BY THE AUTHOR.
(An original sketch by the Author.)
Boston Corbett in 1865.
For fifteen years the little stone hut has not been inhabited save by gophers and bats. The writer, like many curious and speculative individuals, visited this interestingly historical place, and found the rafters falling into decay, the door and windows removed, but the yellow sandstone walls, which represent good masonry, considering the conditions, still stand intact, as a monument to the eccentric man who builded it. The poplar tree on the left and the cottonwoods on the right were doubtless planted by his hands, and stand as sentinels over the most historic and romantic spot of this section of country.
Most readers of this volume are familiar with the strange career of this singular man, but history is not given for the present only, but rather to be perpetuated down the long series of eventful times. The following data eminated from various sources and is the most authentic obtainable. The recent rumors afloat that he is soon to return, prove his identify and collect the one thousand three hundred dollars back pension due him has renewed public interest in Boston Corbett. His Christian name is John. He is of English birth and soon after emigrating to America attended a religious revival in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, and to commemorate the event of his conversion during this awakening of the Divine Spirit he assumed the name of "Boston." He has always been eccentric, but the trend of his idiosyncracies has been toward religious fanaticism Corbett belonged to the Sixteenth New York Cavalry, and was a sergeant.
He was one of the select men summoned to pursue and capture John Wilkes Booth, the bloodthirsty and soulless assassin of the nation's idol, Abraham Lincoln, in April, 1865.
A comrade, Private Dalzell, in whose home Corbett visited after the killing of Booth, says in substance: After tracking the fugitive through woods and fields for days, he was discovered in a barn. Stolidly refusing the command to surrender, a torch was lighted, touched to the barn and the next moment violent flames were bursting forth from his place of refuge. The excited sergeant saw through the cracks between the boards, the emotional, brilliant, but superficial, tragic actor standing on a pile of hay, leaning on his crutch, pale with loss of blood from the wound he had received, pallid with excess of hatred and revenge, for John Wilkes Booth never knew fear.
Corbett watched him like a hawk, as Booth stood with back toward him, leaning on his staff for support, carbine in hand, the personification of the assassin - and in the critical moment when he had determined to die he was uniformly self-possessed and did not for a moment forget his part in the great tragedy he was acting. As the fire mounted up and around him, his face in the lurid light of the blazing barn grew ghastly pale. Each demand for his surrender was answered with the same sullen silence of contempt, scorn and defiance.
The burning building was surrounded on all sides by soldiers with pistols in hand, stationed within a few feet of each other. Inclosed beyond the possibility of escape the doomed tragedian was probably seized with a desire to send some of his pursuers into eternity, and suddenly raised his carbine to shoot. Corbett saw the move, and with the rapidity of lightning leveled his pistol and fired. Before the unerring aim of the little sergeant's gun, the presidenticide fell prostrate on the hay - where he had stood as if rooted to the spot - with a fatal wound in exactly the same place where the deadly missile from his gun had entered the body of President Lincoln.
His body was instantly dragged from the burning barn and stretched upon the ground; a moment later and the once impassioned tragedian was dead.
Corbett asserted to Private Dalzell that the actor never spoke after he received the fatal shot, and that all the nonsense about his dying words was the mere "clap trap" of sensational writers. As soon as Booth's fatality was disclosed the disconsolate officers inquired what rash fellow had dared disobey orders and slay their coveted victim, for it had been their purpose to capture him alive and have a grand state trial enacted after the manner of the great historical English regicide tribunals during the times of James II. But Boston Corbett had thwarted their plans and ambitions and all eyes were turned toward, him, for the soldiers who were stationed on his side of the building pointed to the sergeant as the guilty miscreant who fired the fatal bullet, and he was straightway placed under arrest.
From that fateful moment Corbett has never known a peaceful hour, and was a doomed man. After that eventful day one disaster followed another. The pistol with which he killed Booth was stolen from him the same night.
He was treated with scorn and disdain by his officers, and neglected by the government. While enroute to Washington he was stopped by masked men, and with a pistol placed against his breast, compelled to dismount and surrender his hard earned money the day he received it; not only every dollar he possessed was taken from him, but he was stripped of his clothing.
The officials at Washington were beside themselves with rage for having been deprived of the pomp and circumstance of leading the assassin in captivity and parading him through a public trial, of which they would have been central figures. Stinging with disappointment, they felt like further persecuting the man who had divested them of all this glory, but better counsel prevailed and he was released with a permit to retire from the service. Branded and disgraced, he was always spoken of with contempt by officers of the army.
The unfortunate fellow drifted from pillar to post. After saying his prayers at night - for he is a devout Christian - Corbett retires with a loaded revolver under his head and moans piteously during the long hours of the night. He is not a lunatic, as has been accredited him, but a strange, unhappy and eccentric man who doubtless suffers untold terrors, and has visions of "Nemesis pursuing him" wherever he goes; the troubled spirits of revenge will not let him rest. His constant fear remains the same and he is steadfastly on the alert for assassins. For many years after the death of Booth, threatening letters followed him everywhere. Private Dalzell writes he saw one of these letters, which was headed "Hell," adding: "You will be here soon," and signed "Booth." While at the Dalzell residence Corbett was the recipient of several of these uncanny messages and was never in a town ever so obscure that they did not reach him, each missive containing all sorts of threats. Corbett complained bitterly and justly of the neglect with which the government treated him. Mr. Dalzell says: "Let no one suppose it was remorse that rendered him unhappy, for Corbett was proud that he had killed Booth; nor let no one suppose it was regret, for he stoutly maintained that the Lord commissioned him to enact the deed and directed the contents of his weapon." He was asked by General Howard, "How in the world did you happen to send the bullet to the same spot, exactly to the tilting of a hair, where the fatal bullet found the life of Lincoln?" "The Lord directed it," was Corbett's only reply, and he believed it, even if Ingersoll did not.
In the latter part of the 'seventies Boston Corbett located in Cloud county, and finding eighty acres of land seven miles south and three miles east of Concordia that had seemingly been overlooked by the homestead settler or not deemed desirable, lying among the hills as it does, the wretched man sought a respite from his ungracious pursuers by establishing a hermit-like quarter, where he could live the life of a recluse. Corbett was a poor man, a hatter by trade, and unmarried. He built a dugout on his newly acquired possessions, where he lived several years. The floor and roof were of dirt after the fashion of the Kansas dugout; in dimensions it is about twelve by fifteen feet. In one corner of the room, from an excavation under the rock wall, a spring of fine water bubbled in, and flowed through an aperture to the outside. The furniture of this queer domicile, long since removed, was very meagre; it consisted of a home-made bedstead, a chair or two, an old musket and a Bible, the yellow leaves of the latter being well worn with time and frequent turning.
Corbett was small of stature, had a swarthy skin, a scant beard and wore his long, dark hair floating over his shoulders. He dressed in a singular manner and lived in perfect solitude. He sometimes visited his neighbors, who thought him mentally disordered, but he seldom or never entertained them in return. He was manifestly devoted to a little black pony which he called "Billy," and all the affection in his queer nature was bestowed upon "Billy," who was his constant companion. He associated himself with the Methodist Episcopal church, was one of the shouting brethren and very enthusiastic in revival work; would preach with a revolver in his pocket or a brace dangling from his belt.
In the early 'eighties, at the earliest solicitation of the ladies of the Presbyterian church of Concordia, who were endeavoring to give the public some special feature as an attraction for a large patronage. Boston Corbett was induced to promise a lecture, outlining events of the capture and slaying of President Lincoln's assassin, and his experiences in Andersonville prison, where he had spent ten months, and when emerging a physical wreck, he was ordered to the hospital, but against the orders of the surgeon he rejoined his company.
When the night for the entertainment arrived Corbett was greeted with an immense and enthusiastic audience. It was an established custom with the dispenser of the gospel to discourse from the scriptures, and some sentiment in the song that was rendered by the choir as an introductory, started him to sermonizing and he preached indefinitely without touching upon the interesting subject that practically drew the whole populace out to hear the story from the lips of this historic character.
Finally he was reminded by the pastor that he was to talk of Booth and Andersonville, whereupon Corbett most humbly apologized for his diversion and in a few terse sentences related the details of his capture and told how he was landed in the southern prison. Soon after entering, the sergeant met an old comrade who reported a session of prayer as being held in another part of the building, and Corbett hastened to that quarter. Then he gave the prayer meeting an oral treatment, expatiated on the subject for a half hour or more, and when again reminded that he had digressed, apologized graciously and said, in substance:
"We surrounded the barn in which we found Booth had taken refuge. We demanded that he surrender and he refused; we then set fire to the barn. By the light he saw one of our men and raised his gun to shoot him. I was peeping through the cracks, saw him raise his arm, and to keep him from killing one of our men, I fired and killed him. The bullet went into his head in nearly the same course that his bullet had entered Lincoln's head."
No more communicative an account than this would he give expression to of an incident that has called forth many articles during the last thirty-eight years, and of which no one was more cognizant than this distinctively peculiar individual.
The many incidents of Boston Corbett's career would fill a fair-sized volume. One blustering day in the autumn a prairie fire was raging near his claim and finally crept over on to his premises. Some neighboring men came to assist him in protecting his property, but to their dismay and astonishment his lordship confronted them with gun in hand and admonished his would-be assistants to vacate, with threats of shooting if they did not proceed to acquiesce. Immediately, the would-he protectors had Corbett arrested and brought to Concordia for trial. During the procedure, a man whom he had a fancied grievance against, entered the court room and as his imaginary foe walked down the aisle Corbett jumped to his feet, brandished a revolver and exclaimed, "There's another man come here to criminate me. Thank God I have no use for such a court as this; I am going home. I have a God that will take care of me." As he swung his formidable forty-five and walked hastily down the aisle, the judge, county officials, attorneys, even the legal light he had employed to defend him, sought refuge behind every available piece of furniture which offered protection. Unmolested, Corbett left the court room, sought his little black pony and rode away.
After taking the matter under consideration, the officers repaired to Corbett's dugout for the purpose of again bringing him in. Another surprise greeted them, however, for their host put in an appearance with a Winchester in either hand, and a countenance that boded ill, declaring in an uncivil way he would shoot the first man who dare attempt to lay hands on him, adding he would die rather than be taken. They replied they would return with a posse of forty men, whereupon he bade them come, fearlessly saying: "I have faced four hundred men and forty couldn't take me."
Corbett was left to enjoy the quiet solitude of his dugout, which was astronghold, ostensibly built with the view of defending himself, as he possessed a small armory that would have stood off a fairly strong siege. He was an unerring marksman and one of his favorite pastimes was to prostrate himself at full length on the grass and shoot birds as they flew through the air.
Corbett was given a position in the capitol. Sympathizing friends thinking something should be done for Boston Corbett, some position within the gift of the people tendered him, he was appointed sergeant-at-arms in the capitol at Topeka in 1887. While acting as doorkeeper in the east gallery of the house of representatives he created a novel sensation. The far-famed Corbett was a sort of curiosity to the general public. While passing to and fro along the corridor of the building one day his eagle eye and suspecting brain observed several clerks and janitors engaged in conversation, and fancying himself the subject of their merriment and probable derision, confronted Benjamin Williams, an assistant doorkeeper, with the accusation. Hot words ensued; Corbett gave vent to his constitutional irritation of temper. Losing entire control of himself he produced a dangerous looking knife and almost simultaneously made a pass at Williams. The frightened janitor did not tarry to longer discuss the situation, but rushed out of the hall into the outer corridor, followed by the frenzied sergeant-at-arms, while his associates in the offense flew with long and rapid strides in various directions. Overhearing the commotion, Sergeant-at-Arms Norton hastily repaired to the scene of action and endeavored to calm the enraged doorkeeper, but, as he approached, the new arrival upon the scene was startled by the distorted visage of Boston Corbett, who was livid with rage; his eyes gleaming like a Bengal tiger's, and as he flashed his revolver, warned Norton not to approach, under penalty of a bullet being sent crashing through his body. The sergeant-at-arms left Corbett holding the fort, for he realized it meant certain death to advance.
With gun in hand Corbett triumphantly passed to his post of duty in the gallery and as no one dared or attempted to approach him, the doorkeeper's attitude implied, "I am monarch of all I survey."
During the morning hours he passed with a soldierly tread up and down the triforium in full view of the convened house with his revolver swinging to the belt that encircled his waist, his eager, restless eyes alert to every sound or movement, like a sentinel watching over enchanted ground or doing duty where the fate of a whole army was dependent upon his vigilance.
IN THE GALLERY.
By a recent action of the house the sergeant-at-arms had been given authority to discharge any officer under his jurisdiction, hence the executive lost no time in declaring a vacancy in this instance; however, no one seemed anxious for the position made vacant, or dared to interfere. When Corbett's anger had somewhat abated a newspaper reporter seated himself by the side of the sergeant, who occupied a place in the ladies' gallery, looking down upon assembled representatives, as if he might be seized with the idea at any moment that God had commissioned him to kill off the entire body of legislators.
Although his wrath had diminished he was still nervous and could not be engaged in conversation, and, regarding his visitor with suspicion, a moment later he left the newsgatherer seated alone.
The police were summoned and after considerable conniving and maneuvering to avoid a shooting affray, the officers succeeded in taking captive the sensational sergeant. He was seized by three officers, who threw him to the floor and disarmed him. The only words he spoke were: "You're a pretty gang."
That Corbett was insane and a dangerous man to be at large was the general verdict. On February 16, 1887, the office of Probate Judge Quinton, of Topeka, was thronged with anxious people to hear the testimony in the case of this peculiar man on trial for insanity. Corbett seemingly entertained an animosity for the newspaper reporters, and ere the hearing was to proceed ordered them all put out of the room.
After a long series of evidence the man was adjudged insane and placed in the asylum. Another sensation was created on May 26, 1890, by the wily sergeant making his escape from the asylum for the insane. He was exercising with others on the grounds when he espied a horse, which he quickly seized, mounted and sped rapidly away. He left the horse after reaching a safe distance, with orders to return the animal to its rightful owner, and pursued his way on foot. It was supposed he had gone to his homestead in Cloud county, but for more than a dozen years he seemed to have passed out of existence, only vague and indefinite news of the escaped inmate could be obtained, consequently he was marked on the asylum records "dead," and this verdict was accepted unquestionably by the public.
But in August, 1901, thirteen years later, Corbett was resurrected and at that date had been for four years a valued employe of W.W. Gavitt & Company, a proprietary medicine concern of Topeka, Kansas. He was in their employ for some time ere they associated him with the man who shot Booth, as he went under the name of John Corbett, but when later he resumed the name of "Boston," his identity was revealed. He is a successful salesman. Many towns in Texas bar the patent medicine man, but this strange individual does not heed the ordinances and has sold his wares in practically every town in the state. He also travels through Oklahoma and owns property in Enid. Both his employers and guardian, George A. Huron, of Topeka, have in recent times endeavored to persuade Corbett to return and draw the thirteen hundred dollars back pension due him from the government, not a cent of which he will ever be able to draw until the fact of his being alive is established by his own affidavit. It has been assured him his sanity will be verified and his release from the asylum legally secured, but Corbett is wily and superstitious and until a recent date absolutely refused to set foot on Kansas soil; but it is reported he has at last consented to return and claim the money that is legitimately his.
The winter Boston Corbett spent in Topeka he was a conspicuous character in Salvation Army circles, took an active part in their street exhibitions and was one of the most animated soldiers and loudest shouters in the barracks of their brigade.
Transcribed from E.F. Hollibaugh's Biographical history of Cloud County, Kansas biographies of representative citizens. Illustrated with portraits of prominent people, cuts of homes, stock, etc. [n.p., 1903] 919p. illus., ports. 28 cm.
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