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The Madman and the Assassin: The Strange Life of Boston Corbett, the Man who Killed John Wilkes Booth


April 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the Abraham Lincoln assassination. As such, several new books are now in print remembering various aspects of the tragedy. Among them is The Madman and the Assassin: The Strange Life of Boston Corbett, the Man who Killed John Wilkes Booth, a new work from LA Times journalist and historian Scott Martelle.

John Wilkes Booth, a noted actor and Southern ultra-nationalist, murdered President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday, 1865. He and a cohort, Davey Herold, fled through Maryland and after several misadventures, crossed the Potomac River into Virginia. After Union cavalry caught up with them at the Garrett farm, Booth and Herold holed up in a tobacco barn. Herold surrendered, but Booth remained behind as the soldiers torched the structure. Boston Corbett took aim through a hole in the wall and slowly squeezed the trigger. Lincoln’s infamous killer pitched to the barn floor, his life soon ebbing away.

Corbett came to be known in the national press as somewhat of an odd duck. Various reports deemed him as a “madman,” “eccentric,” and “a peculiar man.” Over the years, he has often been relegated to a single sentence or two as the man who shot John Wilkes Booth. Now, Martelle has brought Boston Corbett, a man of many paradoxes, back to the mainstream of Civil War characters with his new book.

Boston Corbett

Martelle’s painstaking research into Corbett’s life unpeels the layers of complexity, legend, and misinformation to present the definitive modern account of the man. He postulates that Corbett’s mental instability likely stemmed from his years as a silk hat maker and resultant prolonged exposure to the mercury used in the process. This book represents the first full-length biography of one of the Civil War’s most unusual characters – a man who once castrated himself with scissors so he would not be tempted sexually. Thus he would not be distracted from his ministry as a street preacher and evangelist.

Corbett faced several potentially devastating events in his life, including the death of his young wife, persistent and serious financial setbacks, repudiation and scorn for his religious zeal, mental health issues, and a debilitating stint in the Confederacy’s infamous Andersonville Prison in rural Georgia.

Martelle’s prose shines in his retelling of the tragic events on Good Friday and the assassination of Lincoln, as well as in the long cross-country chase after his presumed killer. By the time the author gets to the controversial shooting of Booth at the Garrett barn, the reader almost is rooting for Sergeant Corbett to make sure his aim is true and his hand steady. The California-based Martelle deftly balances evoking sympathy and understanding for Corbett’s actions with his unauthorized self-initiated shot in this swift-moving narrative.

Perhaps Martelle’s biggest contribution to Lincoln lore is his detailed examination of Corbett’s post-Booth life, which degenerated from national celebrity eventually to a forgotten, paranoid man whose own demise remains uncertain.

The new book has been receiving excellent reviews and praise, deservedly so. It is a worthy addition to the historiography of the Lincoln Assassination.

Scott Martelle is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times. He has written for the Detroit News and the Rochester Times-Union, among other publications. His previous books include Detroit: A Biography and The Admiral and the Ambassador. He lives in Irvine, California. Find out more at

The Madman and the Assassin: The Strange Life of Boston Corbett, the Man who Killed John Wilkes Booth (Chicago Review Press, April 2015), ISBN 9781613730188, 244 pages, 6″x9″, hardback with dust jacket, 12 black & white photographs, annotated with end notes.


* The York County Heritage Trust will soon be closing its multi-year special exhibition on the Civil War in York County, “The Fiery Trial.” Make sure you check it out before YCHT replaces it with a new themed exhibit. The museum is located at 250 E. Market Street in downtown York.

* Multiple award-winning author Scott Mingus will be presenting a PowerPoint talk on “Abraham Lincoln & York County” on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church, 243 Hellam Street, Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. The hour-long talk is free to the public and all are welcome as we remember the end of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the Lincoln Administration. Refreshments will be served. Mingus will have his Civil War books for sale, including his new 48-page booklet Confederate Calamity: J.E.B. Stuart’s Cavalry Ride Through York County, Pa. (only $5!).