Major Henry Reed Rathbone was also attacked by John Wilkes Booth the night President Lincoln was assassinated – he survived but suffered emotionally the rest of his life.
Henry Rathbone by all appearances was a successful figure in a Washington, D.C., celebrating the end of the long and painful Civil War. He was a dashing Union army officer from a wealthy family and was newly engaged to a senator’s daughter. His life changed the fateful night he accompanied President and Mrs. Lincoln to the Ford’s Theatre, and though he played an intimate role in the infamous assassination, his name has fallen into relative obscurity.
Early Life of Henry Rathbone
Born in Albany, New York, in 1837, Henry Reed Rathbone was the son of a well-to-do businessman who became Albany’s mayor. When Rathbone was seventeen, his father died and he inherited a substantial fortune.
Rathbone studied law at Union College and worked in an Albany law partnership before entering the Union Army at the start of the Civil War. Initially serving as a captain he gained respect as a brilliant and brave young officer and by the war’s end he had attained the rank of major.
He became engaged to Clara Harris, who was his stepsister, as his widowed mother had married Clara’s father who had lost his wife. Clara’s father was a senator from New York and she had become acquainted with President and Mrs. Lincoln.
The Lincoln Assassination
After other notable persons had declined the invitation, Major Rathbone and Clara Harris were invited late in the day to accompany the Lincolns to the Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865. They were seated next to the Lincolns in the presidential box when John Wilkes Booth entered from behind and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Rathbone struggled unsuccessfully to subdue Booth and was stabbed several times across his arm and neck before Booth leapt to the stage below and made his escape out a back alley exit.
Rathbone’s Marriage and Life in Europe
Rathbone physically recovered from his wounds, but he became emotionally troubled, blaming himself for failing to save Lincoln’s life. In 1867, two years after the assassination, he was married to Clara Harris despite the turmoil the tragedy had caused. The couple subsequently had three children. Rathbone suffered from assorted physical ailments as well as delusions and panic attacks. By the end of 1870, his condition forced him to resign from the Army. He traveled to Europe with his wife and children, and in 1882, was appointed United States Consul to Hanover, Germany. Rathbone continued to suffer emotionally and he grew paranoid that his wife and children would leave him. Clara became apprehensive but her fear of a scandal and the subsequent effects on her children made divorce seem impossible for her.
Another Rathbone Tragedy
Two days before Christmas of 1883, Rathbone walked into the bedroom of his Hanover home and murdered Clara with a revolver. He then attempted suicide by stabbing himself and in his frenzy may have killed his children if a nurse had not intervened. Historians have speculated as to whether he was reliving the bloody struggle with John Wilkes Booth some eighteen years earlier.
Clara was buried in Germany. The Rathbone children were sent back to New York to live with their uncle, Clara’s brother, William Harris.
When the police arrived at the murder scene, the bloody and dazed Rathbone reportedly claimed there had been people hiding behind the pictures on the wall. Rathbone was subsequently tried, found guilty of murder and committed to an asylum for the criminally insane in Hildesheim, Germany. After a long and painful deterioration of his health and mental status, he died in the asylum in 1911 and was subsequently buried alongside his wife.
Rathbone’s oldest son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, became a congressman from Illinois. He introduced the bill to create a museum in the Ford’s Theatre, the site of such a great tragedy in his father’s life.
- Bak, Richard. The Day Lincoln Was Shot (Dallas: Taylor Publishing Co., 1998).
- Smith, Gene. “The Haunted Manor.” American Heritage Magazine. Vol. 45, No. 1, 1994.