Monday, March 12, 2012

Topeka's Medicine Man - W. W. Gavitt - Part 5 of 5 - Civil War Connection!

Boston Corbett Who Killed the Assassin of Lincoln
Selling Patent Medicine

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

In this final 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.

First, 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; however, Corbett is thought to have actually 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 was 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 (here) 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 forms would use any kindof publicity to increase their sales!

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