The Madman and the Assassin: The Strange Life of Boston Corbett, the Man Who Killed John Wilkes Booth by Scott Martelle. Chicago Review Press, 2015. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1613730188. $24.95
This timely biography of Boston (originally Thomas) Corbett brings to life more than the drama that unfolded at the Garrett Farm as it delves into the psyche of this enigmatic figure. However, historians might be cautioned by the book’s style, from citations to contractions, single sentence paragraphs to a reliance on a few dubious sources. Nonetheless, The Madman and the Assassin has strengths—particularly in chronicling the postwar struggles of John Wilkes Booth’s killer.
Scott Martelle, an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, has tackled his subject in eleven chapters, opening with a suspenseful prologue that introduces how Corbett achieved his place in history. Martelle elaborates on Corbett’s early career as a hat maker, particularly the dangerous chemicals used in that industry, which might be attributable to mental instability. The transient Corbett bounced from one city to another trying to find work. Even the stability of a marriage to a wife thirteen years his elder did not quell his mercurial temperament. When his wife died, things continued to unravel, leading the new widower to drink heavily. Reform movements soon captured Corbett as he settled in New York City, finding religion with the Methodist Episcopal Church and transitioning into a “street preacher.” After moving to Boston, he found that his piety conflicted deeply with his masculine urges. No longer able to remain a faithful celibate and control physical needs, he opted— literally—to cut out the latter in his life. Prompted by a vision, Corbett undertook an impromptu surgery with scissors. His medical skills landed him in Massachusetts General Hospital, but he eventually received professional care and properly healed. After being nursed back to health, Corbett was formally baptized in the Methodist Episcopal faith in Back Bay, Boston. Corbett, feeling he was following the apostle tradition, changed his name to the city where his awakening took place. He continued his religious journey by attempting to mirror Christ, took to more preaching, and returned to New York City.
After Fort Sumter erupted, Corbett enlisted in the Twelfth New York State Militia. Seeing limited action, the 28 year old reenlisted into the Sixteenth New York Cavalry and earned steady pay. Corbett participated in skirmishes and raids, but his record went fairly undistinguished—more so when he and 34 comrades were captured by Mosby’s men. In July 1864, he and 14 members of his unit were sent to Georgia’s Andersonville Prison. Like many prisoners, Corbett’s health declined during his captivity. The 26-acre prison bred over-crowding, filth, malnutrition, disease and death; of the 14 members of the Sixteenth he entered with, only he and a fellow cavalryman survived. However, Andersonville became a platform for Corbett to distinguish himself. When the private was well, he led prayer meetings, held Bible readings, and performed services. Religious revivals were commonplace, and with a captured flock in dire need of prayers, it served preachers well.
Yet make no mistake: the horrors of Andersonville left an indelible impression on him, prompting an escape attempt—but like most Andersonville detainees, it was a temporary one, as he was quickly recaptured. Fortunately for Corbett, he was eventually exchanged as the war drew to a close, but he left with the effects of imprisonment. Scurvy and dysentery caused constriction of tendons, so he limped out of the South with a crutch and continued to battle fits of bleeding from both the gums and bowels. Healing in hospital near Washington, the ever-resilient Corbett’s diagnosis improved and he re-enlisted in the army—his survival in Andersonville helping him get promoted to sergeant. The sequence of events ultimately led to Ford’s Theater, as well as his subsequent killing of the president’s assassin. By killing Booth he became famous, although Martelle points out his “celebrity life had its dark undercurrents…Some condemned him in acting what they presumed to be haste and against orders to take Booth alive—orders that didn’t exist.” Conversely, “Southern sympathizers sent letters threatening to kill Corbett. He kept a gun by him at all times…” (116). As Corbett’s physical health began to recover, his mental health still lay in question; he had “run ins” with superiors that eventually led to a demotion. Finally, near the end of summer, 1865, Corbett was mustered out, but had one last service as he was subpoenaed to testify at the trial of his former prison keeper at Andersonville, Henry Wirz.
After being short-changed in reward money for killing Booth, Corbett decided to start over by heading west, to Kansas. He acquired some land and attempted farming and raising sheep. He also found supplemental income with a pension as a result of the scars left from Andersonville. After delay, in 1882, he won $8 a month plus retroactive installments from the end of war. He also stumbled onto a more lucrative political appointment, helped by a fellow Union war veteran. His post, albeit mostly ceremonial, involved him being the doorkeeper for the Kansas House of Representatives for $3 a day, becoming “something of a tourist attraction” (164). Yet the dual occupations of protecting state legislators and shaking visitor’s hands as Lincoln’s avenger proved too much for the unbalanced Corbett; he snapped after feeling he was teased by co-workers, pulling a gun out while at work. It was not the first time he brandished a weapon in public, but his paranoia finally got the best of him—perhaps caused by residuals in hat making, prison life, or fear over his own assassination. Eventually he was over-taken, and then taken to trial. He was found insane and dangerous to others and sent to the Kansas State Insane Asylum in Topeka. After only a half year of incarceration, the ruling judge determined he was permanently insane for prior episodes of using a weapon in public and was remanded there for likely the rest of his life. However, in 1888, he escaped, and, unlike at Andersonville, was not recaptured; rumors had him in the far west, or in Mexico, but Martelle could not place him anywhere. Rather, he “vanished from documented history” (188).
Michael P. Gray is Associate Professor of History at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Business of Captivity (2001).