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.
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.”
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.”