The Guy Who Killed the Guy Who Killed Lincoln

The Guy Who Killed the Guy Who Killed Lincoln April 29, 2015

150 years ago this past Sunday, Boston Corbett killed the assassin John Wilkes Booth at a farm in Virginia. According to this terrific piece in the Washingtonian, the backstory of the guy who killed the guy who killed Lincoln is suffused with religion.

File:Sergent Boston Corbett, 16th N.Y. Cav. Who shot J. Wilkes Booth, April 26, 1865. (2719965829).jpg
Boston Corbett — courtesy of the George Eastman House Collection

Corbett’s life began innocuously enough. He made hats for a living and got married. But then in his mid-20s, his wife died during childbirth. Corbett couldn’t recover from the tragedy and turned to drink to soothe his despair. His life seemed to be headed nowhere. But then he found redemption from a street evangelist. Corbett began to frequent street revivals, yelling “Glory to God!” and “Come to Christ!” He sobered up, got baptized by Methodist preacher, and grew out his beard in order to look like Jesus.

He also followed Jesus’s instructions—literally. In the summer of 1858, when he was passed by some leering prostitutes. He did not pay for sex, but he nonetheless found himself “aroused” by the attention. Following Matthew 19:12 (“there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”), he went home, and, using some scissors, snipped his vas deferens and removed his testicles. He got help at Massachusetts General Hospital only after he went to a prayer meeting, ate dinner, and took a light stroll through the streets of Boston.

Corbett maintained his religious zeal through the war. Officers barely convinced him to cut his “Jesus locks.” He rebuked officers that resorted to profanity: “Colonel, don’t you know you are breaking God’s law?” He reenlisted three times, survived Andersonville, and volunteered to hunt down Lincoln’s assassin. “O Lord, lay not innocent blood to our charge,” the 33-year-old sergeant prayed at a church service days after the assassination, “but bring the guilty speedily to punishment.”

The hunters were under strict instructions not to kill Booth. Government officials were desperate to unravel the conspiracy. They wanted to interrogate Booth. Corbett didn’t care what they wanted. He aimed carefully at a crack in the barn and shot Booth dead. Why? Because he was an instrument of God’s justice. “God Almighty directed me to.” Boston Corbett was a true believer. He didn’t kill for the crown; he killed for God.

You might think that the incarnational emphasis of Christian faith might result in empathy toward those who think differently. And sometimes it does, as Scott Appleby describes in several inspiring chapters on religious peacemaking in The Ambivalence of the Sacred. But sometimes true religion results in self-castration, violence, murder, demonization of enemies, and the defiance of reasonable rule of law.

Historians are increasingly acknowledging the religious nature of the Civil War. The war’s context included split denominations (Goen’s Divided Churches, Divided Nation), Southern preachers convinced that the Bible sanctioned slavery (Noll’s Theological Crisis of the Civil War), religiously suffused rituals of death on both sides (Faust’s This Republic of Suffering), and Lincoln’s theologically profound second inaugural. The killing of Booth by Corbett was one of the last volleys in a national conflict involving millions of true believers. The tragic irony, as Lincoln himself pointed out: They “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”

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  • I admire a guy who sticks to his convictions. I’m glad that when the time came to obey what he felt God wanted him to do versus what the government told him to do that he followed God. I wish more people did what they believed God told them to instead of what government, media, their boss, or their friends tell them to. Hopefully he was also willing to endure whatever punishment the government felt to impose on him.

    If you are going to obey God over man, you need to realize that you will usually face stiff consequences. This guy seemed to understand that.

  • evangelinebrabant

    I hate what he did. We needed to know what happened and by whom.

    Booth did the south a huge diservice by killing Lincoln, whose plans for the Reconstruction would have avoided many of the subsequent problems that continued to divide the nation for decades.

    Furthermore, with the attacks on two cabinet members that same night, the nation had a right to know who planned it, who was involved.

    The other person never disciplined at all, was Parker, the guard who was supposed to be watching the door to the box where Lincoln sat. Broken lock, guard gone.

  • Corbett did not care to listen to God’s word (or perhaps, like most, he never read it)