On this day in history, Sergeant Thomas P. Corbett was placed under technical arrest for killing John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. Charges against Corbett were dropped by Secretary of War Stanton, and Corbett received a share of the reward money for Booth, which amounted to $1,653.85.
Rumors have persisted through the years that Corbett was hired to kill Booth by parties anxious to ensure Booth’s silence about co-conspirators, but Corbett was so crazy on his own, it is hard even to guess at what the truth may have been.
Thomas H. (“Boston”) Corbett was born in London, England in 1832, and came with his family to New York in 1839. He became a hatter in Troy, New York. (There is some speculation that the use of mercury in the hatters’ trade contributed to Corbett’s later mental problems.)
At some point, Corbett became a reborn evangelical Christian, and, trying to imitate Jesus, he wore his hair very long. Perhaps for related reasons, on July 16, 1858, Corbett took a pair of scissors and castrated himself.
Corbett joined the Union army at the outbreak of the Civil War. He re-enlisted three times, finally becoming a sergeant in the 16th New York Cavalry. On April 24,1865, he was selected as one of the 26 cavalrymen from New York’s 16th to pursue John Wilkes Booth. On April 26 Corbett and the others cornered Booth in a tobacco barn on the Virginia farm of Richard Garrett.
The cavalrymen were instructed to get Booth alive, but Corbett shot him with a Colt revolver from a distance of no more than 12 feet through a crack in the barn wall. He explained his actions by saying, “Providence directed my hand.” Booth’s body was dragged from the barn, and he died a few hours later. When dropping the charges against Corbett, Secretary of War Stanton declared, “The rebel is dead. The patriot lives.”
In 1887 Corbett was appointed assistant doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka. There, on February 15, 1887, feeling paranoid after being threatened by several men in Topeka, Corbett pulled out his revolver, made some threats, and waved his weapon in the air. No one was hurt. Corbett was arrested, declared insane, and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane.
On May 26, 1888, Corbett jumped on a horse that had been left at the entrance to the asylum’s grounds and escaped. There were rumors about him, but no proof he was ever seen again.