Monday, March 14, 2011

The Mad Hatter: The story of Boston Corbett

Boston Corbett

       Thomas P. Corbett was born in London, England around 1832 and emigrated with his family to New York City. He later became a hat maker in York, New York. He soon married, but lost his wife in childbirth. After her death, he packed up and moved to Boston, Massachusetts where he continued his trade as a hatter. It was there that he joined the Episcopal Church and changed his name to Boston in honor of the city where he converted to Christianity. 
       He soon began to imitate Jesus and grew his hair long in an attempt to look like his Savior. In 1858, Corbett was walking down a city street when he was tempted to sleep with a prostitute. He immediately castrated himself with a pair of scissors. He ate a meal and attended a prayer meeting, blood dripping from his crotch before almost collapsing and being carried for medical attention. 
       He joined a militia regiment at the beginning of the Civil War, but eventually moved to the 16th New York Cavalry Regiment. He was captured in 1864 by John Mosby, the 'Gray Ghost of the Confederacy' and sent to Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia. He would be exchanged within five months and return to his company as a sergeant. 
       Corbett was with the 16th New York Cavalry when they apprehended John Wilkes Booth at the Garrett Farm. He was one of the members that surrounded the barn. David Herold, Booth's accomplice surrendered, but Booth refused. The barn was set on fire to flush the assassin from his hiding place. The unit had orders that Booth must be brought back to Washington alive and no one was given permission to fire. 
       A gunshot rang out and John Wilkes Booth was hit in the neck. When the detectives walked around the barn and asked who fired the fatal shot, everyone denied they had fired their weapon. Finally, Boston Corbett admitted to having shot Booth. The detectives were very sloppy in their work and failed to check and see if Corbett's weapon had been fired at all. Today, some historians doubt the shot was fired by Corbett. Later in life, when asked why he had shot Booth, Corbett claimed the Lord had directed him to do so.

Another view of Sergeant Corbett

       Boston Corbett was arrested for disobeying orders, but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton would free the man. He would be given his share of the reward money for capturing Lincoln's killer. He then served as a witness against Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville Prison Camp which resulted in that officers sentence to be hanged. Some believe Stanton released Corbett as an exchange for damning testimony against Wirz. 
       Following the war, Corbett returned to Boston and continued his living as a hatter again. He soon moved to Connecticut and later New Jersey. His life was slowly beginning to unravel. He attended a soldiers reunion in Ohio in 1875 where he threatened several men with a firearm. He eventually moved on to Kansas where he was arrested and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane. 
       Corbett didn't stay in the asylum very long. He soon escaped and claimed he was heading to Mexico, but he traveled to Minnesota where he built a cabin in the woods near the town of Hinckley. There was a severe drought there in 1894 and a fire soon swept through the area. It is believed that almost 800 people died in the Hinckley fire. Corbett is believed to be one of those who perished. His body was never found. 

Hinckley, Minnesota following the fire

       It has been suggested that the use of Mercury in the hat making trade lead to the mental problems that plagued Corbett throughout his life. He is supposedly the first person to be coined the nickname, "Mad Hatter." 

The original Mad Hatter


  1. Talk about "if thy right hand offends thee...." this guy took it literally! I love how you show where some of our old sayings come from. Great blog!

  2. hat making aint good for your health, good blog, thanks