Bulletin of the Camden County Historical Society - February 1960
The Man who Shot the Man who Shot Lincoln
by Arthur D. Pierce and Howard R. Kemble
The year was 1870. The address was 308 Mechanic Street, Camden, New Jersey. The occupant of the house was the man who shot the man who shot Abraham Lincoln. His name was Boston Corbett.
Corbett's residence in Camden for the best part of a decade is known to few, just as Corbett's brief but blazing day in the sun has been largely forgotten. Yet the man was a hero to millions, and had he not been more than slightly cracked he might have become a figure familiar in history books to this day. His career was fantastically colorful, and he possessed the faculty of creating excitement wherever he went.
Most of the period Corbett lived in Camden he was pastor of the Memorial Methodist Protestant Church, located on the west side of Broadway below Kaighn Avenue. By that time, however, his erstwhile glamour had worn thin and he was so far removed from the public consciousness that newspapers began to publish stories about his death. Like Mark Twain's, it was "greatly exaggerated," said the West Jersey Press, on April 3, 1872:
"The papers are incorrect. Mr. Corbett is a resident of Camden, is in good health, and has as fair a prospect of long life as any of those who have been pronouncing his death."
Born in England, reportedly in 1832, his parents named him Thomas P. Corbett, and he was but seven years old when the family removed to Troy, New York. Young Corbett later became a hatter - and soon indeed, a mad hatter! He is recorded as having had jobs in various cities of the East. While he was in New York he married, presumably while quite young. Little is known of this marriage save the fact that his wife died during delivery of a stillborn daughter.
This tragedy, however, unhinged Corbett's mind. First he took to drink; then he "got religion" when the Salvation Army converted him on the streets of Boston. But so extreme was his conversion, so loud, incoherent and vehement his exhortations to others, that he embarrassed his fellow-evangelists. They finally persuaded him to carryon elsewhere, and alone. Before leaving town, however, Corbett felt that he should commemorate the city of his conversion. So he abandoned the "Thomas P." and took the name "Boston."
Corbett was equally embarrassing to any hat-makers who gave him jobs. Let a fellow-workman mention taking a drink, or utter some careless oath, and Corbett would disrupt the assembly line, get on his knees, and make a long and fervent prayer.
Came the Civil War and Corbett lost not a moment in joining up. The Union Army little dreamed what it was getting; but its officers soon were to find out. Shortly before his induction Corbett preached a wild sermon. He startled the women in his audience by declaring his intention not only to enlist, but to shoot any Southerner on sight. Declared Boston: "I will say to them 'God have mercy on your souls, and then pop them off."
In his excellent book Myths After Lincoln, Lloyd Lewis tells of a day of drilling in Franklin Square, New York, when Colonel Butterfield, commanding his regiment, burst out with profanity over the awkwardness of the raw recruits. Corbett stepped out of line and saluted:
"'Colonel, don't you know you are breaking God's law?' asked the private firmly but kindly.'"
"Take him to the guardhouse,' howled Butterfield." They took Boston to the guardhouse. But that bothered him not at all. He liked martyrdom. Soon he was shouting hymns in a loud voice. When the infuriated Colonel gave orders to stop, Corbett merely sang louder. Baffled, Butterfield finally sent word that if he would apologize for insulting his superior officer he would be released. Corbett sent back a message that "I have only offended the Colonel, while the Colonel has offended God, and I shall never ask the Colonel's pardon until he has asked pardon of God." Butterfield threw up his hands. Corbett was freed.
In one famous encounter Corbett alone held twenty-six Confederates at bay, until his ammunition ran out. At that point stories differ. One says he hid in a well where the enemy found him, coolly eating a sandwich. The other holds that after his guns were useless he started at the Confederates with clubs, swinging wildly while the enemy colonel, Mosby, looked on in astonishment and admiration.
Captured, Corbett was sent to the notorious Andersonville prison. Characteristically, he escaped, only to be recaptured by bloodhounds. Later he was exchanged, when the Confederates thought he was a physical wreck. Yet after only a month's rest he was back in the fray and it does not seem at all surprising that he should turn up among the twenty-seven Union men who were surrounding a barn on the road to Bowling Green, Virginia. In that barn was trapped John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Lincoln.
Strict were the orders. No one was to fire without command. Planned were a great public trial and a ceremonious hanging. The whole nation would be shown, in Booth's punishment, what fate awaited assassins. Boston Corbett, however, took orders only from God, and he had ignored so many orders from the Army that this one probably did not impress him very much.
After Booth refused to surrender, and tried to play for time by endless talk from within his hideout, the barn was set afire. Corbett had been stationed some thirty feet from the barn and through a large crack in the wail he could see, in the light of the flames, the trapped prisoner moving about in hope of escape.
Suddenly a shot was heard above the crackling of the burning wood. Booth fell to the floor. Some thought he had shot himself. But Boston quickly corrected that impression. Boston said he had fired the shot, and it had struck Booth in almost the spot where Booth's bullet had hit Lincoln. While the murderer of tile President was being carried from the blazing barn, Colonel Conger summoned Corbett and said: "Why did you fire against orders?" Boston replied: "The Almighty directed me."
Separated from the service, with some $1600 reward money in his pocket, Boston took to the lecture platform, as so many heroes have before and since. Religious and patriotic societies clamored to hear him- but none clamored more than once. Instead of telling his eager audiences what they wanted to hear- how he shot the man who had shot Lincoln - Boston gave them long, incoherent talks on religion, talks so wild they bored his audiences and sent people hurrying for the doors. Soon his fame had vanished, a job in the hat-business vanished also - and Boston Corbett turned up in Camden, as pastor of the little church on Atlantic Avenue.
Apparently Camden had a calming effect on Corbett, for he lasted a number of years as pastor and remained in the city almost a decade, a longer: stay in one place than any he had made up to that time.
On July 25, 1877, the West Jersey Press noted:
"Boston Corbett, whose other name is "The man who shot Wilkes Booth,' and who has been heard of from one end of the country to the other, is riow in very destitute circumstances at his home on Pine Street below Fourth in this city.' He is completely broken down in health, and without friends or money. For some years he has labored as a local Methodist preacher, but his remuneration from that source has been absolutely nothing. He is a hatter by trade, but can obtain no employment. Is it not sad that, after what he did for his country, he should be left to suffer in a Christian community?" '
After various wanderings, of which little is known, Corbett, in 1886 was given a job as doorheper for the Kansas Legislature. This had been arranged by the G. A. R. In February 1887, however, on a drowsy day when the legislators were debating at leisure, Boston quietly locked the door, and brought out two large -- and loaded -- revolvers. Telling the Legislators that God demanded their lives, Boston let loose with both guns at once. Twelve blasts went in all directions. The frantic solons dived under chairs, hid behind trash baskets, and tried to butt open the doors. But Boston's aim was not what it had been on the night he shot the man who shot Lincoln. Nary a Legislator was hit.
So, once again Boston Corbett made headlines. The West Jersey Press quoted the following from the Sioux City (Iowa) Times:
"Poor Corbett! He ran with McDowell, fortified with McClellan, charged with Hoover, fought it out under Grant, and shot Booth on his own account. But the talk of the Kansas Legislature was too much for his endurance, and now he is crazy."
Corbett may have lost his aim, and he may have lost his mind. But he had not lost his gift for escaping his captors. On May 26, 1888, while marching along a road with other inmates of an asylum, Boston spotted a horse tied to a post. Dashing from the line he quickly climbed into the saddle and rode off in a cloud of dust.
Corbett's days thereafter are befogged with mystery.
Reports of his "discovery" in one place after another were noted as late as 1905, but none was definitely confirmed. There is some evidence that he made his way to Oklahoma, was therein 1901, and passed this remaining days in the state. In his "Indian Trails and Early Paths", however, Charles S. Boyer states that Corbett perished in a snowstorm near the Soldiers' Home in Leavenworth. Kansas. He gives no date. In any case, Boston finally found peace at the end of a turbulent trail.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For decades after Booth's death, the role of Boston Corbett was not seriously questioned. However, certain latter-day historians have been arguing that Boston did not shoot Booth after all. Yet beyond that conclusion even the "revisionists" disagree. Some have argued that Col. Conger shot Booth; others that Lieutenant Baker shot him; still others that Booth shot himself. Neither the "revisionists" nor the authors of this article were on hand to see who shot whom. But the following facts are beyond dispute: Corbett is the only man who admitted shooting Booth. He admitted it on the scene; and he admitted it again on the witness stand. Conger specifically denied firing the shot. So did Baker. And the shot was fired at an angle which makes suicide seem improbable. That Conger himself believed Corbett fired the shot is evidenced by the fact that he took him to Washington for court martial, on charges of disobeying orders -the orders being NOT to shoot Booth. Finally, when Secretary of War Stanton dismissed the charges, he said: "The rebel is dead - the patriot lives. He has saved us continued excitement, delay and expense. The patriot (Boston Corbett) is released."
Myths After Lincoln. by Lloyd Lewis; 1929, New York, Harcourt, Brace & Co., Inc.
Indian Trails and Early Paths by Charles S. Boyer, 1938, Camden, N. J., The Camden County Historical Society.
Various contemporary newspapers, particularly the West Jersey Press.
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