What happened to the man who shot John Wilkes Booth?
One of the lingering mysteries of the Lincoln assassination concerns Boston Corbett, the man who shot John Wilkes Booth. In 1888, Corbett disappeared into thin air. Michael W. Kauffman, a Lincoln assassination scholar, joins us today with a guest post on this strange and historical case. Kauffman wrote American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies and contributed a chapter to The Lincoln Assassination Riddle: Revisiting the Crime of the Nineteenth Century.
Welcome Michael W. Kauffman!
A historical disappearance
Boston Corbett’s disappearance is one of many mysteries connected to the Lincoln assassination, and it’s one that will probably never be solved. Corbett was last seen in the town of Neodesha, Kansas, where he had gone to visit a friend named Richard Thatcher, whom he had known when both were prisoners of war at Andersonville during the Civil War.
Boston Corbett after the Civil War
Corbett had drifted from one job to another after the war, dogged by the feeling that he would fall victim to revenge at the hands of John Wilkes Booth’s friends. Celebrity hadn’t suited him well. After a brief and unsuccessful career as a lecturer, he became a minister of the gospel. He was probably a bit too intense for most parishioners, and before long he headed west and took up residence on a grant of land in Cloud County, Kansas. His behavior became increasingly erratic, and in time he came to be regarded as a public menace and a danger to society. But mindful of his status as a national hero, officials in Cloud County came up with a novel way of getting rid of Corbett while appearing to pay him an honor: they arranged to make him an assistant doorkeeper to the state legislature in Topeka! (Keep in mind, they did this because they considered him dangerous.)
Corbett lands in an asylum
It wasn’t long before Boston Corbett wore out his welcome in Topeka. He took offense to some remarks and drew his revolvers in the state house. The men in the white coats came to get him, and after a brief hearing, he was committed to the State Asylum for the Insane.
Apparently, Corbett felt the institution had little to offer, and he availed himself of the first opportunity to escape. He disappeared in short order, and made his way to Neodesha, in the southeast part of the state. There his old war buddy, Thatcher, extended a warm welcome and an invitation to stay a while. But after making some noises about heading for Mexico, Corbett disappeared into the wilderness, and as far as is known, he was never seen again.
Various theories about Boston Corbett
The western frontier was vast and forbidding, and it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what might have happened to Boston Corbett as he made his way south. Starvation, hostile Indians, marauders, and dangerous animals were only a few of the hazards any traveler would have to face in the Old West. Travelling alone was especially dangerous, and the odds of survival in the wilderness were extremely poor. Wild animals would have left little trace of anyone who died in such a vast expanse.
All of which is to say that it probably surprised no one when Corbett failed to materialize in Mexico or anywhere else in subsequent years. Though there were pretenders — most notably a patent medicine salesman in Enid, Oklahoma who was imprisoned for fraudulently claiming Corbett’s pension — the real Boston Corbett was never seen for certain again.
Great Hinckley Fire
But there were stories that suggested otherwise. In September of 1894, a forest fire consumed more than 200,000 acres around the town of Hinckley, Minnesota, and among the more than 400 fatalities was a man identified as Thomas Corbett. That was actually Boston Corbett’s given name, and it didn’t take long for rumors to take root about the death of Lincoln’s avenger in the Great Hinckley Fire. But in truth, this was never more than a rumor, based solely on the name of a man who seemed to be a stranger to the people of Hinckley. Attempts to connect that stranger to the killer of John Wilkes Booth have fallen flat for lack of evidence.
But as a wise old friend once told me, mysteries are a good thing. They give us something to talk about and to keep us interested. If you can supply all the answers, everyone will just get bored and move on to another topic. Nevertheless, if anyone can shed more light on the fate of Boston Corbett, I’d be delighted to hear about it.
Thank you, Michael W. Kauffman!
Which theory do you think is most likely?
If you want to read more about the Lincoln assassination, check out my interview of Michael W. Kauffman.
Michael W. Kauffman also offered a blurb for the back cover of my book, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee:
Death of an Assassin is not only a startling historical discovery but a poignant tale of heroism and redemption. With a marvelous eye for detail, Ann Marie Ackermann has navigated through long-forgotten records on both sides of the Atlantic to unearth a new and complex kind of hero – a brutish, vengeful man who, perhaps out of remorse, was anxious to start a new life and redeem himself in his adopted home. It’s a great story, bolstered by solid research and told by one who is uniquely qualified to bring it to the public.
Click on the link above to order the book.