Henry Reed Rathbone (July 1, 1837 – August 14, 1911) was a United States military officer and diplomat who was present at the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Rathbone was sitting with his fiancée, Clara Harris, next to the President and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, when John Wilkes Booth entered the president's box at Ford's Theatre and fatally shot Lincoln. When Rathbone attempted to prevent Booth from fleeing the scene, Booth stabbed and seriously wounded him. He was at Ford's theater because he was Lincoln's guest. Lincoln was going to have his really good friend General Grant go but he had some business to do that night.
Henry R. Rathbone was born in Albany, New York and was the son of Jared L. Rathbone, a merchant and businessman, who later became Albany's mayor. At the time of his father's death, Rathbone inherited the very considerable sum of two hundred thousand dollars from his family's estate. His widowed mother, Pauline Rathbone, remarried Ira Harris, who was appointed U.S. Senator from New York after William H. Seward became Lincoln's Secretary of State. As a result of this marriage, Ira Harris became Rathbone's stepfather and his daughter, Clara, became Rathbone's stepsister. Although this unusual series of events made them stepbrother and stepsister, they were not related by blood.
Rathbone studied law at Union College, was a member of the Sigma Phi Society, and briefly worked in a law partnership in Albany before entering the Union Army at the start of American Civil War. During the war, Rathbone served as Captain in the 12th infantry regiment and was at the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Fredricksburg; by the war's end, he had attained the rank of major.
Presence during the assassination
On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln and his wife Mary decided to attend a performance of the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. Earlier that day the Lincolns had invited several people to accompany them, including General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, but all of them declined for various reasons. Mrs. Lincoln finally invited Major Rathbone and Clara Harris, and they accepted. The young couple had recently become engaged. Mrs. Lincoln was fond of Clara, having previously invited her to attend numerous social functions at the White House.
During the play, John Wilkes Booth surreptitiously entered the Presidential box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a Derringer pistol. Rathbone grappled with the assassin and was severely wounded by Booth, who also wielded a large dagger. After stabbing Rathbone in the arm and slashing at his head, the assassin leapt from the box onto the stage and reputedly cried out "Sic semper tyrannis," then "The South is avenged." Although he had broken his leg (fibula) two inches above the ankle jumping on to the stage, Booth successfully escaped, and remained at large for almost two weeks. Meanwhile the dying Lincoln was taken across the street to the house of William Petersen, where Clara Harris remained with Mrs. Lincoln during her vigil of some nine hours. This death watch lasted through the night, until morning, when Lincoln died at 7:22 A.M. on April 15, 1865.
Although Rathbone's physical wounds healed, his mental state deteriorated in the years following Lincoln's death as he anguished over his perceived inability to thwart the assassination attempt. He married Clara Harris on July 11, 1867 and the couple had three children. In 1882, Rathbone was appointed U.S. consul to Hanover, Germany, and his family accompanied him there.
His mental decline culminated in his murdering his wife on December 23, 1883, fatally shooting her then stabbing her several times. After he killed Clara, Rathbone attempted suicide by stabbing himself. When the police arrived, the bleeding Rathbone claimed there were people hiding behind the pictures on the wall. The couple's children, who were also almost killed by their father, were taken to live with their uncle, William Harris, in the United States.
Rathbone spent the rest of his life in the asylum for the criminally insane in Hildesheim, Germany. He died in 1911 and was buried next to Clara in the city cemetery at Hanover/Engesohde. As time passed, the cemetery management, looking over records concerning plots without recent activity or family interest, decided in 1952 that Rathbone's and Clara's remains could be disposed of. They were both disinterred and cremated.
Family and cultural depictions
Henry Reed Rathbone and his wife, Clara Harris, are the subjects of Henry and Clara (1994, published by Ticknor & Fields), a historical fiction by Thomas Mallon. He was a distant cousin of stage and film actor Basil Rathbone.
- Ruane, Michael E. (5 April 2009). "A Tragedy's Second Act". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 October 2011.
- "The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln", National Geographic Channel. Retrieved 18 March 2012
- Smith, Gene. "The Haunted Major." American Heritage, February/March 1994, Volume 45, Issue 1. Retrieved 18 March 2012
- Richard Bak (1998). The Day Lincoln was Shot. Taylor Publishing Company. Dallas, Texas