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

May 18, 2011

Killer of the assassin Booth,
Boston Corbett dies,
alone and forgotten,
in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894

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.

I have seen nails coagulated;
massed in their barrels. Glory to God,
I shall not stoop in the boiling creek
this day to save myself a second more
of this impoverished earthly realm.
Oh Lord-er, I come home.

I was London-born; delivered here
to these proud shores. It was in Boston
I was born to Christ. I took the name
and shouted in halls and on the docks;
and in the Fulton Street meetings,
I was called “The Glory to God Man.”

Other names they had for me as well:
“The Little Sergeant, “the Mad Hatter,”
(quicksilver vapor gave me the shakes)
“the Avenger of our Fallen Saint.”
My head was clear. I raised my rifle.

T’was Providence instructed me —
he raised his carbine and meant to use it on the boys.
Detectives meant to burn him out,
but Doherty was paralyzed.
I acted. Were there were orders not to fire
I heard them not, attending as I was
to the supreme sublime music
of a Higher Authority.

And Stanton, in the end, agreed.
“The rebel is dead—the patriot lives.”

And is it not made plain? My bullet
traced the same path as the actor’s did
through Old Abraham’s spine and head —
does that not proclaim direction
by the divine? It was His hand
that shot John Wilkes Booth dead.

(“Useless, useless,” he whimpered at the end,
as Satan reached out a cold and claiming paw.)

I took my money and minor fame
that fed me for some years.
My needs are few, reduced somewhat
by actions rash but necessary.
It takes mettle to follow the law
and if thine own eye offend thee
you are to pluck it out or risk
His wrath. I made myself an eunch
with a shears to stop the callings
of Satan, that fused up from the groin.
I ate in peace a heavy meal
and went to a prayer meeting
before the doctor stitched me up.

I always knew and never shirked
what duties were laid out for me.
After Sumter, I enlisted —
three times in all. I killed seven
Mosby’s Rangers before they got me.
They would have shot me down had not
the Gray Ghost himself not seen in my eyes
a hard and holy glint. Instead, he sent
me on to Andersonville.

Where God was good to me.
He spared my life then, only one other
from the fourteen brought in by Mosby.
My example, my prayer-ers,
brought a score more into His hands.
Even the rebel captain asked
for my prayers, and my forgiveness.
He shook my hand, when I was exchanged.

Booth was never a soldier like me.
He was a secesh spy, a coward.

Booth went up to Charles Town
Costumed as a Richmond Gray
To see them hang Old John Brown
To see the martyr sway.

But Brown was serene and Heaven-bound
When away the trap door fell
Booth barely kept his breakfast down
For he caught the stench of Hell

As the angels lifted up John Brown
And the slavers cheered and cried
And the Devil drove his dray around
To give Wilkes Booth a ride

Booth, they say, was handsome — and vain.
By the scaffold he posed, and in him
I fear was seeded some vile hope
of infamy, and warped glory.
I know not but what I saw —
I heard infernal falsity
in his pretty mocking voice and saw
the devil dancing in his eyes.

In my way, I obliged him of his wish
to die like a soldier. In Garrett’s barn,
I was the retributive angel.

(And so now fire engulfs this world;
where is the man with nerve and mercy
enough to deliver me from this?
I will not use my pistol on myself.)

After I killed him there were, of course,
crowds and even women who would have
cared for me, and cooked my supper.
But with admirers, came the cranks
and Satan sent ’round Booth’s ghost
to murder me. Having dispatched him once
I feared neither specter nor
his Secret Order of his avengers,
though ever-prudent I slept with pistol
by my bed and never walked the streets
without my guns on either hip
and sometimes a shotgun besides.

I preached in New Jersey for a time,
but the clamor was too much for me.
So I went West, to win more souls,
to Bloody Kansas, and in the dust
I dug a home outside Concordia.

As an honest man, my name was known.
I preached some, when invited, but
I kept mainly to myself, distrusting
the motives of the milling mob.
His word I yet preached; Base ball
is a profane game, it despoils
the Sabbath. I will not have it.

I wore my guns for all to see —
those who bear false witness will know
how it feels to have a weapon leveled
at their breast. They dropped the charges
Hallelujah, and, in 1887,
made me assistant doorkeeper
at the Topeka Capitol.

As  always, it was duty first —
I went ’round for the heretics,
the police were called to subdue me.
They took me before the probate judge
and dragged me to the asylum,
Andersonville redux. I prayed

And my Lord put  a pony in my way.
I helped myself and rode to Thatcher
in Neodesha; I knew him
from the prison camp. A good man,
with a wife I did not much trust.
I left the horse with the livery
(no thief am I) with instructions
for them to contact the asylum
a day or two hence. To Thatcher’s wife
I murmured “Mexico,” not quite a lie,
I might have gone. His hand guided me

To these woods.
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.


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