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Was John Wilkes Booth Killed by the Mad Hatter?

Updated on August 1, 2018
Gerry Glenn Jones profile image

Gerry Glenn Jones, a former police officer, has written over 650 published articles since his new career as a freelance writer began in 2012

What is the "Mad Hatter" illness

When you think of the "Mad Hatter," you get visions of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and/or Batman's nemesis in DC Comics and the big screen, but the term "mad hatter" originated from the phrase, "as mad as a hatter." This distinction comes from a time in history when mercury was used in the process of curing felt used in some hats, and when the hat makers breathed the fumes for extended periods of time, it damaged the workers' neurological systems, and that damage caused some extreme cases of mental illness, including confused speech and distorted vision.

Boston Corbett - Date between circa 1860 and circa 1865
Boston Corbett - Date between circa 1860 and circa 1865 | Source

Did Boston Corbett Have This Illness

The "mad hatter's' affliction may have seriously affected the mental state of Boston Corbett who worked for years as a hatter and began demonstrating some emotional problems, which according to some historians, became worse when he lost his young wife and a stillborn child. His name might not be very well known if he hadn't been the soldier who shot and killed John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.

Corbett claimed that as a young man he found salvation through Christ as he listened to a Salvation Army preacher, while traveling through Boston, but his fanaticism took hold and he supposedly let his hair grow long in an attempt to look more like some pictures of Christ he had seen. He also began preaching on the street-corners of Boston and would verbally chastise men for cursing. Before finding salvation, Corbett used his real first name, which was Thomas, but changed it to Boston, because that is where he said he had been born again.

John Wilkes Booth - circa 1865
John Wilkes Booth - circa 1865 | Source

How Corbett Killed John Wilkes Booth

His mental state apparently caused him to commit an almost unbelievable act to himself after being tempted by prostitutes. According to many accounts, he left his street-corner, went to his room and castrated himself. He then went to a prayer meeting and possible had dinner before going to a hospital for treatment from his self-inflicted wound.

When the Civil War began in 1861, even though Corbett exhibited traits of emotional instability, he was allowed to join the Union Army. There are many accounts of his mental problems during the war, but the Union needed every man that was able to fight. When the surrender of the Confederacy came in 1865, Corbett, who suffered as a prisoner of war in the infamous Confederate prison of Andersonville, returned to the Union Army and was part of the detachment of soldiers who went in search of John Wilkes Booth, who they allegedly found hiding in a barn. According to Corbett, he killed Booth through a crack in the barn wall when Booth raised his weapon to shoot at Federal Troops. He did this in violation of an order to bring Booth back alive for questioning.

Boston Corbett, half-length portrait, seated 1865
Boston Corbett, half-length portrait, seated 1865 | Source

No one is Sure What Happened to Boston Corbett

Even though Corbett violated orders, the sentiment of the American people was that he was a hero; therefore, he was not court marshaled but received only a small part of the reward offered for Booth. After Corbett left the military, his behavior allegedly became even more irrational. His story does not end here, nor does some of the legends associated with John Wilkes Booth.

As far as the meaning "Mad Hatter," or "mad as a hatter," you now have a new image to visualize other than a fairy book tale or DC Comic character; you have "Boston Corbett." Also, a special thanks goes out to Steve Hass, who presented some of the information about Boston Corbett.

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    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 months ago

      Thank you for the details and analysis.

    • Gerry Glenn Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Gerry Glenn Jones 

      2 months ago from Somerville, Tennessee

      Some believe that Mrs. Lincoln suffered from anemia most of her life and the loss of Edward in 1850 and of Willie in 1962, really pushed her to the breaking point. When Abraham was killed in 1865, she really lost it, and her son Tad had her placed in an insane asylum in Batavia, Illinois, but a later hearing, caused her release. I think Abraham always suffered from depression, and it was greatly exacerbated by the war.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 months ago

      Did the Lincoln's mental issues begin after they lost their son or was there evidence of them being off before that?

    • Gerry Glenn Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Gerry Glenn Jones 

      2 months ago from Somerville, Tennessee

      It sure seemed to be, which included Mrs. Lincoln, and actually Abraham, who suffered from clinical depression. I guess if I had the weight on my shoulders that he did, I would probably have gone insane.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 months ago

      Thank you for posting and giving the additional information. It seemed there was quite a bit of insanity revolving around Lincoln.

    • Gerry Glenn Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Gerry Glenn Jones 

      2 months ago from Somerville, Tennessee

      That's right Robert, and he later disappeared, and no one is sure what his fate was. He had also castrated himself for having feelings of lust before he became a soldier, and he almost bled to death. Thanks for reading my article, Robert!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 months ago

      I knew about the "Man who killed John Wilkes Booth" had mental problems. I didn't know about it possibly being related to being a hat maker. In history class I learned he tried to shoot up a Legislature, I think, he missed everybody in the place. From there it was an insane asylum.

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley Marks 

      2 months ago from California

      Here's a great story. Mad as a hatter, indeed! It's quite the coincidence that he shot and killed JW Booth. Later!...

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 

      3 months ago from United States

      I picked it up at Dr. Mudd's house, which isn't too far from where we live, but I think you can get it in paperback just about anywhere books are sold, including Amazon. Since it's about Boothe, your man Boston is featured in part of it. Like your article, it's a fun, energetic read. I think you'd like it. It's by James Swanson.

    • Gerry Glenn Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Gerry Glenn Jones 

      3 months ago from Somerville, Tennessee

      Thanks so much! I haven't read "Manhunt." Where can I find it?

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 

      3 months ago from United States

      This is an extremely interesting and well-written article! Thanks so much. Have you read Manhunt?

    • Gerry Glenn Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Gerry Glenn Jones 

      4 months ago from Somerville, Tennessee

      Thank you so much Alicia; I love sharing history!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting article. I've learned more about American history by reading it, which I'm always happy to do.

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