Scott Martelle: Lincoln’s Assassin’s Assassin

How did a formerly alcoholic religious zealot come to be the person who killed John Wilkes Booth?

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This month is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. A new book by author Scott Martelle looks at Boston Corbett, the Union soldier who killed John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Lincoln.

The title: “The Madman and the Assassin: The strange life of Boston Corbett, the man who killed John Wilkes Booth.”

Corbett was an alcoholic, who reported being saved by an early version of the Salvation Army, says Martelle, which led Corbett to develop zealous religious beliefs and become a street preacher. According to Martelle, Corbett decided his libido was getting in the way of his preaching.

“So, he took a pair scissors one day and castrated himself and then he went to dinner, and then went to a prayer meeting,” Martelle says. “ Then when he got back home that evening, he decided maybe it was time to find a doctor.”

When the Civil War started, Corbett volunteered, eventually deploying four times. He was a member of the 16th New York Cavalry during the search for John Wilkes Booth in April 1865 following Lincoln’s assassination. A tip led Corbett’s unit to a tobacco barn where Booth and a co-conspirator had holed up.

After a long standoff Booth’s co-conspirator gave himself up, and the soldiers decided to burn the barn to smoke out Booth. Corbett later said he saw Booth aiming his rifle to shoot at the soldiers so he fired. 

“The bullet hit Booth in the back left side of the lower part of the skull,” says Martelle. “It paralyzed Booth, and he died two or three hours later.”

Corbett became a celebrity, says Martelle, but an uneasy one. While people in the North were generally happy that Booth was dead, Southerners mostly viewed Booth as a hero.

With the war over, Corbett returned to his previous trade of silk hat finishing and continued to preach. Martelle says jobs dried up and Corbett’s extreme religious views drove away followers. Broke, he ended up homesteading in Kansas. But Corbett did a poor job of farming and eventually pulled in a veteran’s pension because of physical ailments he developed during the Civil War. Mystery surrounds the end of his life.

When Sandra asked Martelle what he saw Corbett doing if he lived today, he had a simple answer.

“He’d be a reality TV star,” he says.


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