Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Final Act In The Tragedy - December 23, 1883

The details of the night of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln have been discussed, detailed, and dissected. The last minute inclusion of Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone as companions for the Lincolns is a well-known part of the general history of the night, as is Major Rathbone’s attempt to stop John Wilkes Booth’s escape.

What is rarely mentioned is that the engaged couple were step-siblings who had grown up together. And that Major Rathbone, having slid into madness over the years after the assassination, murdered his wife Clara Harris Rathbone on December 23, 1883.

The Albany, New York, that both Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone were born into was already an old city, the area having been claimed by Henry Hudson for the Netherlands in 1609. Named Beverwijck and growing up around Dutch Fort Orange, the village had been renamed Albany in 1664 when the British took control. Lying on the navigable Hudson River and serving as the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal, the city's water transportation was also supplemented by several early railroad systems and a turnpike. By the 1830s, when Harris and Rathbone were born, Albany was a bustling city of more than 24,000. Ira Harris was a practicing lawyer in this prosperous corner of New York when his daughter Clara, one of four children, was born to him and his wife Louisa on September 4, 1834.

Three years later, on July 1, 1837, Henry Riggs Rathbone was welcomed into the world by successful merchant and businessman Jared L. Rathbone and his wife Pauline.

Both children would have lived comfortable lives. Their fathers were successful and active in political life: Jared Rathbone became mayor of Albany in 1839; Ira Harris served in the New York State Assembly in 1845 and 1846, as a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1846, and as a state senator in 1847. But both children also suffered the loss of a parent: both Clara’s mother, Louisa Harris, and Henry’s father, Jared Rathbone, died in 1845, leaving two families with holes in their lives that needed filled. At some point, Ira Harris and Pauline Rathbone decided to fill that hole by combining their families: they were married on August 1, 1848, and 13 year old Clara and 11 year old Henry became step-siblings.

Ira’s successful career continued supporting the blended family: he lectured on equity jurisprudence at Albany Law School and served as a justice on the state supreme court from 1847 to 1859. The children grew up. So did friendship between Clara and Henry.

Albany, circa 1853
Although at least some members of the Harris family were growing closer, the country was not. Cracks in national unity had been steadily widening as the United States expanded its territory and the simmering debate over slavery boiled into state’s rights battles. Slave catchers crossed state lines to retrieve human property and Kansas bled while one Senator caned another on the U.S. Senate floor. Mr. Lincoln may have declared in 1858 that a house divided against itself could not stand but by the time the Rail Splitter took office on March 4, 1861, America was not just divided but sundered apart: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had already seceded. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee soon followed.

Lincoln’s competition for the Republican nomination for president in 1860 included New York Senator William H. Seward. Able and anti-slavery, Seward had served as state senator and the 12th governor of the state before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1849. Lincoln appointed him Secretary of State in 1861, leaving a New York Senate seat open. Ira Harris was elected to that seat, and so the Harris family entered Washington, D.C., society. Apparently they fit well: Ira was a frequent visitor to the White House, forming a friendship with Lincoln; Lincoln’s polite surrendering of his seat to Pauline Harris on the night of his inaugural had led to a friendship between Pauline and Mary Todd Lincoln. Clara, too, was included in this circle and was part of White House social functions.

War interrupted many plans, including, presumably, those of the step-siblings. Henry Rathbone, a 24 year old graduate of New York’s Union College in 1861, worked in a law partnership in Albany, but when war came he joined the flood of patriotic enlistments to the Union Army. He served as a captain in the 12th Infantry Regiment, saw the horrors of the battles like Antietam and Fredericksburg, and gained the rank of major by April of 1865. By then, he and Clara Harris were also more than friends – they were engaged to be married.

Perhaps it seemed a stroke of luck that Major Rathbone’s duties would not keep him from escorting his fiancĂ©e on the evening of April 14, 1865. The decision for the Lincolns to attend “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater was a last minute one, and several people, including the Lincoln’s son, Robert, had already begged off accompanying the presidential couple for various reasons. But Clara and Henry accepted and the Lincolns, running late, picked them up at the Harris residence. The picture of the evening is engraved in America’s historical mind’s eye: the bearded, weary President seated in a rocker beside his First Lady; a light comedy, welcome after years of brutal civil war; a sharp crack thought at first to be a part of the play. Clara seated in a chair next to Mrs. Lincoln; Henry on a sofa just behind her. A moment, and then the realization in the presidential box that something was very wrong. Rathbone erupted from his seat and grappled with Booth, who slashed Rathbone’s arm open from elbow to shoulder with the knife he had also carried into the box. Seriously wounded and with a head injury as well, Henry tried to stop Booth, but the assassin pulled away and made his escape, although it was only a temporary one. Henry’s efforts caused Booth to snag a foot as he leaped over the balcony and were responsible for Booth’s broken ankle. Henry collapsed from his wounds. Clara was covered in Henry’s blood but she could not leave the hysterical wife of the president. According to a letter that Clara later wrote a friend, Mrs. Lincoln, seeing the blood, cried out “Oh! My husband’s blood! My dear husband’s blood!” but it was not her husband’s blood – Lincoln’s wound did not bleed externally. Rathbone was sent home for care, and Clara kept vigil with Mary Todd Lincoln at the Peterson boarding house through the long night until the president died at 7:22 the next morning.

Booth's dagger
After that awful Spring, Clara retreated to the Harris summer house outside Albany. Unable to either clean and use or destroy her blood soaked gown, she put it away. Legend has it that ghostly episodes eventually caused Henry to brick the closet up, dress and all.

Clara and Henry finally married on July 11, 1867, but the night of the assassination forever marred their union. Henry was haunted by the thought that he might have done more that night, that he might have somehow prevented Lincoln’s assassination. There is some thought that his head injury also contributed to his moodiness and depression. He supported his family, which eventually grew to include three children, but he suffered from depression, physical ailments, and delusions. Today, he might be diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder and treated; in that era he and his family made rounds of doctors and spas, carrying the night of April 14, 1865, with them as his mental state deteriorated. He resigned from the Army as a full Colonel in 1870.

There is virtually no record of their family life. Later, there would be statements that Henry was jealous of the amount of attention that his wife gave their children. There are no reports of abuse, although it would not be surprising given his emotional instability. Clara had waited a long time for this marriage: in an era when women normally married in their early twenties, she was nearly thirty-three years old. Perhaps her love for Henry was greater than any turmoil his mental state caused. By mid-nineteenth century, divorce laws were more protective of a woman, but it still wasn’t a path easily taken. And there were the children to consider: perhaps she felt that even an erratic father in the home was better than none. For whatever reason, Clara remained with Henry.

A composite image of Henry and Clara
In 1882, Henry re-entered public service through an appointment as U. S. consul to Hanover, Germany. His mental state did not improve; instead he became even more erratic. He grew more depressed and suffered hallucinations. Finally, in the early morning hours of December 23, 1883, Henry violently attacked his wife, shooting and stabbing her repeatedly. Then he stabbed himself six times in what appeared to be an attempt at suicide. A maid and the sister of the lady of the house, awakened by the tumult, found the horrific scene and called authorities.

Clara was buried in the Engeohde Cemetery in Hanover. Henry survived, but he was unquestionably insane. Their children were taken back to America by Clara’s brother, William. Henry was confined to the Provincial Insane Asylum, where he remained until his death on August 14, 1911. He was paranoid and filled with delusions to the end of his days, believing that he was being dosed with vapors and dust sprayed from the walls. When he died, he was buried with his wife. In 1952, the cemetery, in accordance with policy for graves that had no recent burials and no recent correspondence from family, opened their graves and disposed of whatever remained of Henry and Clara so that the graves could be reused.

Their son, Henry Jr., thirteen at the time of his mother’s murder, went on to serve as an Illinois Representative to Congress. Ironically, he shared Lincoln’s birthday: February 12. So perhaps it is appropriate that it was he who, in 1910, finally tore down the bricked up closet in which his mother’s bloody dress had hung for 45 years and burned that reminder of the night of April 14, 1865. He hoped, it was said, that the curse that the blood spattered thing had placed on his family was finally ended with its destruction. One can hope that with the passing of his father a year later the curse and tragedy of April 14, 1865, had indeed ended.


  1. Cool I love history's back stories.

  2. That I didn't know! Thanks for the education!

  3. That I didn't know! Thanks for the education!

  4. I did not know this. Thank-you for sharing

  5. @All - It's definitely a "rest of the story" story.