Post Reply 
"More than just Lincoln's tragedy...."
04-16-2015, 12:43 PM
Post: #11
Dark End for All in Ford's Theater Box
Here's an article I wrote for the Moline Dispatch on the 150th anniversary of the assassination that includes expert quotes from our own Laurie Verge.

This was also picked up by several other papers.

Escorts in Ford’s Theater Box Suffered Horrific Outcomes
By Tom Emery

The night of April 14, 1865 proved fateful for Abraham Lincoln, who was mortally wounded by an assassin’s bullet and died the next day, 150 years ago this Wednesday. Lesser known is that everyone in the presidential box at Ford’s Theater that night suffered horrific outcomes.

The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, escaped, only to be mortally wounded by a Union soldier twelve days later. Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, never recovered from that Good Friday evening, struggling with mental instabilities, public scorn, and isolation for the rest of her life.
Even more disturbing is the fate of the young couple who were the Lincolns’ guests that night, Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris. They later married – but Henry lost his mental faculties, murdered Clara in 1883, and spent the rest of his life in an asylum.

Laurie Verge of Clinton, Md., who has extensively studied the Lincoln assassination in her role as director of the Surratt House Museum where another Booth conspirator is interpreted, believes the grisly night at Ford’s Theater was a contributing factor to Rathbone’s insanity.

“I subscribe to the time-honored theory of historians that Lincoln’s assassination caused Henry’s decline,” remarked Verge. “I feel he had issues to begin with, from childhood through his war experiences, and that the guilt he felt from not preventing Lincoln’s murder ate away at him.”

Rathbone and Harris were actually step-siblings who had grown up in the same household. She was the daughter of Ira Harris, an influential New York Senator who one biographer called one of Lincoln’s “most frequent evening visitors.” In 1848, the widowed Harris married Pauline Rathbone, herself the widow of a wealthy member of Albany, N.Y. society who had served as the city’s mayor. The union blended the Senator’s four children and his wife’s two surviving children (two others died in infancy).

Henry and Clara, who was three years his senior, later fell in love. Their engagement was halted by the Civil War, and Rathbone enlisted in Union service, rising to the rank of major and fighting at Antietam and Fredericksburg despite chronic physical ailments.

Meanwhile, Clara became a close acquaintance of Mrs. Lincoln, writing that “we have been constantly in the habit of driving and going to the opera and theater together.” She and Henry ended up being the Lincolns’ escorts that evening to attend the comedy Our American Cousin.

For appearances in that era, it was preferable for the President and his wife to have a guest in the theater box, though evidence indicates Rathbone and Harris may not have been at the top of the list. Among more prominent figures who declined a Presidential invitation that evening were Ulysses S. Grant and his wife. Verge, however, notes the calming influence that young Rathbone and Harris may have had on the Lincolns.

“Their presence would not have had the same heroic effect on the audience that night as the Grants or even Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and his wife,” said Verge. “But Henry and Clara had accompanied the Lincolns to other events, and Clara appears to have been a favorite companion of Mrs. Lincoln during the war years. Perhaps the young couple would have had a relaxing effect on the President and his wife.”

Rathbone and Harris sat at the Lincolns’ right in the box, and, by all accounts, everyone greatly enjoyed the play. As they sat oblivious, Booth, a 26-year-old distinguished and wealthy stage actor distraught at the impending Southern defeat and the prospect of African-American citizenship, silently crept up the stairs behind the box.

Corresponding with a line in the play that brought raucous laughter to conceal his actions, Booth stepped inside the box at 10:13 p.m. and fired a single gunshot that entered the left rear of Lincoln’s skull. Rathbone lunged at Booth, who drew a knife that he plunged deep into the major’s left arm.

Rathbone hesitated, then tried for Booth again, but the assassin leaped over the railing, screaming “sic semper tyrannis,” or “thus be it ever to tyrants.” Rathbone’s wound caused profuse bleeding, which drenched Clara’s dress, hands, and face. Mary’s hysterical screams pierced the theater and remained a chilling memory to those in attendance for decades.

Rathbone and Harris helped Mary across the street to the Petersen boarding house, where the President died at 7:22 the next morning. Shortly after arriving, Rathbone passed out from a severe loss of blood. Weeks later, Harris said that, though she tried not to think of the horrors of that night, “I really cannot fix my mind on anything else.”

Booth spent his last days on the run in Maryland and Virginia, incredulous at the animosity that he received for an act that he thought would avenge the South. The president’s widow was barely able to function for weeks afterward, the beginning of a downward lifetime spiral that was played out in the press.

Ridiculed for her eccentric behavior by a spiteful public, Mary was finally committed to an insane asylum in Batavia, Ill. in May 1875. She was sent there through the strenuous efforts of her eldest son, Robert, the only one of her four children to survive to adulthood.
Mary later regained her freedom, but remained a social outcast who dressed in black for the rest of her life. She died in Springfield on July 16, 1882.

Verge, one of an increasing number of researchers sympathetic to Mary’s plight, believes the trauma of the assassination was too much for Mary to bear. “By 1865, she had lost two sons (a third would die in 1871), endured criticism as First Lady, and sat by her husband’s side as a bullet ended his life,” commented Verge. “The night of April 14-15, 1865 had to be the beginning of a long-drawn-out end for Mary Todd Lincoln.”

Henry and Clara married in 1867 and had three children, including a son, Henry Jr., who was born on Lincoln’s birthday in 1870. The younger Henry Rathbone was later an Illinois congressman. His father remained well-respected and was recommended for government posts by the likes of William T. Sherman.

By the 1880s, the Rathbones were living in Germany, but Henry's mental state continued to deteriorate. By the early 1880s, hallucinations and paranoia clouded his judgment, and he grew irrationally fearful that Clara would take the children and leave him. Around this time, he purchased a revolver.

Some experts have argued that Rathbone’s struggles were an example of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which has become a national issue in recent years. Rathbone’s lawyer and physician both noted the lasting effects of the assassination on their client.
“Henry’s spiral downwards could well be an example of PTSD,” said Verge. “The assassination clearly had definite, overly negative effects on Henry in particular.”

Shortly before dawn on Christmas Eve 1883, Rathbone made a move to enter the children’s room. Clara blocked his entry and forced him back to the master bedroom, where he repeatedly shot and stabbed her. He then turned the knife on himself.

The murder of Clara Rathbone was front-page news in America, while in Germany, Henry was immediately held in a mental institution. Though an American emissary reported “he realizes fully what he has done,” Rathbone claimed “it is the result of a conspiracy.” He died in confinement in a German asylum in 1911.

Other notable individuals at Ford’s Theater that night were deeply scarred by the assassination. John Ford, the theater owner, never reopened the facility, which was later purchased by the U.S. government.

Laura Keene, the star of the play that evening, made her way to the Presidential box and cradled Lincoln’s head in her lap, staining her costume with his blood. Her acting career was never the same after that night, and she died of tuberculosis in 1873 at age 47.

In 1893, a forty-foot section of the front of Ford’s Theater collapsed from the third floor, killing 22 and injuring 65 others.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or
Find all posts by this user
Quote this message in a reply
Post Reply 

Messages In This Thread
Dark End for All in Ford's Theater Box - Tom Emery - 04-16-2015 12:43 PM

Forum Jump:

User(s) browsing this thread: 1 Guest(s)