Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Life Turned Tragic: Major Henry Rathbone and the Lincoln Assassination

                            (Article originally published by Emerging Civil, July 31, 2014)
By the beginning of April 1865, the Civil War was essentially over and Washington was in the mood to celebrate. On the day before the assassination of Lincoln, April 13, the city of Washington had been putting on grand shows with fireworks, bonfires and torchlight parades. Most everyone had reasons to be in good mood, of course with the exception of the well- known stage actor, John Wilkes Booth.

Major Henry Reed Rathbone, along with his fiancée Clara Harris, was in a celebrating mood. On that night the Major and Miss. Harris were asked by President Lincoln to accompany him and the First Lady to Ford’s Theatre. Rathbone accepted the invitation. The night of April 14th was supposed to be a great night of celebration since the bloody Civil War had ended days before. Little did Major Rathbone know, later that evening, his life would change forever.
Around 8:20 P.M on April 14 Major Rathbone and Clara Harris met the President and Mary Lincoln at the Harris residence on the “corner of 15th and H Streets.”[1] From there, Rathbone and Harris rode with the Lincoln’s to the theatre.

By the time they arrived the play, Our American Cousin had already begun. As the President and his party made their way to the presidential box, the performance on stage had stopped. The crowd began to cheer and the orchestra started playing “Hail to the Chief.” President Lincoln simply smiled, bowed and continued toward his parties waiting box that had been prepared. President Lincoln took his seat in a cushioned rocking chair near the door, his wife Mary would take the chair to Lincoln’s right. Major Rathbone would be seated farthest away from the door on an upholstered walnut sofa[2] with Miss Harris to his right.

Around 10:15 P.M the play was in Act 3, scene 2 and it was at this point John Wilkes Booth slipped in through the door of the Presidential Box. On Stage actor Harry Hawk said his famous line that normally received loud laughter from the crowd. As expected, the crowd burst into laughter and at this point, Booth fired his shot into the back of Lincoln’s head. The audience grew silent.

The smoke from Booth’s gun filled the Presidential Box, but Major Rathbone was able to see the assassin. “I instantly sprang toward him and seized him,” Rathbone testified on May 15, 1865 for the prosecution during the conspiracy trial.[3] “He wrested himself from my grasp, and made a violent thrust at my breast with a large knife. I parried the blow by striking it up, and received a wound several inches deep in my left arm, between the elbow and the shoulder.”[4]

As Booth was able to break free from Rathbone’s grip, the Major lunged at Booth again; however he was only able to grab a piece of clothing as Booth made the twelve foot leap onto the stage. “As he went over upon the stage, I cried out, stop that man!”[5] The frozen crowd could only watch as Booth ran across the stage. Many witnesses would later claim they at first thought Booth leaping from the Presidential Box was part of the performance.

Major Rathbone then turned his attention to the president. Rathbone remarked Lincoln had not changed positions, but his head was “slightly bent forward and his eyes were closed.”[6] Major Rathbone assumed Lincoln’s wound was mortal so he hurried to the door of the Presidential Box to seek medical aid. The door, as Rathbone soon discovered had been barred shut by the assassin with a piece of plank which was secured in the wall on one end and the other tight against the door.
The Major could hear people on the other side of the door trying to get in, but were unable to. Booth’s trick with the piece of plank served its purpose. Major Rathbone, after several attempts of trying to remove the plank, was finally successful and managed to get the door open.  Several people tried to gain entrance; one of them was Dr. Charles Leale.

Dr. Leale (1842-1932) was the first surgeon to reach President Lincoln, thus making him the primary physician in the case. Leale wrote about the tragic event in his 1909 writings titled Lincoln’s Last Hours. In it he described what happened as he entered the Presidential Box. “Major Rathbone had bravely fought the assassin; his arm had been severely wounded and was bleeding. He came to me holding his wounded arm in the hand of the other, beseeching me to attend to his wound. I placed my hand under his chin, looking into his eyes an almost instantaneous glance revealed the fact that he was in no immediate danger…”[7] Leale then moved on to attend to President Lincoln. Upon the first look at Lincoln, Dr. Leale thought Lincoln was dead. “His eyes were closed and his head had fallen forward. He was being held upright in his chair by Mrs. Lincoln, who was weeping bitterly.”[8] Dr. Leale then placed his finger on the President’s right radial pulse; however, he wasn’t able to feel any movement from the artery. Leale made the decision to remove Lincoln from his chair and place him on the floor, hoping this would help with reviving him.

After Lincoln was laid out on the floor the search for the wound was sought out. Dr. Leale recalled seeing Booth, as he ran across the stage with a dagger in his hand. With this remembrance and seeing Major Rathbone’s injury, Leale thought it possible President Lincoln may have been stabbed. “…while kneeling on the floor over his head, with my eyes continuously watching the President’s face, I asked a gentleman to cut the coat and shirt open from the neck to the elbow to enable me, if possible, to check the hemorrhage that I thought might take place from the subclavian artery or some other blood vessel.”[9]

 No injury was discovered and it was then that Dr. Leale lifted Lincoln’s eye lid. From the look of the eyes, Leale determined Lincoln had a brain injury. Dr. Leale then ran his fingers through Lincoln’s hair and the bullet wound was found. Dr. Leale was able to remove some of the clotted blood in the wound, when this happened, pressure on the brain was relieved and Lincoln had a pulse.

While Dr. Leale was attempting to save the life of President Lincoln, two other doctors, Dr. Charles S. Taft and Dr. Albert F.A. King had come to render any assistance. The three doctors figured it was best to remove the president from the theatre, but he was too badly wounded to transport back to the White House. Instead, they had Lincoln taken to a boarding house across the street where he was placed in a bed that was too small for his large frame; Lincoln had to be placed diagonally on the bed in order for him to fit.
Mary Lincoln was assisted across the street by Major Rathbone and Clara. Mary would call out “oh! My husband’s blood” every time she would see Clara’s blood stained dress. Although the blood probably was Rathbone’s, that didn’t register to Mary at the time. When they arrived at the boarding house across the street, Mary went to the room where the president was placed. Dr. Leale began to make a complete examination and asked some people, including Mrs. Lincoln to step out.
 As the examing of President Lincoln took place, out in the hallway, Major Rathbone started feeling light headed. Rathbone then passed out and was taken back to the Harris home. Clara remained with the first lady for a while, but later left to attend to her fiancée. At the Harris residence, Dr. G. W. Pope was called to attend to the wounded Rathbone. Pope recalled Rathbone being stripped of his clothes and how pale he looked.

Due to the loss of blood, Henry became delirious and continued talking about the shooting of Abraham Lincoln. The Assassination of the president was something that haunted Rathbone for the rest of his life. There were always feelings of guilt since he wasn’t able to stop Booth. As years went on, Rathbone’s knife wound healed, but his mental health did not.
Weeks after that tragic April night, Clara Harris posed for Photographer Matthew Brady, who was well known for his photography during the Civil War. Clara wore the dress she had on the night the president was assassinated, blood stains still remained on it. Harris later told a friend she was doing what she could to forget about the shooting and the wounding of Henry Rathbone, but wasn’t able to.
As time passed by, seventeen years to be exact, Henry’s wounds all healed up, at least on the outside, went to Albany to the office of his wife’s uncle. Hamilton Harris was the man a younger Henry Rathbone studied law with and on this day, Henry was on his way back to Europe with his family. This time was different though, as Harris thought. Henry was ill and when asked what was wrong, Rathbone simply said it was dyspepsia which is a chronic ailment of the stomach.
When Henry was 45 years old, in the fall of 1882 Henry was constantly plagued by mysterious medical problems. One doctor that treated him described the attacks as “neuralgia of the head and face” and heart palpitations and difficulty breathing were also symptoms Henry suffered from. It was in 1870 that Henry retired from the Army due to his sickness.[10]

After Rathbone’s visit to Hamilton Harris’s office, Rathbone and his family set sail to Germany. After their arrival Henry’s health continued to fail. He became depressed and some people called him erratic. His marriage to Clara also suffered more and was tense much of the time. One of the problems with Henry’s depression was he seemed to be under the impression Clara was leaving him and taking the kids.

 On Christmas Eve in 1883, just before dawn Henry lost all control, grabbed his revolver and knife and walked to his children’s bedroom. Clara, who was able to distract Henry, had him follow her into their bedroom and closed the door. It was there that Henry shot and stabbed Clara until she died. Henry then turned the knife on himself, but failed the suicide attempt. News spread fast about the tragic events that took place in Germany. Several people believed Henry never fully recovered from the events that took place at Ford’s Theatre in 1865. “The scene always haunted his mind,” Rathbone’s lawyer said.[11]

  Dr. Pope said, “He never was thoroughly himself after that night…I have no hesitation in affirming that the dreaded tragedy, which preyed upon his nervous and impressionable temperament for many years, laid the seeds of that homicidal mania.”[12] Henry Rathbone was declared insane and was never allowed to be prosecuted for the crime of murder. Henry, after recovering from his wounds was sent to live out his days in the Provincial insane Asylum where he dies on August 14, 1911.

Major Henry Rathbone suffered from Lincoln’s Assassination for the rest of his life and most are convinced that night in 1865 played a large part in Henry going insane. When John Wilkes Booth entered the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre on April, 14 1865 he not only took the life of President Lincoln, but also Henry and Clara Rathbone’s. Henry’s life was a life turned tragic.





Edwards, William C and Edward Steers Jr. The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence. University of Illinois Press Urbana and Chicago, 2009. P 1080.

 Leale, Charles A. Lincoln’s Last Hours, 1909. Reproduction by Kessinger Legacy Reprints.

Ruane, Michael E. (April, 2009) A Tragedy’s Second Act, Washington Post.

Steers, Edward Jr. The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. The University Press of Kentucky, 2003.

[1] Edwards, William C and Edward Steers Jr. The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence. University of Illinois Press Urbana and Chicago, 2009. P 1080
[2] Ibid
[3] Steers, Edward Jr. The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. The University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid
[7] Leale, Charles A. Lincoln’s Last Hours, 1909. Reproduction by Kessinger Legacy Reprints.
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid
[10] Ruane, Michael E. A Tragedy’s Second Act, Washington Post.
[11] Ibid
[12] Ibid

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