When you think of the "Mad Hatter," you get visions of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and/or Batman's nemesis in DC Comics and the big screen, but the term "mad hatter" originated from the phrase, "as mad as a hatter." This distinction comes from a time in history when mercury was used in the process of curing felt used in some hats, and when the hat makers breathed the fumes for extended periods of time, it damaged the workers' neurological systems, and that damage caused some extreme cases of mental illness, including confused speech and distorted vision.
Before Boston Corbett (man who killed John Wilkes Booth) became a Union Soldier, he worked for years as a hatter, and began demonstrating some emotional problems, which according to some historians, became worse when he lost his young wife and a stillborn child.
Corbett claimed he later found salvation through Christ as he listened to a Salvation Army preacher, while travelling through Boston, but his fanaticism took hold and he supposedly let his hair grow long in an attempt to look more like some pictures of Christ he had seen. He also began preaching on the street-corners of Boston and would verbally chastise men for cursing. Before finding salvation, Corbett used his real first name, which was Thomas, but changed it to Boston, because that is where he said he had been born again.
His mental state apparently caused him to commit an almost unbelievable act to himself after being tempted by prostitutes. According to many accounts, he left his street-corner, went to his room and castrated himself. He then went to a prayer meeting and possible had dinner before going to a hospital for treatment from his self inflicted wound.
When the Civil War began in 1861, even though Corbett exhibited traits of emotional instability, he was allowed to join the Union Army. There are many accounts of his mental problems during the war, but the Union needed every man that was able to fight. When the surrender of the Confederacy came in 1865, Corbett, who suffered as a prisoner of war in the infamous Confederate prison of Andersonville, returned to the Union Army, and was part of the detachment of soldiers who went in search of John Wilkes Booth, who they allegedly found hiding in a barn. According to Corbett, he killed Booth through a crack in the barn wall when Booth raised his weapon to shoot at Federal Troops. He did this in violation of an order to bring Booth back alive for questioning.
Even though Corbett violated orders, the sentiment of the American people was that he was a hero; therefore, he was not court marshaled, but received only a small part of the reward offered for Booth. After Corbett left the military, his behavior allegedly became even more irrational. His story does not end here, nor does some of the legends associated with John Wilkes Booth. Steve Hass, a friend of this writer, has presented some very interesting information about John Wilkes Booth. Steve researches Civil War related stories, and has given me a bit of information that I think the readers will find fascinating.
As far as the meaning "Mad Hatter," or "mad as a hatter," you now have a new image to visualize other than a fairy book tale or DC Comic character; you have "Boston Corbett."
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