Martelle (The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man’s Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, 2014, etc.) explores the troubled life of a key yet little-known character in the Abraham Lincoln assassination drama.
A journeyman journalist and author whose historical interests range far and wide, the author here conjures the spirit of an English-born hatter and Union soldier, Thomas “Boston” Corbett, who thanked Providence for guiding his fatal shot to the neck of John Wilkes Booth after the manhunt in April 1865. As a young apprentice plying his trade in Manhattan, Corbett was most likely exposed to the mercury-based compounds used in the felt at the time, which might explain some of the classic symptoms of paranoia he later exhibited (and which gave rise to the expression “mad as a hatter”). After the death of his young wife and a descent into heavy drinking, Corbett was redeemed by temperance Christians and moved to Boston to become a proselytizer and street preacher for the Methodist Church. He followed a bizarre self-castration with his baptism in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1858, when he took the first name Boston. A fervent abolitionist, Corbett signed up for New York’s 12th Regiment in 1861, then later joined the 16th New York Cavalry, based in northern Virginia, an important spot in the manhunt for Lincoln’s assassin. (Unfortunately, there is no map to elucidate the geography of the manhunt.) At the right place at the right time, Corbett shot Booth through the slats of the tobacco shed where the assassin was hiding, apparently drawing his rifle to fire at the Union soldiers. Corbett won fame rather than censure for the shooting, allowing him a small slice of the reward and an Army pension. He eventually slipped into delusional behavior, and his death is shrouded in mystery.
A curious portrait of a celebrity nonentity caught up in the throes of history.