Summary

Conflict Period:
Civil War (Union) 1
Branch:
Army 1
Rank:
Major 1
Birth:
01 Jul 1837 1
Albany NY 1
Death:
August 14, 1911 , 1
Hildesheim Lower Saxony, Germany 1
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Personal Details

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Full Name:
Henry Reed Rathbone 1
Birth:
01 Jul 1837 1
Albany NY 1
Death:
August 14, 1911 , 1
Hildesheim Lower Saxony, Germany 1
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Civil War (Union) 1

Branch:
Army 1
Rank:
Major 1

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Stories

This was new to me: the night Abraham Lincoln was shot, there was actually another couple in the private box with the Lincolns at Ford’s Theatre, and it turns out that their story is even more gruesome than the Lincons’ story. In fact, it seems that anyone who was in that box that night met bizarre or early death. On the occasion of the death of Major Henry Rathbone, the last survivor from the box, the Sunday Magazine reviewed the events of that day, and the fates of all who were there.

On April 14, 1865, there were four people seated in the box at the theatre. “The President sat in the corner nearest the audience, Mrs. Lincoln next to him; Miss Clara Harris sat near Mrs. Lincoln, and behind her young Major Rathbone.” The latter two were step-siblings who had fallen in love. “The President and Mrs. Lincoln had a warm liking for the pair, and had invited them to share the box.”

After the play began, John Wilkes Booth entered from the ante-room adjoining the box and fired his shot into the President’s head. Rathbone lunged at him, but Booth slipped away, shouted “The South is avenged!” (according to this article, but “Sic semper tyrannus!” according to most sources) and jumped over the box. An actress on stage named Laura Keene urged everyone to remain calm. Clara Harris, “from the box, called to her to bring water. She ran and got some and flew up the stairs to the box.” And now there were five people in the box: the President, his wife, the young couple in love, and Laura Keene.

Here were five people shut up together with the crime. The curse was upon them all. Not one of them — and they all had fame, wealth, happiness, and love apparently within their grasp — failed to come to a tragic or untimely end.

All the world knows that Lincoln died early the next morning, without having regained consciousness. His wife was for a long time prostrated. For several weeks she was confined to her bed. Then she bestirred herself so far as to go over the personal effects of her husband, giving mementos to his closest friends. When this duty was done she returned to Illinois to spend the rest of her days in melancholy.

Not much has been told of Mrs Lincoln’s after life — there was not much, for that matter, to tell. No wife could ever have really recovered from the shock of such a tragedy, and Mrs. Lincoln rallied even more slowly than was hoped. She never came out altogether from the cloud, and as her years increased her melancholy grew. She had a horror of meeting people, yet in her disordered brain the idea remained that there were imperative social duties that must be attented to. She would order gowns and concern herself wearily with preparations for some phantom function. Then the gowns would be sent away, unworn, and she would brood until again she felt that she must attend to her duties, and the same dreary business would begin again. Thus she ended her days, blighted from the moment that Booth stood a few feet behind her chair and took his aim.

Mrs. Lincoln lived until she was 63, but towards the end of her life she was suicidal and delusional. After one suicide attempt, her son Robert had her institutionalized. See Wikipedia for more details. But first read on for the fates of the others in the box. It gets worse.

Miss Keene was a woman of stern stuff, “as fitted,” said one who knew her “to act a part in tragedy off the stage as on.” Self control was natural to her. Alone of all the people in the theatre she had known what to do and had done it. But strong natures do not fail to suffer from such repression.

Her daughter was at school near Washington, and the next day hastened to her mother. “As I spoke to her,” says the girl, “she trembled from head to foot. She could not speak. To hearten her I said, ‘Mother, where is your old-time courage?’ But it was no use.” Laura Keene had received her death blow, too. She lived, it is true, for several years and worked hard and successfully, as she always did, but the nerve had gone. She could no longer stand the strain that she had once borne bravely and, worn out, she died at the age of forty-four, at the height of her career, another victim of Wilkes Booth. [She died of tuberculosis.]

The two lovers, Miss Harris and Major Rathbone, left the theatre and made their way through the frenzied crowd on the streets broken with grief and shock. But they had each other, they had wealth and position and all the good things of life. They never thought as they turned from the place of crime and death that over them hung a fate more awful than they had seen befall him they held the best of men…

Major Rathbone was appointed Consul in Germany and the pair lived as happily as had been prophesied. But the husband added to his devotion to his wife a great and perfectly unreasonable jealousy. As time went on he developed fits of temper, enough to make their friends class him as “peculiar.” Perhaps they added: “And it seems to grow on him,” but none were prepared for the tragedy that followed. One day the news came from Germany that Mr. Rathbone had killed his wife and committed suicide. Nobody believed it. It was some other person or name; everybody knew the devotion of the Rathbones. Then official documents came, and there was no longer any doubt. Henry Rathbone had indeed murdered his wife, but thought he was thought to be dying from his own wound he was not yet dead. The letter added that Mrs. Rathbone’s sister and the children had “escaped.”

Escaped what, asked everybody, horrified and puzzled. It was only after many delays that the full truth came to this country. Specialists had examined Rathbone, and declared that he had long been insane. It was not mere temper, but a disordered mind that his friends had noted for so many years. How long had he been insane? The experts could not say. But probably the murderer who stole into Lincoln’s box that night had brought madness to the young man, and a death unspeakably awful to the girl he loved…

Thus four persons who were bespattered by the blood Booth shed that night have found a tragic end, four persons who were not only innocent of all wrong-doing, but who had every gift a fortunate fate could bring. There remains the murderer, man gifted as few have been with beauty and charm and genius. Everybody loved Wilkes Booth. His friends could never believe that he acted on his own initiative in the matter of the conspiracy…

Booth fled the theater and made his way to a farm in Virginia, where he was eventually hunted down by the Union Army and shot on site. The soldier who killed him was named Boston Corbett. His story, too, took a tragic twist:

Not quite yet is the story of horror ended. The man who shot Booth, Boston Corbett, was popular with his fellow soldiers, deeply religious, but not, they said, without plenty of humor. He had kept up their spirits on many a hard march. He went to Kansas, was [afflicted] with homicidal mania, and died raving mad in an asylum, the last victim of the curse.

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

 

Even when you’re the president, it can sometimes be hard getting people to hang out with you. That’s the trouble Abraham Lincoln had on April 14, 1865. If he could have foreseen the events of that night, he probably wouldn’t have wanted to go to the theater either.

The Lincolns were originally set to attend the theater with General and Mrs. Grant but the general had business in Philadelphia and was pulled away. There was some scrambling to fill the hole in the party but Clara Harris, daughter of a prominent New York family, and her fiancé Henry Reed Rathbone were eventually selected. 

It was Rathbone who was the first line of defense after John Wilkes Booth performed his deadly act. The young major jumped to attack Booth but the sinister assassin used his knife to slash the major’s left arm open from elbow to shoulder. Sorely hurt, Rathbone made another attempt to stop Booth but was shrugged off. The assassin jumped from the box and made an easy escape out the back of the theater. Back in the box, Rathbone crumpled to the ground, weak from blood-loss, and Clara Harris and Mary Todd Lincoln began to scream.

The other theater goers, first alerted to the trouble by Booth making his noisy escape, were thrown completely into chaos when they saw what was happening in the box. Clara Harris was fairly covered with her finance’s blood as she tried to stop the bleeding with a handkerchief. Mrs. Lincoln was inconsolable, mistaking the major’s blood for her husband’s. The screaming from the box extended to the rest of the theater and the ‘doctors in the house’ were located and rushed to the president’s side.

The end of Abraham Lincoln is well recorded; he breathed his last at 7:22 AM the next day, April 15, 1865 in a house across the way, surrounded by loved ones and prominent citizens. The continuing tale of Clara Harris and Major Henry Reed Rathbone, however, is less well-known.

Clara Harris and Major Henry Reed Rathbone (Photo Source: Chicagohistory.org)Harris and Rathbone married in 1867 and had a total of three children. Rathbone never got over the assassination and blamed himself, suffering “physical ailments, constant fears, and terrible delusions” that worsened over the years. Clara Harris longed to leave him, but it was socially unacceptable at this time to divorce or separate.

The family ended up in Europe, partly for Rathbone’s work and party so he could seek treatment from Europe’s spas and doctors. It was in 1883 in Germany that the events of 1865 caught up with the tormented family. In the early dark hours of December 23, Rathbone walked into his wife’s bedroom and, after a brief exchange about their children, shot his wife. He then turned a knife on himself, managing to stab himself six times before the servants made it to the room. In a sick replication of the Lincoln assassination, the gunshot victim died and Rathbone survived his knife wounds. Again.

Clara Harris Rathbone was interred in a German cemetery and Major Henry Reed Rathbone was institutionalized in a German asylum for the criminally insane and stayed there for the rest of his life, suffering terribly from paranoid delusions. He died and was buried next to his wife in 1911. In 1952, in accordance with the cemetery’s policy of unvisited graves, the couple’s bodies were exhumed and cremated.

That ends the tragedy of Clara and Henry Rathbone, but there’s more to the story. After all, Clara Harris could wash the blood from her body, but not from her dress. What happened to dress that was, in her words, “saturated literally with blood”?

Clara Harris couldn’t bear to get rid of it or destroy it and simply placed in the back of her closet, hoping to forget it. But in 1866, to the day a year after Lincoln’s assassination, Harris awoke in the night to the sound of low laughter emitting from the closet with the dress. Abraham Lincoln’s laughter. This story was repeated a year later by a guest staying in the room. Harris had the closet bricked in and the dress was closed off from the world, entombed but not forgotten. Later occupants of the house claimed to hear a gunshot on an anniversary of the assassination and see a blood-soaked young woman sobbing and standing with Lincoln.

In 1910, forty-five years after Lincoln’s death and one before Major Rathbone’s, Henry Riggs Rathbone, the son of Henry and Clara, sought to end what he felt was a curse on his family. He broke into the bricked closet and burned the dress to ashes.

The dress is gone but the memories live on. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was a tragic turning point in history, affecting the live of everyone in attendance. Think about that next time you accept an invitation to hang out with friends, especially if one of your friends is the focal point of a massively violent civil war.

Attending Ford’s Theater with the Lincolns: the tragic lives of Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone Written by maurita on July 10, 2013  4 Comments

Henry Rathbone, with Clara Harris, attempting to stop John Wilkes Booth. (PR 052, Currier and Ives Print)

Most Americans are familiar with the events of the Lincoln assassination. On the evening of April 14th, 1865 Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln went to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. During the play the actor John Wilkes Booth snuck into the Presidential Box and shot President Lincoln. However the details of the other couple in the Presidential Box that night, Clara Harris and her fiancée Henry Rathbone, have largely been forgotten. Unfortunately their tragic future was also determined by the horrors of that night.

Clara Harris was the daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York. After Harris’s mother died, her father married Pauline Rathbone. Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris were step-brother and sister but still fell in love and eventually became engaged to be married. Henry joined the US Army after the outbreak of the Civil War and saw many bloody battles.  He had hoped to come home from the war, marry his fiancée, and move on with his life. Clara Harris had become friends with the First Lady through the Washington social scene. Others had been invited to Ford’s theater that night, including Julia and Ulysses S. Grant, but all had turned down the invitation.

Lincoln was reportedly enjoying the play until Act III when John Wilkes Booth came into the Presidential Box and suddenly shot the President in the back of the head. Startled, Henry stood up and wrestled with Booth, who stabbed him severely in the arm hurting him from shoulder to elbow. As Booth began his escape, Henry screamed “Stop that man!” while Clara yelled, “The President is shot!” Seriously injured, Lincoln was moved to a house across the street from the theater and died the next morning with many in attendance, including Clara.

Mourners at the death of President Lincoln. Clara Harris is depicted in a lavendar dress at the far right. (PR 052, Currier & Ives Print)

The library at the New-York Historical Society has a letter that Clara Harris wrote to her friend Mary describing that frightful night. She describes Mrs. Lincoln seeing blood on Clara’s dress and screaming, “oh! my husbands blood.” Only later would they learn that it was mostly Henry’s blood on Clara’s dress from his severe stab wound.

Letter dated April 25, 1865 from Clara Harris to her friend Mary describing the night of the assassination. She describes how Mrs. Lincoln saw Clara and exclaimed, “oh! my husband’s blood, – my dear husband’s blood- which it was not, though I did not know it at the time. The President’s wound did not bleed externally..” (AHMC Harris, Clara)

After the terrible night at Ford’s Theater, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone married and had three children. However, Henry was never able to get over what happened at Ford’s Theater. He felt guilty for surviving the assassination and believed, as many had gossiped, that he should have done more to prevent the tragedy from happening. He felt he could never escape attention for being there that night and began to suffer from hallucinations and eventually declined into mental illness. On Christmas Eve in 1883 while living in Germany, he attacked his own family and himself.  Almost imitating the assassination of years before, he shot Clara and stabbed himself several times with a knife.  Clara died from the attack, and Henry was declared insane.  He was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane in Germany and his children were sent to live with their uncle in the United States. Henry died in 1911 and was buried with Clara in a cemetery in Germany.

For many years, Clara kept her bloody dress from the night at Ford’s Theater in a closet in their family summer home in Albany. According to family lore, she had the closet walled up with bricks after believing that she saw Lincoln’s ghost.  In 1910 their eldest son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, had the dress burned stating that it had been nothing but a curse on his family.

The story of the couple’s life is mostly remembered through historic fiction.  Clara Harris’s stained dress was the subject Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews’s 1930 book The White Satin Dress The story of the ill fated couple is also told in Thomas Mallon’s 1995 book Henry and Clara.

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