbett would be quiet and docile, and then was allowed to accompany fellow inmates on outdoor activities. It was on one of these outdoor activities that Boston noticed a visitor arriving at the asylum. The young man tied up his horse near the front gate of the asylum. The little cavalryman knew this was his chance to escape, and falling behind his group climbed the fence gate, jumped on the horse and took off. The boy had left a quirt on the saddle horn, which Corbett used to get the horse into a full gallop quickly. The date was May 26, 1888, twenty-three years and one month after he had shot and killed John Wilkes Booth.  Boston Corbett himself was now a fugitive.
It was later reported that Corbett took the horse to a livery stable in Neodesha, Kansas. He left the horse along with a letter to the asylum superintendent indicating where the horse could be found. Corbett stayed a few days in a barn owned by a fellow soldier he had met in Andersonville named Richard Thatcher. Thatcher, who was Neodesha Superintendent of Schools, gave him a horse, a blanket and loaned him $15. Corbett covered the loan with a note for funds he had in the Concordia Bank. He left telling Thatcher and his wife that he was headed to Mexico to start a new life.
In the years after he escaped the asylum people reported seeing Boston Corbett virtually everywhere in the U.S. and Mexico. What happened to the little hatter after his escape from the asylum is not known for certain. It is widely believed that he lived for several years in a cabin he built in the forest near Hinckley, Minnesota. He supposedly died in the Great Hinckley fire that burned more than 200,000 acres of timber in 1894. Historians differ on this point but at least one account indicates there was a Thomas Corbett listed among the more than 400 people who perished in the fire.
On December 1, 1941 the U.S. Public Health Service banned the mercury process in hat making. Over the previous century doctors had begun to recognize the poisonous side effects of mercury in both medical procedures and industrial uses. Symptoms included irritability, fits of anger, anxiety, insomnia, low self-control, fearfulness, and violent behavior. The most intense effects on humans came from mercury that was airborne in little droplets breathed into the lungs. This was exactly what had happened to Boston Corbett during his many years as a hatter.
Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett had voluntarily, and by his own hand, became what is known biblically as a eunuch. But his manhood and courage could never be questioned. The little hatter’s sanity is an entirely different issue! In tribute to Boston Corbett a troop of Boy Scouts from Concordia, Kansas built a small roadside monument in 1958. Originally the monument had two six-shooters chiseled on it, but those have since been stolen. No other monuments exist for the Mad Hatter who killed John Wilkes Booth.