Thursday, July 12, 2012

Lew Wallace & Boston Corbett

In 1865, Lew Wallace was involved in two important trials that served to conclude the Civil War. He was a judge on the tribunal that considered the case against the Lincoln Conspirators and he served as the lead judge in the trial of Commander Henry Wirz of Andersonville. As it turned out, Wallace was not the only person to be associated with both Andersonville and the Lincoln Conspirators. A fellow named Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett was also a player in both of these episodes of the Civil War—but in ways very different from Lew Wallace.


Born in England in 1832, Corbett immigrated to America with his family and took up the trade of hat making in Troy, New York. In the 19th century, two of the most dangerous occupations were the silvering of mirrors and hat making. These professions were dangerous because of the amount of mercury that was used in manufacturing the finished products. The life expectancy for men in these jobs was often not long and because of the effects of the mercury insanity was a common problem as was used to great effect by Lewis Carroll with the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland.

Corbett’s young wife died in childbirth and he moved to Boston where he continued his work as a hatter. The effects of his profession may have been beginning to manifest themselves because after his move to Boston he changed his name from Thomas to “Boston,” grew his hair very long to better emulate Jesus Christ, and in 1858 took the drastic step of castrating himself with a pair of scissors in an effort to avoid the temptation of prostitutes. Before seeking medical treatment for his self inflicted surgery, he ate a meal and attended a prayer meeting.

Boston Corbett
In April 186, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Corbett joined the army as a private in the New York militia. When this enlistment expired he later reenlisted in September of 1863. He was captured in Culpeper, Virginia in June of 1864 and sent to the prisoner of war camp in Andersonville where he was kept for five months. He was exchanged in late 1864 and returned to his company where he was promoted to sergeant. As a result of his time in Andersonville he was called to testify in the trial of Henry Wirz and Lew Wallace would have certainly been aware of Corbett’s testimony.

Henry Wirz
In April of 1865, Corbett was a member of the 16th New York Cavalry Regiment and a part of the troops assembled for the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. On April 26th, Corbett and his regiment surrounded Booth and Davy Herold in a barn on the farm of Richard Garrett. The barn was set on fire and Herold surrendered, but Booth did not. Corbett was stationed near a crack in the barn wall and in the confusion and excitement, he claimed he saw Booth begin to raise a carbine and so Corbett shot and mortally wounded Lincoln’s assassin.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had instructed that Booth be taken alive so Corbett was arrested for violating orders. Stanton quickly dismissed the charges stating: “The rebel is dead. The patriot lives.” Stories surrounding the death of Booth circulated and Corbett ultimately told people that he fired the fatal shot because “Providence directed me.” Again, Wallace would certainly have been aware of Corbett because of the controversies surrounding the death of Booth.

Corbett collected his share of the reward money for the capture of Booth and after his discharge from the military resumed his career making hats; first in Boston, then in Connecticut and finally in New Jersey. His mental deterioration continued. In 1875, he threatened a group of men with a firearm at a soldier’s reunion. In 1878, he moved to Kansas and as a result of his fame he was asked to serve as door keeper for the House of Representatives in 1887. Within a few months he heard someone in the House make disparaging remarks about the prayer that had been offered and again threatened a group of men as he brandished a revolver in the chambers. He was arrested and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane but he soon escaped. He told a friend that he was headed to Mexico, but many people believe that he headed to Concordia, Kansas where he lived in a dugout--or basically a hole in the ground--before heading north to Minnesota where he lived in a small cabin in the woods near Hinckley. His fate is unknown but it is widely thought that he died in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894.

Lew Wallace and Boston Corbett lived decidedly different lives. It’s intriguing to note how their lives crossed at two particular moments in American legal history. While Lew Wallace is remembered for many accomplishments and experiences, Boston Corbett is generally remembered for just the two episodes in his life where his path crossed that of Lew Wallace.

Thanks:
Sam Andre for research assistance



The General Lew Wallace Study & Museum celebrates and renews belief in the power of the individual spirit to affect American history and culture.

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