Monday, April 27, 2015

"The Avenger of Lincoln" - A Patent Medicine Connection

This post originally appeared in 2012 as the last in a 5-part series on the W. W. Gavitt Medical Co. of Topeka, Kansas.  It is re-posted on the 150th anniversary of the death of John Wilkes Booth, who was shot by cavalryman Boston Corbett - a review of a very recent book on Corbett is also added.

Boston Corbett Who Killed the Assassin of Lincoln
Selling Patent Medicine

- (Fort Wayne, IN, Sentinel - August 31, 1901)

In this post on Topeka's W. W. Gavitt Medical Company, I relate an interesting story that connects the Gavitt company to the Civil War, specifically the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the hunt for John Wilkes Booth.

Recall from Part I that the Gavitt company relied on "jobbers" - that is, agents, to sell their medicines door-to-door - and gave particular attention to enlisting the support of Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R., the leading Union Civil War veterans' organization) leaders and ministers.

Imagine then how pleased Gavitt must have been, then, to learn that Boston Corbett - the man who shot Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, when Booth was finally cornered in a burning barn - was one of his salesman!

Except that he wasn't. Which makes it a story as interesting (if not more so) than if he was!

First, some details about Corbett, whose life after that event was tragic:

After being discharged from the army in August 1865, Corbett went returned to his pre-war occupation of being a hatter, moving from Boston to Connecticut to New Jersey. For reasons unknown (although some speculate it may have been due to mercury poisoning, a chemical which was used in hat-making at the time), he began to display erratic behaviour, such as threatening fellow veterans at a reunion in Ohio in 1875. In 1878, Corbett moved to Concordia, Kansas, and - owing to his fame as Booth's killer - was appointed assistant doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka. He again displayed erratic and threatening behaviour, brandishing a revolver when the house was in session. He was arrested and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane. On May 26, 1888, he escaped from the asylum. He stayed briefly with a friend in Kansas, telling him that he intended to go to Mexico; one theory holds that Corbett settled in Hinckley, Minnesota, and is presumed to have died in the "Great Hinckley Fire" of September 1, 1894.

However, in the late summer of 1901, newspaper articles around the country carried reports that Boston Corbett was not dead at all, but rather a "jobber" for W. W. Gavvitt Medical Co., selling his medicines door-to-door in Texas an Oklahoma (avoiding Kansas as he was an escapee from the asylum).

Typical were these headlines in newspapers from Indian, Iowa, and Kansas:

The Avenger of Lincoln a Traveling Salesman
for a Firm in Topeka Kansas


Works for Topeka Firm
He Was Recently Reported Dead
But Had Only Escaped From an Insane Asylum
Was a Religious Fanatic

According to the newspaper reports:

"He worked for the Gavitts a long time before they associated him with the man who shot Booth. Finally they suspected his identity and he acknowledged that hewas Boston Corbett in a letter written to the firm some months ago. W. W. Gavitt says he is an excellent salesman and that he has always made money for himself and the firm."

There is a an excellent summary of what happened next in a discussion group thread at the website,

"The record is not clear whether Gavitt fed information about Boston Corbett to the salesman, or whether Gavitt drew the information from him. James O. Hall always maintained that Gavitt provided the facts and the drummer soaked them up. By the turn of the 20th Century the newspapers picked up the tale and it was soon stated that the real Boston Corbett was still alive. They also mentioned that he would be entitled to receive a pile of pension money.

Eventually, John Corbett was put in touch with Judge George A. Huron, the Topeka-based guardian of Boston Corbett’s estate. Huron had been trying to find out what happened to Boston Corbett after his 1888 escape and disappearance. Huron and John Corbett wrote for quite a while and Corbett finally admitted that he was the object of his search. Huron promised to help Corbett get the back pension. He tried to get Corbett to come to Topeka, but Corbett stated that he was worried that he would be returned to the asylum. Corbett stated that he would come to Gavitt’s home office, but kept finding excuses for not coming to Topeka.

Huron soon became suspicious of the indentification, however. The real Boston Corbett was literate and wrote in a fine hand; the drummer could barely string together a full sentence and his spelling was very poor. Corbett was vague on some of the details of his life in Kansas, and glossed over the story of his past. Huron pressed the case, getting Corbett to sign an official affidavit as part of the pension application. In the dead of a harsh winter, Huron and a lawman travelled to Texas to confront Corbett. What they found was a large, tall, broad shouldered man. He was much different from the slight former cavalryman. He was also several years younger than Boston Corbett would have been.

John Corbett was arrested for attempted pension fraud, tried and sentenced to the new U.S. Prison in Atlanta. He served several years and dropped from sight after he was released from jail."

[Note: The story was also the subject of a short article in a 1991 issue of Civil War Time Illustrated]

So, the Gavitt salesman was not Boston Corbett after all, but it's still an interesting story and an example of how patent medicine firms would use any kindof publicity to increase their sales!

Corbett is the subject of a recent (April 2015) and very good biography, which covers the Gavitt and pension fraud angle very well - the book is: The Madman and the Assassin: The Strange Life of Boston Corbett, the Man Who Killed John Wilkes Booth and my review is below:

4/5 stars

"Boston Corbett is a character, and no mistake." - Cleveland Leader, Sept 6, 1865

Thank you to the kind folks at Chicago Review Press for the review copy.

"The Madman and the Assassin" is an interesting book about an important player in the saga of the Lincoln Assassination: cavalryman Boston Corbett, who shot and mortally Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, who was cornered in a burning Virginia barn.

Honestly, I was prepared to give the book only 3 stars based on the first 2/3 of the book - as with many other 19th century Americans, details on Corbett's early life are understandably hard to come by, but the author does well in sketching his pre-war background and his chapter on Corbett's experience at Andersonville is very strong; Civil War enthusiasts may grow impatient (as I did) with the middle 1/3 of the book, if they are at all familiar with the tale of Booth's plot, the assassination, and/or the manhunt for Booth; that said, the middle third - with nary a mention of Corbett for 60 pages - is written in tight and lively prose, and will appeal to those who aren't as familiar with the story. His forays into tangential subjects - hat making, the Great Awakening, are interesting and short enough that they do not interrupt the flow of the book.

The last 1/3 really makes the book and easily earns it 4 stars overall - a very strong and sympathetic (but not hagiographic) look at a haunted man, and really tragic in the description of his ailments (most brought on from his imprisonment at Andersonville), his own paranoia, his unemployment, and bullying in the press. Among the more interesting aspects were the lengths he had to go to secure a well-deserved pension, even w/ the aid of some powerful political allies - pity the poor veteran who did not have them and had to deal with the bureaucracy of the Pension Bureau. The tale of Corbett's disappearance and supposed re-appearance is the stuff of (incredible) fiction, but is well-documented and well written and must-reading. The descriptions of his periodic reunions with former comrades are also interesting.

Martelle makes great use of Corbett's pension records, period newspapers, and especially the Corbett-Huron Collection at the Kansas State Historical Society to bring the story to life, and his endnotes provide additional illumination (particularly the disappointment in not being able to access long-sealed medical records).

A highly recommended look at the tragic postwar life of a Civil War veteran.

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