April 15, 1865 The President’s Box

Major Rathbone would heal in time, but he never came to terms with his own failure to protect the President. He was tormented, distraught with guilt, unable to understand what he could have done differently, but, What!? Surely there must have been…Something.

When Jared Rathbone passed away in 1845, the Albany, New York businessman left a considerable fortune to his widow Pauline and their two sons, Henry and Jared.

harrisira-230x300New York Supreme Court Justice Ira Harris, himself a widower and father of four, joined his household with hers when the couple married, in 1848. There were now six kids. A regular 19th-century “Brady Bunch.”

Pauline’s son Henry and Ira’s daughter Clara became close friends and later, more. Much more. They were step-siblings, yes, but there was no “blood” between them. Such a relationship seems not to have been so ‘odd’ then, as it may seem, today.

With the incoming Lincoln administration, Ira Harris was elected to the United States Senate, replacing Senator William H. Seward who’d been picked to serve in the new administration.

By the time of the War between the States, Clara Hamilton Harris and Henry Reed Rathbone were engaged to be married.

udvwxyoaRathbone served the Union army for the duration of the war, becoming Captain in the 12th Infantry Regiment and participating in the battles at Antietam and Fredericksburg. By the end of the war, Rathbone had attained the rank of Major.

Meanwhile, Senator Harris’ daughter Clara formed a friendship with the First Lady of the United States, Mary Todd Lincoln.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, before and after photographs tell of the burdens, born by the chief executive of a nation at war with itself. Making matters worse, the Lincolns lost two of their four boys in childhood, by war’s end. In April 1865, a night out must have seemed like a welcome break. An evening at Ford’s Theater. The play, a three-act farce by English playwright Tom Taylor. “Our American Cousin”.


The Lincoln’s companions for the evening of April 14 were to be General Grant and his wife, Julia, but the General had other plans. It was probably just as well, because the ladies didn’t get along. Mary suggested her neighbor Clara Harris, of whom she was quite fond. And besides, didn’t Clara’s fiancée Major Rathbone cut a dashing figure, in his blue uniform.

The story of that night is familiar, the assassin creeping up from behind.


John Wilkes Booth was himself one of the great actors of his day, and chose his moment, carefully. Raucous laughter and applause could be expected to follow the line “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdolagizing old man-trap!”

John Wilkes Booth dagger, used to attack Rathbone

The bullet was fired at point-blank range, entering the President’s head behind the left ear and coming to rest, behind the right eye.

Rathbone sprang to the attack but the assassin was ready, the dagger slashing the Major nearly bone-deep, from shoulder to elbow. Rathbone made one last lunge, knocking Booth off balance in his leap to the stage, below.

Henry bellowed out. “Stop that man!” Clara screamed.  “The President’s been shot!”  Witnesses remembered Booth cried out “Sic Semper Tyrannis”. Thus always, to tyrants. And then, he was gone.

In the President’s box, all was chaos. The first lady was inconsolable, alternately sobbing and shrieking, like a wildcat. Rathbone was losing blood at a prodigious rate, a major artery slashed in the scuffle.

Clara’s new dress was soaked with the blood of her fiancee, her face splashed and clothing drenched through layers of petticoats to the skin, beneath. The small group was taken across the street to the Peterson house, the President laid out on a bed. Henry Rathbone faded in and out of consciousness due to blood loss, raving in his delirium how he should have caught the assassin, his head on Clara’s lap, her handkerchief stuffed into the void where the bicep used to be.

There wasn’t even time to clean off her face. Mary Lincoln would just begin to calm down when she’d see Clara again and fall apart, wailing “My husband’s blood!”. It wasn’t, but, no matter. Perception is reality. The death vigil lasted this way, for nine hours. The 16th President of the United States passed away at 7:22 the following morning, April 15, 1865.


Major Rathbone would heal in time, but he never came to terms with his own failure to protect the President. He was tormented, distraught with guilt, unable to understand what he could have done differently, but, What!? Surely there must have been…Something.

Clara Harris couldn’t bring herself to wash that dress, nor did she burn it. She hung it in a guest room closet, blood and all, in the family’s vacation home in New York.

Today, the demons afflicting the mind of Henry Rathbone may possibly qualify, as symptoms of post-traumatic stress.  At the time, what monsters lurked in the man’s head could only be guessed at as a mental illness which had no name, crept into his soul. He was possessed with that night. Was I not quick enough? Or brave enough? Or Strong enough? It was MY fault. A Better Man would have taken that bullet. Or Stopped that man. No he wouldn’t…yes he would…but…I…what, the, hell, is WRONG WITH ME???!!!

The Dress

Washington DC was saturated with All Things Lincoln in April 1866, and Clara fled to the family home in Albany, to get away. There in that closet hung the bloody dress. On the anniversary of the assassination, she thought she heard laughter, she knew she did, coming down the hall. Abraham Lincoln’s laughter.

Others reported hearing the same thing in the following years. The sound of laughter. A single gun shot.

Major Rathbone and Clara Harris were married in July 1867 and the couple had three children, Henry rising to the rank of brevet Colonel, in 1870. That was the year he resigned from the army, but work was hard to come by, due to increasing mental instability.

Rathbone convinced himself that Clara was unfaithful.  She planned to take the kids away. He would fly into rages and she considered divorce, but couldn’t bear the thought, nor the stigma.

Clara went so far as to have the closet bricked up with that dress inside, like Montresor bricked up Fortunato. It changed, nothing. The family traveled to Europe and back in search of a cure, but Rathbone’s condition only worsened.

Despite all this or possibly because of it, President Chester Arthur appointed Rathbone American Consul to the Province of Hannover in Germany, in 1882.


Henry was pale and thin, afraid to go outside and tormented by hallucinations. So fearful was he that Clara would leave him, he would not leave her to be alone, not even to sit by a window.  What Clara’s life was like during this time could only be guessed at.  Her husband said he was afraid of himself.

In the early morning hours of December 23, 1883, Henry Rathbone entered or attempted to enter the room where the children slept.  Alarmed that he meant them harm, Clara  maneuvered her husband back to the master bedroom.  There he drew a revolver and shot his wife before stabbing himself, in the chest.  Six times. He lived. She died.

He said he was defending her, against an attacker.

The three children, Henry Riggs, Gerald Lawrence and Clara Pauline, went to live with relatives. Henry Reed Rathbone was convicted of their mother’s murder and committed to an asylum for the criminally insane in Hildesheim, Germany, there to spend the next twenty-eight years.

Henry Reed Rathbone died on August 14, 1911 and was buried, next to his wife.

The gun that killed Lincoln

German burial customs are different from those in the United States. Grave plots are generally leased for a period of 20 – 30 years, with an option to renew. In 1952, officials with the city cemetery at Hannover/Engesohde looked over visitation records, and determined there was no further interest, in Clara Harris or Henry Rathbone.

Over the years, some 15,000 books have been written about the 16th President and his wife.  Little is known of their guests from that night, at Ford’s Theater.  In 1952, the remains of Henry and Clara Rathbone were exhumed & incinerated, and thrown away.  As if they had never once lived.


A Trivial Matter
Forty-five years after the Lincoln assassination and one before the death of his father, Future member of the United States House of Representatives Henry Riggs Rathbone unbricked that closet back in New York and burned the hated dress, the dress which had stolen his childhood, murdered his mother, and cursed his family.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

4 thoughts on “April 15, 1865 The President’s Box”

  1. Tragedy on top of tragedy. I had come upon this story in a few of the volumes I’ve read. I could never imagine what that must have been like for both of them, to be right beside Lincoln during that night, and to be tormented by it for the rest of their lives. I had no idea that they were exhumed and tossed away though. Yet more tragedy!

    Liked by 1 person

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