An Epilogue to Assassination: The Rathbone Tragedy

Major Henry Rathbone

Major Henry Rathbone

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s theater on April 14, 1856, a war weary nation was rocked¬† by the tragic, violent death of the leader who had led them their darkest hour. The tragedy of Lincoln’s final hours would overshadow a lesser known incident that would befall two other present in the Presidential Booth that fateful night. Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone, friends to the President and First Lady, could never know the impact the horrific attack would have on the remainder of their lives. The couple would be haunted by both the events of that fateful evening and the ever-present specter of mental illness, culminating in a murder dubbed by the 19th century American press by the simple but apt named, the Rathbone Tragedy.


An Up and Coming Couple

Clara Harris, aged 30 at the time of the assassination, was the daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York. From a family of means, she was a cultured woman well liked in top Washington social circles, and an intimate friend of none other than the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Henry Rathbone was the son of Pauline Rathbone, a wealthy widow who married Ira Harris in 1848. Harris brought a son of his own to the mixed family, a boy named Henry, and three daughters: Amanda, Louise, and Clara. In addition to Henry, Pauline also had a son named Jared.

Despite growing together as step siblings, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone planned marry. Henry had studied law in college, and later joined the Army, Where he worked a desk job until the outbreak of the Civil War. As the war began its early phases, Henry became an officer of the 12th Infantry.

He participated in the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Fredricksburg, and although he did not participate in the worst of the fighting, the war took its toll on the young officer, who according to contemporary sources was a man of frail health even under the best of circumstances. He suffered a string of illnesses, but continued to return to active service against doctor’s advice. By 1865, with the war winding down, he finally relented and took another desk job, this time in Washington D.C.

With the end of four long years of war, the mood in the Union capital was celebratory, and even the often melancholic Abraham Lincoln allowed himself to feel some of the Jubilation. He and Mary Todd decided to see the comedy Our American Cousin at the Ford’s Theater. To accompany them, the couple originally invited the hero of the hour, Ulysses S. Grant, and his wife Julia, but the Grants turned down the invitation, opting to visit their children in New Jersey instead. No doubt, this refusal was due in part to the fact that Mary Todd and Julia did not get along well at all. With that particular invitation turned down, the President and Mary Todd decided instead to invite their young friends and an up and coming couple in Washington’s elite social circle, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone.


A Dark Truth Behind a Prosperous Facade

800px-The_Assassination_of_President_Lincoln_-_Currier_and_Ives_2The events of that April evening are well known. John Wilkes Booth, famous actor and Southern sympathizer, entered the Presidential Box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a Derringer pistol. Major Rathbone attempted to wrestle the gun away from the assassin, but only succeeded in getting stabbed in the arm with a Bowie knife for his troubles. Boothe escaped, famously leaping from the balcony and yelling, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” (“Death to Tyrants!”). The assassin escaped in the confusion. Lincoln would die of his wound the next day. The other injured party, Major Henry Rathbone, severely wounded and delirious from blood loss, would survive, but he would never be the same again.

Two years after the assassination, Clara and Henry were¬† married. They lived in a twenty-two room mansion in Washington D.C. Major Rathbone still served in the Army, but had no real need to as both he and Clara were heirs to substantial fortunes. The couple would have three children, the oldest of whom was born in 1870, on Lincoln’s birthday.

Despite the appearance of happiness and prosperity, all was not well in the Rathbone household. Henry was plagued with a long list of mysterious illnesses for the rest of his life. Symptoms included heart palpitations, trouble breathing, and painful digestive issues. By the time his eldest son was born in 1870, perhaps due to these health woes or perhaps due to his deteriorating mental health, Rathbone resigned from the Army.

While Rathbone did not need to work due to his wealth, by 1877 his friends were lobbying Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration hard to get him a State Department posting in Denmark. Perhaps the push was because they saw his growing paranoia and erratic behavior. By this time, Rathbone had become convinced that Clara was going to leave him and take the children. His well meaning friends may have thought a posting with the State Department would help allay these fears. Despite their efforts, the administration posted another man to the position.

Eventually, Rathbone got his overseas posting–a Consulship in Hanover, Germany. In 1883, Major Rathbone and his family, including Clara’s sister, who she insisted come along, sailed from New York aboard a steam ship bound for Europe. However, the new role and the new locale did nothing to change Major Rathbone’s mental state.

Henry became increasingly paranoid and depressed. Worse, he started hallucinating. He told a friend he was afraid of himself. Perhaps because he was convinced she would leave him, he did not allow Clara to be alone.

Sometime during this period of mental deterioration, Henry bought a revolver.


The Rathbone Tragedy

The tragedy occurred before dawn on Christmas Eve, 1883. Henry attempted to enter the room where the children were sleeping. Clara, who must have known something was terribly wrong, convinced him to join her in the master bedroom. When they were alone, Henry emptied the revolver into his wife, then stabbed her in the chest with a knife. He then turned the knife on himself.

News of the sensational killing spread across the Atlantic quickly, with newspapers revealing all the lurid details of the murder. Germain authorities found Rathbone to be insane at the time of the killing, and remanded him to the custody of the Provincial Insane Asylum, where he would live out the rest of his days haunted by chronic paranoia and tormented by hallucinations. He died on August 14, 1911 of unknown causes. Experts today believe that his psychosis stemmed either either from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or that he had paranoid schizophrenia which was exacerbated by the trauma of the assassination. His body was shipped back to the United States, and then laid to rest next to his wife on November 2nd. The graves were subsequently abandoned, and were likely reused. The remains of the Rathbones have been lost to history, a sad ending to this tragic epilogue of the Lincoln assassination.