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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

Henry Rathbone: The Man Who Couldn’t Save Lincoln

Written by Kevin Jennings


Most Americans are familiar with the events that transpired on April 14, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head by actor John Wilkes Booth who then leapt from the presidential box to the stage to make his escape. It was a dark day in American history, one that is unlikely to ever be forgotten. But there is someone involved who history does seem to have largely forgotten about.

              If you’ve ever seen one of the contemporary artist depictions of the assassination, you may have noticed that Lincoln was not alone in the Presidential Box that night. His wife, Mary, was seated next to him, but there was another couple viewing the play with them. They were Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris.

              It was a tragic day for the United States, but few if any felt the weight of President Lincoln’s death more than Henry. It was a memory that would push him past the brink of insanity, all the way to murder.          

Early Life

            Henry Rathbone was born on July 1, 1837, to Jared and Pauline Rathbone. He was one of four children, though two of his siblings would not survive childhood. Jared was a wealthy businessman in Albany, New York, but he also died when Henry was a child. In 1845, at the age of 8, Henry inherited $200,000 from his late father, the equivalent of nearly $8 million today.

              Three years later, the widowed Pauline married Ira Harris, who would go on to be appointed to the U.S. Senate representing New York when the previous senator, William Seward, became Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Ira was also a widower who brought three children of his own to their marriage, William, Louise, and Clara.

              Clara was almost three years older than Henry, but the stepsiblings were very close during their adolescent years. As they grew up, so did their relationship. Henry began studying law, and at the age of 21 he joined the New York National Guard where he worked as a judge advocate.

              Henry and Clara had fallen in love, and in their mid 20s they got engaged. Unfortunately for the couple, their wedding would have to wait. The nation had fallen into a civil war, so Henry enlisted in the Union Army. He became captain of the 12th Infantry Regiment where he served in the Battle of Antietam and Battle of Fredericksburg. The following year, he was pulled from frontline duty and given a desk job.

              In 1864, for his gallantry while serving in battle, he was awarded the rank of major. With a little help from his stepfather, Senator Harris, Henry was appointed the Assistant Adjutant General of Volunteers by President Lincoln.

              Senator Harris made many trips to the White House while serving in Congress, where he and Lincoln became good friends. Harris may have generally agreed with the administration, but he was not afraid to speak out against the things that he did not agree with. Because of their friendship, Henry and Clara had the opportunity to befriend the Lincolns as well.

              Mary Lincoln, whose temperament would play a large role in the events of April 14, 1865, did not at all care for Harris.  However, she was a big fan of Clara. Henry and Clara were both considered to be exceptionally bright and well cultured, and they are regarded as having been extremely well liked.

              That’s not to say that those things weren’t true of Senator Harris as well, but Mary disliked him because he was rather insistent that the Lincolns should send their eldest son to join the Union Army. She had already buried two sons and had no interest in seeing another son’s life put into danger.


The Assassination

The Civil War largely concluded on April 9, 1865, with the surrender of the last major Confederate army by Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. A few scattered battles would continue for the next month, but by and large the war was over. On April 14, Lincoln would go to Ford’s Theater to see a production of the comedy Our American Cousin.

Newspapers had reported that morning that President Lincoln and Ulysses Grant would be attending the performance to celebrate the Union’s victory. The only issue was that neither of them wanted to go. Since he was a known fan of the theater, why Lincoln was reluctant to go that night isn’t entirely certain.

It was Good Friday, but Lincoln was not a particularly religious man. In his younger days he would have been considered a militant atheist by 1800s standards, though after experiencing the death of one his sons for a second time in 1861, he seemed to become more religious. Still, he refused to ever identify himself as a Christian despite knowing it was to his own political detriment, so it is unlikely that the Christian holiday was the reason behind his decision. It may have been something as simple as preferring to stay home with his wife, who was reportedly ill, so she could rest. Or perhaps, given the years of civil war coming to a conclusion that many would not find satisfactory, he could have just felt it would be unsafe.

Whatever the reason for Lincoln not wanting to attend, he felt he had no choice. The newspapers publicized the event, and Grant had already declined the invitation. Julia Grant and Mary Lincoln hated one another, and so Julia refused to go to the theater with her. With Grant not in attendance and people expecting Lincoln to be there, he felt obligated to go to the play. He just needed a new guest to accompany him.

His first choice was Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton not only refused to go, but told Lincoln that he shouldn’t be attending either. He then asked for the Chief of the Military Telegram Office in the War Department, Thomas Eckert. Despite his role as the military’s top cryptographer who had spent minimal time on the battlefield, Eckert was a man of considerable strength and military prestige. However, Stanton refused to allow him to go, claiming that his services could not be spared.

Next on the list of invitees were Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris. Clara and Mary had attended the theater several times as friends, and so the couple was happy to accept the invitation. They joined the Lincolns, and headed to Ford’s Theater to enjoy the play. It is unknown whether or not Henry had been instructed to protect the president, but they were safely in the Presidential Box with a bodyguard stationed at the door, so there should have been little reason to worry.

Clara and Mary sat next to each other with Henry at the end on a couch and President Lincoln in a tall, wooden rocking chair. They were engrossed in the play, unaware that the bodyguard had slipped out to the bar during intermission. This gave John Wilkes Booth, a frequent actor at Ford’s Theater, the opportunity to sneak into the Presidential Box during the third act, at around 10:15 pm.

Booth avoided detection as he pulled out a Deringer and shot Lincoln in the back of the head with the gun’s single bullet. Henry leapt into action to stop the attacker, but Booth pulled out a dagger inscribed with the words “Land of the free and the home of the brave”, raising it to strike. Henry saw the attack coming and parried it with his arm, but the dagger cut through him covering Clara’s dress in blood. Booth went to jump from the box onto the stage, but Henry grabbed his coat. Booth still managed to jump, but Henry’s tug had caused him to catch his boot on the way down, falling awkwardly and breaking his leg. Henry shouted out for someone to stop him, but Booth managed to escape.

Lincoln was taken across the street to the Petersen House, and after the commotion died down Henry escorted Mary there as well. He passed out from blood loss shortly thereafter. When the surgeon who had been attempting to treat Lincoln finally took a look at Henry, he realized the injury was far more severe than any of them had realized. Henry had been cut deep, almost to the bone, from his elbow to his shoulder, and severed an artery.

It took several weeks, with Clara faithfully nursing him back to health, but Henry’s arm would eventually heal from his wounds. He went back to his desk job at the military, and in 1867 he and Clara finally had their wedding.


The Aftermath

It seemed things had turned around for Henry since Lincoln’s assassination. His body had healed, he was happily married to his childhood sweetheart/stepsister with whom he would have three children, and he had been elevated to the rank of brevet colonel. He was also being crushed by the weight of unimaginable guilt.

Despite his education in law, Henry was a military man. He had served as a captain on the field of battle and been commended for his gallantry. And he sat there, completely unaware, while the President of the United States was murdered just feet away from him. There doesn’t appear to be any record of the public blaming Henry for failing to stop Lincoln’s assassination, but he blamed himself for it completely.

It likely didn’t help that both Ulysses Grant and Lincoln’s normal bodyguard had stated in the papers that they would have stopped Booth had they been there. The Washington D.C. police officer that had been acting as bodyguard was assigned to fill in for the night, despite having a history of inappropriate behaviour including drinking on the job. Whether Grant or the more experienced bodyguard would actually have been able to stop the attack is something we will never know. The veracity of these claims is also irrelevant, as the words alone would have been enough to inflict even more mental anguish on Henry.

The stress was more than he could handle, and it began taking a profound toll on both his body and mind. He suffered frequently physical ailments resulting from stress, experienced severe bouts of both depression and anxiety, and even began experiencing paranoia and hallucinations. Not even his family remained as a bastion of light in the otherwise black void of his tormented psyche.

In 1870 Henry retired from the military, but his mental instability made it difficult for him to hold down another job. Clara did her best to help him through his bouts of depression and to manage his mental state, but there was nothing she could do to treat the problem.

He began resenting Clara for all the attention she paid to their children, attention that he desperately craved to maintain his sanity.  He also grew suspicious of her, believing that she was being unfaithful or planning to leave him and take away their children. There is no evidence to suggest that she had ever cheated, though it is believed she desperately wanted a divorce. Unfortunately, at the time it was not socially acceptable to divorce or separate, especially for such an affluent family, and so Clara stayed by his side despite reports that he had threatened her on multiple occasions.

Then, in 1881, the worst possible thing for Henry’s mental state happened: President Garfield was assassinated. Any possible progress that he might have made in forgiving himself and learning to cope with what happened would have been erased, though there’s no indication he had made any progress, only that his condition had gotten worse.

Garfield’s assassination sent Henry into his deepest depression yet, as he felt like he was reliving that night at Ford’s Theater all over again. His fears, anxieties, and depression were in danger of completely taking over his life. The new president, Chester A. Arthur, was a family friend. He felt that the best thing for Henry would be to get him far away, where perhaps he might have a chance to heal. Henry was made the Ambassador to Germany, and the family set sail to Europe.

In addition to putting some distance between Henry and the source of his trauma, it was hoped that Europe’s doctors and spas might be able to provide some treatment for Henry. Clara’s sister, Louise, joined them in Germany to help look after the kids.

A Brutal Recreation

            President Arthur had the best of intentions when he sent the Rathbones to Germany, but it only caused Henry’s mental state to deteriorate even further. He suffered his deepest depression yet, with his other symptoms increasing in severity as well.

              Henry became more and more suspicious and jealous of Clara, convinced she was cheating on him despite the complete lack of evidence. He also spent months in pain, suffering from a severe, stress-induced stomach ulcer. In the early morning hours of December 23, 1883, Henry finally reached his limit. The possibility remains that he was acting solely out of his unfounded jealousy, but most likely Henry experienced a full psychotic break.

              He began acting as though there was an intruder in the house, despite no one seeing an intruder or hearing any unusual noises. Clara had her sister go to the children’s room and lock themselves in, fearful for what was going to happen. She then fled to her and Henry’s bedroom, with an erratic, agitated, and likely hallucinating Henry following her close behind.

              In a scene that many have compared to the events of Ford Theater, Henry pulled out a gun and shot Clara three times before stabbing her in the heart. He then turned the knife on himself, stabbing himself in the chest five times. Just like in 1865, the gunshot victim died, but Henry survived his knife wounds.

              Louise alerted the police, and Henry was taken to a hospital where, once it became evident that he was going to miraculously survive his wounds, he was charged with murder. Clara’s brother came to Germany to retrieve Louise and the children, and he became their legal guardian.

              Despite the severe trauma the children endured, they did not suffer the same fate as their father and went on to lead normal lives. Henry’s son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, even followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and was a congressman for the state of New York for several years before dying in office.

While recovering from his injuries, Henry continued to blame the murder on an intruder, and was declared insane before ever going to trial. Henry was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane in Hildesheim, Germany, where his delusions and hallucinations only got worse. He remained there until his death in 1911.

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