Meet Boston Corbett, the self-castrated hatmaker who was John Wilkes Booth's Jack Ruby.
On April 26, 1865, soldiers had John Wilkes Booth cornered in a burning barn near Port Royal, Virginia, before Boston Corbett shot him. Illustration by Roy Knipe
The fire in the tobacco barn was starting to rage, and inside was the most wanted man in America: John Wilkes Booth, the traitor who had shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre 12 days earlier.
Nursing a broken leg, Booth had made it 73 miles to Port Royal, Virginia, with federal troops in pursuit. Now the last of his accomplices had deserted him and he was cornered in the barn, surrounded by Union Army veterans hungry for vengeance. He had two choices: shoot his way out or surrender and face his crime.
A soldier by the name of Boston Corbett would decide the matter for him.
Corbett was watching Booth intently from his unit’s formation around the barn. Through the cracks in the wall, he could see the fugitive shift in and out of view, a gun in hand. As the flames rose, Corbett trained his pistol on the image, even though the word from Washington was clear—Booth was to be taken alive.
Corbett, you see, wasn’t the kind of soldier who followed orders easily, unless they came from God. He was a fervent Christian, and his faith had seen him through four years of battle, not to mention a punishing stint in one of the harshest Civil War prisons. He was ready for the fight to end.
Boston Corbett. Photograph by Mathew Brady/Library of Congress
He walked closer to the fire, which a comrade had lit in an attempt to shake the fugitive loose, and stopped just paces away from the barn. Then he watched as Booth appeared to make up his mind by pointing his gun outside toward the Union troops, as if to fight his way out.
That was all Corbett needed to see. He defied Washington’s orders and pulled the trigger. Booth fell to the ground, and hours later he was dead. Boston Corbett thus became Lincoln’s Avenger: the man who killed the man who killed the President.
As positions of historical prominence go, it’s a rarefied one. Three US Presidents were murdered after Lincoln, but only one of the assassinations—John F. Kennedy’s—was followed by a similar (and much more storied) reprisal. Two days after Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963, Jack Ruby killed Oswald with a .38 snub-nosed revolver on live television.
Ruby was a loosely mobbed-up nightclub owner who claimed he’d done it to save Jacqueline Kennedy from having to endure the pain of a long murder trial. Corbett had a less shady but still unorthodox past—he was a hat maker with a strong religious streak who claimed God had commanded him to bring Lincoln’s killer to justice. Ruby went to prison; Corbett didn’t.
But a peek at the pages of history—into old newspaper clippings, correspondence, and records held at the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka—reveals how much the assassins’ assassins had in common. Like Ruby, Corbett ended up vilified after his unilateral action denied the public the chance to learn the full truth about the plot to kill the President. And Corbett, too, became fodder for conspiracy theories that followed him to his own strange end.
• • •
Boston Corbett’s curious life began ordinarily enough. As a young man named Thomas Corbett, smallish with black hair and black eyes, he toiled in the hat trade in the Northeast, an honorable profession for a first-generation American in the mid-19th century. But the arc of Corbett’s future shifted dramatically when his wife and first child died during the girl’s birth.
Corbett became unhinged, seeking solace in the bottle. He staggered up and down New England, until one night in the late 1850s when he happened upon an animated scene on a Boston corner. A street evangelist was holding court, and Corbett was mesmerized by the message of God. He became a regular at sidewalk churches around the city, peppering street preachers’ prayers with boisterous refrains of “Glory to God!” and “Come to Christ!”
A certificate of Corbett’s baptism as a born-again Christian, courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society.
The ministers eventually encouraged him to stake out a corner of his own, not so much because the young man had potential but to keep his annoying chorus at a distance. Corbett, now 26, took the advice. He would swear off liquor and grow his beard and hair long, styling himself in the image of Jesus. He also surrendered himself to a baptism by a Methodist minister—and was born again as Boston, in recognition of the town that saved him from the drink.
His rash tendencies exhibited themselves in strange ways. One day while he was ministering in the summer of 1858, Corbett was ogled by a pair of prostitutes, and the lower half of his body responded invitingly. He went home, took a pair of scissors, snipped an incision under his scrotum, and removed his testicles, then headed out to a prayer meeting.