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

Today we welcome back guest author Cal J. Schoonover. Cal hail’s from Janesville, WI, where he lives with his son James. Cal is a graduate of The University of Wisconsin, Whitewater; and is currently attending American Military University, where he is pursuing his Masters in Military History, with a concentration in the American Civil War.


Major Henry Reed Rathbone
Major Henry Reed Rathbone

By the beginning of April 1865, the Civil War was slowly winding to a close and Washington D.C. was in the mood to celebrate. On the day before President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, 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 Riggs Rathbone, along with his fiancée Clara Harris, was in a celebratory  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 Gen. Robert E. Lee’s famed Army of Northern Virginia surrendered days before. Little did Major Rathbone know, later that evening, his life would change forever.

Around 8:20 P.M on April 14th Major Rathbone and Clara Harris met the President and First Lady at the Harris residence on the “corner of 15th and H Streets.” From there, Rathbone and Harris rode with the Lincoln’s to the theater.

By the time they arrive 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 took the chair to Lincoln’s right. Major Rathbone would be seated farthest away from the door on an upholstered walnut sofa 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.

Ford's Theater.
Ford’s Theater.

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. “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.”

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!” 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.” 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 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. Charles Leale
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 book 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…” 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.” 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 on. 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.”

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 did not 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.

President Lincoln
President Lincoln

As the examination 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 was not able to.

As time passed by, seventeen years to be exact, Henry’s wounds healed, at least on the outside, went to Albany, New York, 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.

By the fall of 1882, Rathbone was 45 years old and 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.

Clara Harris
Clara Harris

It was in 1870 that Henry retired from the Army due to his sickness. 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.

Just before dawn, on Christmas Eve of 1883, 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.
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.” 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 died 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.

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

  1. Great Article! As the author of “Worst Seat in the House:Henry Rathbone’s Front Row View of the Lincoln Assassination” is nice to find an article without many of the faulty facts normally attributed to his life. One quick note, it’s referenced at the beginning that his name was Henry Riggs Rathbone. His middle name was actually Reed. Riggs was his son’s middle name.

    1. Oh!!! You’re the author of “Worst Seat in the House”?! Let me just say, if I may, that I found the book incredibly useful in my own research. I’m currently working on my own fiction revolving around the various people involved and affected by the assassination and the Rathbone/Harris tragedy is what interested me in the first place.

      My copy of your book is thoroughly highlighted. Thank you so much for such an informative read.

  2. His behavior would appear to have many elements of what we would nowdays call post traumatic stress disorder. Wonder how he would have done with modern VA-style mental health care. Indeed, a great tragedy for all concerned, including the entire country – North and South.

  3. Great article Cal. I agree maybe he killed Clara cause he was emotionally drained and when she said she was going to leave with the children, he snapped. I still think the Assassination was the catalyst of his medical problem and psyche leading to that point. A couple of items I’m trying to get answers for:
    1. Was he working as an envoy for the US Consul in Hanover Germany. Word is now that it was a mistake in reporting at the time of Clara’s murder and he was mistaken for his brother who at the time was working for the State Dept.
    2. He was going to kill the children too but the nanny locked the door to the bedroom and won’t let him in? Is this true? He was found with ample amount ammunition inferring he planned on carrying this out too.
    3.. Where are they buried? It seems the rumor that they are both were buried in Germany and the cemetery was destroyed by Allied air raid in WW II is false and that they are both are buried in Germany and in a multiple buried plot.
    4. Still doesn’t make sense why he was in Germany even if he wasn’t working for consul. What treatments were available at the time to make him pick up his family and move there for his medical problem that now are the claims. I know it was not job related because he was retired and wealthy.
    Good luck on your Master Degree and if your in Washington DC please look me up! I give a Lincoln Assassination Tour in town every night and would love to show you Rathbone’s residence in Lafayette Park.

  4. As a student, I find this interesting, but also perhaps his phisical health contributied to his mania, as he perhaps felt that this made him weak and that by finishing Booth’s deed, he would be sane again.

  5. I’m sorry but that was discovered years ago to NOT be Clara Harris. The picture on her entry in Wikipedia is a correct photo of her. I am a descendant of her uncle.

  6. Henry Rathbone was a direct ancestor of mine. I appreciate having this article in order to tell my children his tragic story. Thank you!

  7. I stumbled upon this article tonight and blown away by the series of events that took place. Thankfully the Harris/Rathbone children survived

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