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The Strange Life— And Kansas Connections— Of The Man Who Killed John Wilkes Booth

The Library of Congress
Boston Corbett killed John Wilkes Booth with a single shot from the outside of a burning tobacco barn, where Union officers were trying to smoke him out.

The name Boston Corbett might not ring a bell, but his claim to fame — killing John Wilkes Booth — was only one of many events in the man’s bizarre life.

After he shot Lincoln’s killer (through the slats of a burning tobacco barn), Corbett's winding path brought him to Kansas, where he lived until his death.

These events are chronicled by historian Scott Martelle, who has just published The Madman and the Assassin: The Strange Life of Boston Corbett, the man who killed John Wilkes Booth, the first full-length biography of Corbett.

Martlle is also an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times. He spoke with Up To Date host Steve Kraske.

Through his entire life, Corbett was driven by religious zeal. He wore his hair long in imitation of Jesus, and  even castrated himself with a pair of scissors in a show of faith.

“His wife died when he was a young man, and according to friends, he found his sexual urges getting in the way of his preaching,” Martelle told Kraske.

Corbett then joined the Union Army, and spent five years in the infamous Andersonville Confederate Prison, where his health suffered greatly.

After killing Booth, Corbett was instantly famous. Some aspects of his newfound fame suited him — he enjoyed the preaching and speaking circuits. But he received numerous death threats from Booth supporters, which made him constantly nervous.

“He slept with a gun every night,” Martelle said.

The depression of the 1870s found Corbett starving to death in New Jersey. On a tip from a friend about an unclaimed 80-acre homestead, he picked up and moved to Concordia, Kansas. 

After multiple failed attempts at farming and sheep herding, he obtained employment as a doorkeeper at the Statehouse in Topeka.

One day, he overheard some janitors laughing and making jokes.

“He was having some paranoid delusions … He thought they were laughing at him, [so he] pulled the gun out, and for three or four hours pretty much had a standoff,” Martelle said.

“The next day he went for a lunacy hearing and was sent to the Topeka State Hospital as insane.”

As the story goes, he eventually escaped from the hospital and was never seen or heard from again.

Though Martelle is wary of venturing a diagnosis, he says there are theories that mercury exposure due to time spent as a hat maker and his stint in Andersonville may have led to Corbett’s bizarre behavior.

Scott Martelle discusses the odd life of Boston Corbett at Rainy Day Books on Wednesday, April 1, at 7 p.m. For information, click here.

Want more? You can visit the site of Corbett's dugout, where he lived in Concordia. More information here


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