Murders

Ever Wonder About the Other People in Lincoln’s Theater Box?

Maj. Henry Rathbone (L), Clara Harris (R) Maj. Henry Rathbone (L), Clara Harris (R)


I have so many photos of Gettysburg that I wanted to split them between posts. For this post, though these are photos of the battlefield (reenactment), I thought I’d focus beyond the battlefield. The toll the battlefield takes on a person and a country.This War, fought brother vs. brother as they say, had many repercussions for those on the periphery too. People below the obvious sightline and they are often considered a footnote. One of the most dramatic stories I know from the Civil War is the story of Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris, mostly because they were the Lincoln’s guests on the night of the President’s assassination. And yet (maybe because it’s not a great story for a child’s textbook) they are one of those footnotes.

Where it All Began

Clara and Henry had a strange relationship to begin with. Mostly because they were raised like siblings. Henry’s father died when he was eight and Clara’s mother died when she was eleven. Then their parents married. They brought their children from their first marriages and had four more together…and so they were raised together: Henry as Clara’s little brother.

Both came from prominent New York families and Clara’s father was Supreme Court Justice and US Senator Ira Harris: the crème of society. Despite such a close relationship the two fell in love and became engaged. That was enough to get whispers started in Washington.  Their engagement was put on hold when the tensions between the North and South erupted into the Civil War. Henry joined the army and with his connections was immediately commissioned as a Captain. His New York regiment fought in some major battles at Antietam, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. By the end of the war, in 1865, he was made a Major. Clara was 30, Henry 27 and they planned to be married soon though the war had taken the usual toll on the soldier: illness and disease. Henry had three times suffered prolonged fevers (it sounds like malaria) during the war. Against doctor’s orders he returned to the Army before he was fully recovered.

A Deadly Obsession

Mary Todd and the President wanted a night of comedy as the War came to its close. They fatefully chose to see a play at Ford’s Theater. I think Mary’s personality and eccentric whims are pretty famous so I won’t go into them here (I did once read a 600+ page book about them in college, exhausting). This led to quite a few people avoiding her play invitation. Even General Ulysses S. Grant, man-of-the-hour, and his wife excused themselves from the invitation. And so President Lincoln and Mary Todd brought her friends: Henry and Clara.

The couple moved in the same circles as the President’s family, Clara was a frequent guest at the White House and a close friend of Lincoln’s wife. They often went out to the opera and theater together. I think the events of that night are pretty well known too and I don’t need to dive into their details and nuances here: actor and fanatic John Wilkes Booth wormed his way in, blocked the door and shot the President, fatally, in the head.

 

Henry tried to stop Booth once he realized what had happened. For that he received a gash on the arm from Booth’s knife and Booth was able to make his escape. Lincoln was rushed across the street for medical care. But Booth’s knife had grazed to the bone near Henry’s armpit and had just missed two major blood vessels. No one had noticed that wound much. Not even Henry apparently, Lincoln’s attending doctor told him his wound wasn’t serious and he ignored it until he had lost so much blood that he fainted in the boardinghouse outside of Lincoln’s makeshift room, bleeding out. Clara persuaded an Army surgeon to see to her fiancée, saving his life. So while Mary Lincoln screamed about her husband’s blood soaking Clara’s dress, well, it was more likely Henry’s.

Henry, quite understandably, never forget the night. It manifested into a severe post-traumatic stress disorder and monomania. He obsessed over not saving the President’s life, a charge no one else leveled against him. But there was no name for PTSD then and no treatment really. He served two more years in the army until in 1867 he finally resigned and married Clara. And so Henry Rathbone became the man who tried to stop John Wilkes Booth…and Clara become the woman who lived with him.

Parallel Tragedy

After years of countless trips to Europe where Henry spent all his time in the fanciest European doctors’ offices and spas that he could find, he (and his friends) decided that working might bring him a measure of mental stability again. Some peace of mind at least. Doctors had attempted to treat his anxiety, his bundles of nerves, his increasing paranoia and hostility (especially towards Clara who he suspected of wanting to take the children and abandon him) but nothing worked.

Finally a position was secured for Henry: in 1882 he was appointed U.S. Consul to Germany. The couple and their three children hesitantly moved there (their eldest was born in 1870…on Lincoln’s birthday of all days, to rub salt into the wound). It was a march towards disaster. Henry’s mental health had been deteriorating for years already and now it was in a steep decline. Clara did think of leaving him, she was well-connected, independently wealthy and had suffered years of torment with Henry. But the stigma of divorce was too great and for the time being she remained by his side.

On the 23rd of December in 1883 an erratic Henry made an attempt on the lives of his three children. Clara reportedly was able to maneuver him into their bedroom and close the door behind them. He shot her to death with his pistol then stabbed her in the chest before trying to kill himself with a six stabs of his knife. An eerily similar scene to Lincoln’s death by pistol and then his own wound from Booth’s knife. Just like in 1865, Henry survived his stab wounds.

The authorities in Germany immediately realized that Henry was not in a coherent state. At first he tried to tell them that there was an intruder and he was injured in the struggle. But the governess and servants who had intervened knew the truth. He was locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane there in Germany and Clara was buried in the country as well. It made all the headlines back home in America.

 

Henry received an exclusive suite complete with dining room and library in the 800-year old building, originally a Benedictine monastery. He never spoke about his mental condition or past there, not even to the doctors who came to reassess his health every few years as he petitioned for his release. Most knew that he was a former US Army officer who had belonged to Washington’s elite. And while he was polite, well-dressed and physically healthy he suffered from hallucinations. Besides feeling tortured, persecuted and suspicious of the other inmates, he believed there to be an apparatus in the wall pouring “injurious vapors” into his head and causing headaches.

The doctors turned to his medical files since Henry would not reveal his past, though they were unsure if his past really was connected to his present mental illness…and the “homicidal mania” that had killed his wife. Former friends however remained convinced that the assassination of President Lincoln and Clara’s murder were inextricably linked. Still, not much could be done. There were few cures or treatments available and Henry refused to speak about it. So the doctor noted that Henry’s feelings of persecution were incurable, there was no known cause and that he should remain in the asylum for life. Eventually he gave up his petitions for release.

Henry’s delusions persisted for the rest of his life. He died in 1911 at the age of 74 at the asylum. Strangely, he was buried next to his wife; though maybe this is simply testament to the fact that so many believed he was driven to murder by that fateful night and not entirely at fault. The grave site was destroyed and abandoned in 1952 due to years of neglect. The cemetery made the site available for “reuse.” Their bodies were exhumed and cremated but no one is quite sure what happened to the remains after that.

The Curse of That Bloody Dress

A few weeks after Lincoln’s death Clara posed for photographer Matthew Brady in the dress she was wearing that night (it’s the top photo of this post). She wrote to a friend that she was trying to think of other things “but I really cannot fix my mind on anything else.” 

After wearing that dress for Matthew Brady, Clara still couldn’t bring herself to rid of it. She left it in the back of her closet at the family’s summer home but it caused her nightmares. She would hear Lincoln’s laughter from the play they saw that night. Everyone dismissed her nightmares until they started having uneasy sleepless nights in the room too where the dress still hung. Soon no one wanted to stay there. Incredibly, instead of finally throwing it away, Clara had the closet bricked in. A tomb for the dress. More ghost stories followed and stirred up talk of a curse. In 1911, a year before Henry would die, his son (who proposed that Ford’s theater be turned into a museum) decided to finally put the talk to rest and broke the brick down in the closet and burned the dress.

*Around 16,000 books have been written about Lincoln but there are few on Henry and Clara. Though it was written 15 years ago, I highly recommend this one.

Sources: “Henry and Clara” by Thomas Mallon, 2, 3, 4, 5