The Insane Life of the Man Who Killed John Wilkes Booth

The man who avenged Abraham Lincoln also cut off his own genitals.
The Insane Life of the Man Who Killed John Wilkes Booth

We don't get to choose how we're remembered. Someone reading this is one day going to be recalled by their friends and family as a hardworking professional and loving parent, but eulogized by the rest of the world as the accidental star of the viral video "Hilariously Horny Goat Humps Hiker Off Cliff!!!" But Boston Corbett is a unique historical figure, equally remembered for both his famous accomplishment and his lowest moments. Or to put it another way, the man who avenged Abraham Lincoln also cut his own testicles off.

Let's go back to the 1850s, when a young Corbett had just watched his wife and daughter die in childbirth. He dealt with this traumatic event by spending most of his time getting absolutely plastered -- and, even more tragically, by moving to Boston. Because he couldn't hold a job, he had plenty of time to stagger around aimlessly, and this eventually led him to a Methodist street preacher who blew his booze-soaked mind.

Corbett took to religion as enthusiastically as he had taken to alcohol -- which was, to use the technical term, hella enthusiastically. He sobered up, grew out his hair in honor of Jesus' unshorn hippie look, and renamed himself "Boston" in tribute to the city of his rebirth. He spent so much time interrupting street sermons by shouting "Glory to God!" that his annoyed saviors encouraged him to find his own preaching corner. And preach he did, becoming an eccentric local celebrity in the process.

But, like with most Cracked articles, you're here to read about genitalia. In 1858, Corbett was propositioned by two prostitutes, as prostitutes are wont to do. He was so disturbed by the encounter and the feelings it stirred in him that he returned to his boarding house to study his Bible. His conclusion, which most theologians would likely disagree with, was that he needed to take a pair of scissors, cut open the base of his scrotum, and remove his testicles. He then enjoyed a nice dinner and attended a prayer meeting before bothering to seek medical attention for an injury that would see most men immediately demanding the full resources of an entire hospital. Corbett needed a month to recover, but was apparently quite happy with the outcome, feeling he could now preach without worrying about his "passions."

Related: 24 Famous Historical Figures You Didn't Know Were Insane

The Insane Life of the Man Who Killed John Wilkes Booth
Library of Congress
Which seems like overkill, since that beard should've been more than enough to keep women away.

So now seems like a good time to mention that when Corbett could find work, it was as a hatter -- a profession that at the time used mercury to make felt. Hatters were routinely exposed to the fumes, often giving them a nasty neurological disorder dubbed hatter's shakes. Historians speculate that this was the cause of much of Corbett's behavior. So if you hate your job, you can at least consider yourself lucky that it's not making you mutilate your genitals.

Naturally, the next step was to introduce firearms into his life. When the Civil War began in 1861, Corbett flirted with pacifism before enlisting in the Union Army, declaring that the Confederates deserved to be shot "like dogs," and that if he met any, he would say "God have mercy on your souls" before he would "pop them off." And while that would have made a great tagline for Die Hard Of Dysentery, the hot new action play of the summer, a mentally unbalanced religious fanatic enlisting in the military went about as well as you'd expect.

Private Corbett was thrown in a cell almost immediately for demanding that Colonel Daniel "I Wrote 'Taps'" Butterfield apologize to God for his use of profanity, then ignored orders to stop singing hymns at the top of his lungs while incarcerated. Corbett's view of the chain of command as a vague suggestion eventually led to a court martial and a dishonorable discharge, to which he responded by simply joining another unit a few weeks later. In the 19th century, a job application consisted of proving that none of the local wanted posters had your face on them.

Corbett avoided further trouble with his own comrades long enough to be captured and forced to spend five months in the notorious Andersonville Prison, which killed nearly 30% of its prisoners in conditions that would make occupants envy the sanitation of plague-riddled Europe. He was released in a prisoner exchange, treated for malnutrition and scurvy, and promoted to sergeant. Then in 1865, his regiment was tasked with aiding in the frantic search for John Wilkes Booth.

Related: 5 'Eccentric' Historical Figures Who Were Clearly Just Crazy

SURRAT. DOOTH AROLD War Department, Washington, April 20, 1865, $100, 000 REWARD! THE MURDERER Of our late beloved President Abraham Lincoln, IS STIL.
Library of Congress
With that many fonts, you know the hunt was serious.

They located Booth, then set the barn he was in on fire to force him out. Precisely what happened next is unclear, but Corbett's unit was under strict orders to take Booth alive so he could be questioned. Corbett, upon seeing Booth through a slat in the wall, instead shot him very dead. Corbett claimed self-defense in response to Booth raising his gun, to which some witnesses called BS, while a couple argued that it might not have even been Corbett who fired. Whatever happened, Corbett took credit, and was stuck with everything that followed.

Corbett was unrepentant about disobeying orders, claiming that God had directed him -- which if nothing else, certainly one-upped Booth's claim that he had been an instrument of God's justice. There was talk of a court martial, but that was abandoned when the media and the public began celebrating Corbett as an American hero. So Corbett was thanked by the government, given a portion of the reward money (the modern equivalent of about $27,000), discharged (this time honorably), and sent on his way. Like many people, he then had to figure out what to do after the biggest moment of his life. And like with many people, it didn't go well.

After his brief spurt of fame as "Lincoln's Avenger" wore off, Corbett wandered the country to work as a hatter, preacher, and lecturer on his Civil War experiences, mostly failing at each thanks to his increasingly erratic behavior. He was often invited to give speeches, but he was never invited back. He took to sleeping with a gun and threatening strangers with it while awake, a victim of both imagined conspiracies fueled by paranoid delusions and very real hate mail from Confederate sympathizers. He was purportedly bombarded by angry messages, and this was back when it took effort to be an anonymous jerk.

Related: 8 Famous People That History Got Almost Exactly Wrong

George Eastman House
"Dear sir STOP I trust this letter finds you well, though I do not wish it STOP Go briskly into a fire and, therein, perish STOP Hashtag JusticeForTheEsteemedMrBooth STOP"

By 1878, Corbett was destitute, living in a dugout hovel in Kansas and believing that the average visitor probably wanted to assassinate him. He scraped by until 1886, when out of pity he was offered the largely ceremonial position of assistant doorkeeper at the State Legislature. A month later, that gig came to an end when Corbett, either inventing an unspecified conspiracy against him or taking offense at a mildly blasphemous remark, brandished his trusty revolver within the Legislature. Accounts vary, but whatever happened was enough to get him arrested, declared insane, and sent to an asylum. And that was the end of Boston Corbett's strange, sad story.

Except not really, because in 1888 he escaped by stealing a goddamn horse.

The last definitive word from Boston Corbett was a note explaining where the horse should be returned to. He told an old comrade that he intended to flee to Mexico, but circumstantial evidence instead placed him in the forests of Minnesota, where he was presumed to be one of the 418 victims of an 1894 fire. If that was the case, he would have been 62 at death, but we'll never know for sure. Impostors, mostly running inept scams to claim a military pension, popped up as late as 1905. Today he's largely forgotten, although you can visit a small monument at the remains of his Kansas home.

If there's a lesson in all of this, it's mostly "Dear God, don't handle mercury" with a little bit of "War is terrible for the mind" on the side. But it's also a reminder that America has been elevating random nobodies to intense and temporary fame, then casting them aside to their private miseries, for a lot longer than you'd think. It's just much easier to gawk at the resulting train wreck today than it was in the 1800s.

Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.

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