From fame to fire

The soldier who shot President Lincoln’s assassin is thought to have died in 1894 Hinckley Fire.




3 minute read

Boston Corbett historical photo
Boston Corbett (Library of Congress photo, via Wikipedia)

“Hell hath overtaken me at last,
the world divided, tinder and ash.
Limbs lopped from the pines have made a pyre
And now the very air has come afire …
in the ascendant inferno bright
soon I will be an angel of light.”

– “Boston Corbett dies, alone and forgotten, in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894

The strange story of the strange man who killed John Wilkes Booth apparently came to an end along the banks of Minnesota’s Kettle River, 29 years after Thomas “Boston” Corbett shot Booth in a Virginia barn. Corbett fled to the north woods after escaping from a Kansas asylum, where he had been committed for waving a gun around in the Kansas legislature.

He is thought to have settled and spent the final part of his life in the forests of Hinckley, Minn.  The popular Hinckley restaurant and doughnut shop Tobies has a bit about Corbett on their website, reporting that Corbett “settled in a small cabin just east of town, earning a living supplying venison for a logging camp near the Kettle River.”

Burying the dead after the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894
"Burying the dead, 90 in one trench." Minnesota Historical Society photo.

On September 1, 1894, fire consumed 200,000 acres of land around Hinckley that had been cut over by the logging companies, leaving brush littered across the landscape, a vast tinderbox. There is a “Corbett, Thos, Age 57, residence, Hinckley; burned in the woods north-east of Hinckley, near Kettle River” in the official roll of the at least 418 victims of the fire.

Corbett probably suffered from mercury poisoning. A hat-maker by trade, like Alice in Wonderland’s “Mad Hatter,” the toxic metal had attacked his mind even before the Civil War, causing delusions and dangerous behavior. In 1858, he castrated himself to save himself from the temptation of Boston’s prostitutes.

He served much of the war in the Union Army and was then in the party of soldiers that hunted the conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre. Corbett claimed God’s hand aimed his gun when he shot Booth through the slats in the side of a barn where Booth was hiding and which the soldiers had just set on fire.

The Kettle River today
The Kettle River 118 years after the Hinckley Fire (St. Croix State Park)

Although he was briefly arrested for shooting Booth, instead of bringing him in alive as the party was ordered to do, Corbett was eventually released and given reward money. He seems to have ridden the celebrity that came with his role in history for some time, but then wandered West, where he got appointed doorman of the Kansas House of Representatives. That was going well until the gun waving. He spent a year in a Topeka asylum before stealing a horse and escaping.

No further record of Corbett’s life is known, except for the stories floating around the Kettle River, and his name on that registry of fire victims.

“And though I flew so far, so north, so fast
Hell hath overtaken me at last.
And now, sap pops and great pines crack
the world caves into ashes, smoke is black.
Abba, let this cup of anguish pass from me,
if that be Your will. If not, let it be.”

– “Boston Corbett dies, alone and forgotten, in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894

A search party finds a family killed in the Hinckley Fire of 1894.
"Search party finds an entire family in the ruins, Hinckley fire." Minnesota Historical Society photo.

More about the 1894 Hinckley Fire on Wikipedia.


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From fame to fire