The Death of John Wilkes Booth

One funny old book that I found for a quarter is Great Epochs in American History Described by Famous Writers from Columbus to Roosevelt, edited, with introductions and explanatory notes by Francis W. Halsey, volume IX, The Reconstruction Period.

There’s a great account of Charles Dickens second visit to America in 1868, when he gave sold-out readings up and down the East Coast that were so popular that people camped out all night to get tickets and speculators hired as many as 50 men to wait in line for the six tickets allowed each customer.

There’s also an account of the death of John Wilkes Booth written by Ray Stannard Baker for McClure’s Magazine in May of 1897.

Booth was trapped by 50 Union soldiers in a barn in Virginia and refused to come out, even after they set the barn on fire. Although the soldiers were under orders to take Booth alive, Sergeant Boston Corbett shot him through a crack in the wall. The shot pierced Booth’s neck and killed him within a few minutes.

“Tell mother I died for my country,” Booth said as he died. “I did what I thought was best.”

Corbett was charged with disobeying orders, but charges were dropped by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Colonel L.C. Baker, the uncle of the author, was charged with disposing of Booth’s body so that it could not be recovered by his Confederate friends. Baker and another officer took the body and rowed down the Potomac watched by hundreds of people lined up on shore.

Once they were out of sight of the crowd, they rowed back and buried the body in a cell in an old pentitentiary. Booth’s friends actually went out and dragged the river, but naturally they couldn’t find the body.

Later the body was moved to Philadelphia and interred there.

A footnote on Sergeant Corbett. He had been a hatter as a young man and the exposure to mercury used in that trade may account for the fact that when he was 26, before he joined the army, he castrated himself with a pair of scissors.

Much later, after leaving the army, he lived in a hole in the ground in Kansas and once reportedly told a group of farmers engaged in the national pastime, “It’s wicked to play baseball on the Lord’s day. Don’t do it.”

He later became doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives, but when he thought a group of representatives were making fun of the opening prayer and threatened them with a pistol, he was locked up in the Topeka Asylum for the Insane. The following year someone left a horse at the entrance to the asylum and Corbett jumped onto it and rode off to parts unknown.

Some say he became a travelling medicine salesman in Oklahoma, but no one knows and few care.