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journalism

Where my work has appeared

The Madman and the Assassin: The Strange Life of Boston Corbett, the Man who Killed John Wilkes Booth

New book to be published April 1.
The Madman and the Assassin is the fascinating story of Boston Corbett, the Union cavalryman who killed John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln's assassin.

The killing of Booth made an instant celebrity of Corbett, and his peculiarities made him the object of fascination and derision. Corbett was an English immigrant, a silk-hat finisher hatter by trade, where he was exposed to mercury at a time when no one knew the damage the element can do (including causing mental problems - thus the phrase, "mad as a hatter").

A devout Christian and evangelist who lost his wife at a young age to illness, Corbett castrated himself so that his sexual urges would not distract him from serving God. When the Civil War broke out, he was one of the first volunteers to go off to fight, a path that would in time land him in the notorious Andersonville prison camp, and then in the squadron that cornered Booth in a Virginia barn.

The Madman and the Assassin is the first full-length look at the life of Corbett, a man who was something of a prototypical modern American: Thrust into the spotlight by happenstance, he endured an unwelcome transformation from anonymity to celebrity before descending into madness on a remote Kansas homestead.

What others have to say about The Madman and the Assassin


"The Madman and the Assassin is a fascinating look at Boson Corbett, an eccentric who appears at one of the critical junctures in American history. Scott Martelle
deftly brings Corbett's 19th century world back to life in his compelling tale of murder and madness." Julia Flynn Siler, New York Times bestselling author of The House of Mondavi and Lost Kingdom.

“With the journalist’s eye for a telling detail, a historian’s ability to unearth an untold tale, and a writer’s keen sense of drama, Scott Martelle renders a fascinating portrait of one of the oddest figures to walk across the pages of Civil War history. To the reader’s good fortune, Martelle separates myth from the man and provides a sympathetic, engaging, and authentic portrait of the soldier who killed one of America’s most famous assassins.” —James McGrath Morris, author of Pulitzer and The Rose Man of Sing Sing

NY Post March 29, 2015
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"After receiving a portion of the reward money for bringing Booth to justice, Boston Corbett disappeared from public view and died under mysterious circumstances. Now Martelle delivers the first details many Americans have ever heard about the Union soldier who might be called the Jack Ruby of the 19th century. An abolitionist who joined the 16th New York cavalry, he was in Virginia with his company during the manhunt for Lincoln’s assassin and killed Booth in a barn."

Kansas City Star interview, March 29, 2015
(excerpt) Corbett was “odd from the get-go,” says Scott Martelle, author of the new biography “The Madman and the Assassin.” Martelle speaks Wednesday at Rainy Day Books in Fairway.

What contemporaries called Corbett’s “peculiarities” ranged from mild to alarming. If an acquaintance uttered a sudden curse, Corbett sometimes would fall to his knees for a quick prayer of forgiveness. In 1858, in an act that he apparently believed would stem his libido, Corbett removed his testicles with a scissors.

“He was still a healthy young man with normal sexual urges,” said Martelle. “But he saw them as distractions from what he saw as his life’s mission.”

A month in a Boston hospital followed, but Corbett survived.

Buffalo NewsMarch 29, 2015

"With the 150th anniversary of the nightmare of the Lincoln assassination just weeks away, Civil War historians have scoured for new angles for books and articles on this defining event in our nation’s history. Here are four notable ones.

"The most bizarre by far is Scott Martelle’s little biography of the man who killed assassin Booth.

"That’s right. Not another biography of Booth, but the story of a sickly, scurvy-ridden and mentally disturbed Union Army sergeant who shot Booth at close range and later claimed the hand of God had steered the white-hot projectile to its target.

"The name of the man nearly lost to history is Boston Corbett, a naturalized American citizen from England. Author Martelle is making a career of little-known historic figures. His last book was a delightful little work on the American ambassador to France who dug up John Paul Jones’ bones from under a Parisian laundry."

Library Journal
★ 03/​01/​2015
Some men, such as Charles Gridley, instructed to fire on Manila by Admiral Dewey during the Spanish-American War, are footnotes to history. Boston Corbett (1832–94), the "madman" of the title, who, like Jack Ruby (Lee Harvey Oswald's killer), is in that exclusive category of men who shot presidential assassins. Corbett is also the subject of this impressive book by Martelle (The Admiral and the Ambassador; The Fear Within), whose research draws on archival and secondary sources, including 19th-century newspapers. In April 1865, Corbett, a soldier in the 16th New York Cavalry, was part of the search for John Wilkes Booth, who was presumed to be hiding in the Maryland countryside after shooting Abraham Lincoln. The cavalry found the barn where Wilkes was hiding and set it ablaze. When Booth raised his gun toward the soldiers, Corbett fired and killed Booth. Later, after moving to Kansas, where he endured minor fame, Corbett's behavior led to his commitment to an asylum. Martelle concludes with Corbett's mysterious death. VERDICT History buffs will enjoy this fast-paced, well-told addition to the literature on Lincoln and the Civil War.—Michael O. Eshleman, Bloomington, IN

A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

Currently an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, my work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.